"We told them," said Marine Lance Cpl. Nathaniel Ganzeveld of Dearborn, who said he waited almost a year for adequate substance abuse care and other services.
"They didn't listen. They made us all of these promises, and we're still waiting for help."
Since last summer, veterans in Metro Detroit and across the country have complained of waiting months or years for adequate medical services such as treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse and physical therapy.
The Veterans Administration repeatedly denied that its health care was inadequate and, in April, the Bush administration said the VA didn't need the money; 220 Republicans in Congress opposed a bill originating in the Senate that would have provided $1.97 billion to improve services.
Then, last week, Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson did an about-face: He told Congress that his department faces a $1.5 billion deficit in health care this year, and the prospect of a $1.1 billion to $1.5 billion deficit in 2006.
Both chambers scrambled to approve new spending by unanimous votes.
Within 24 hours of Nicholson's dramatic testimony before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, the Senate approved a $1.5 billion supplemental appropriation for health services for veterans.
The House then approved a $975 million appropriation. Veterans are now waiting for the two versions to be reconciled, and the issue is far from settled.
How to help
The vets and their advocates say the human cost already is clear. What is unclear is when, or if, the additional spending under consideration in Washington would enable veterans' health care services to catch up with demand, or whether the substance abuse clinic in Detroit at the John D. Dingell VA Medical Center would reopen.
The government no longer disputes veterans' claims that they need more health services. Nicholson's VA, which 10 weeks ago said 23,553 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan will seek medical care, last week said the number is more like 103,000.
The surge in demand for VA health services also is supported by a report in the New England Journal of Medicine revealing that the number of cases of post-traumatic stress disorder is 15 percent to 17 percent higher for veterans of the war in Iraq than for veterans of Afghanistan. Substance abuse often follows post-traumatic stress, doctors say.
Nevertheless, veterans say that health services for vets of all ages remain in short supply. When the inpatient substance abuse program at the John D. Dingell VA Medical Center in Detroit closed in May, for example, some of its services folded into a ward for the mentally ill. But veterans who need the substance abuse services say they do not belong in a mental ward.
"Every time I go down to the VA, I try to get into the methadone program and they keep telling me it has a waiting list for over a year," said Ganzeveld, 23. He traces his problems with substance abuse to morphine-based drugs prescribed for a serious back injury he suffered in combat, as well as to the post-traumatic stress disorder with which he has been diagnosed.
"Then they wrote me a letter and said the (Dingell) clinic is closed. Then they told me to go to Herman Kiefer (Hospital). And Kiefer says, 'We can't take you because you don't live in Detroit.' They gave me another number. I call them and they tell me, 'You have to go back to the VA.' I tell them I just got back from Iraq, and that Iraqi vets were going to be on top of the list for this because the conflict is still going on."
The VA hospital in Detroit has reduced an $8 million operating deficit to $3 million, officials say.
"Everyone knows there's no services because there's no money," said Ganzeveld, who is at home in Dearborn but could be redeployed to Iraq. He says he struggles through pain, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse as he tries to save his marriage and rebuild his life after risking it for his country.
Ann Talbot, a spokeswoman for the Dingell hospital, said the clinic was eliminated to achieve "efficiencies." But she denied that veterans in need of substance abuse assistance have been turned away.
"We consolidated our units and decided we could be more efficient and treat people better in one larger unit, than to have two big units," Talbot said.
U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, worries that America is breaking a promise to the men and women who drove Saddam Hussein into his spider hole and took Afghanistan from Osama bin Laden's allies, the Taliban.
"What concerns me most is that when men and women sign up to protect and serve us in the military or the National Guard, we say they will have access to health care when they come home," said Stabenow, who for months urged more spending. "There should be no debate about whether there will be adequate health care services for veterans.
"In Michigan, veterans are waiting up to six months just to see a doctor. And many of them are having to drive several hours."
William Maxwell of Detroit said he had to move to Battle Creek, home of the Battle Creek VA Medical Center, this year in search of adequate services. He is still looking.
Like other Vietnam veterans, Maxwell, 53, says he has been grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder for more than two decades.
"I'm not a blight on society," Maxwell said. "I worked at GM for 20 years, everything from janitor to management, and I am trying to get back there. But my (post-traumatic stress disorder) has caused me some problems and I can't get back in."
In a sequence of events that veterans and their advocates say is often repeated, Maxwell first sought care for the stress disorder at the VA hospital in Detroit. He was told repeatedly that services were unavailable. "You know what they told me? If I am not chemically dependent, go home," Maxwell said.
He took a drug test and, when no substances were found, a worker at the hospital motioned him aside with a suggestion that veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder say they often hear.
"I was made to realize that if I got high, I would get help," Maxwell said. "So, I got high."
But he still did not get help in Detroit, because the Dingell clinic closed in May.
Maxwell then moved to Battle Creek and enrolled in the program there. But the hospital recently terminated his substance abuse services, saying Maxwell had consumed alcohol -- which he denies.
Feeling the impact
Meanwhile, fights reportedly have broken out in the mental health ward in Detroit since the consolidation of services. The Veterans Affairs Police have had to respond to the unit a few times, hospital employees say.
"Those two groups don't belong together, and there's been some trouble," said William Scott, president of Local 933 of the American Federation of Government Employees, which has complained about the change of work conditions for its employees without proper notice.
Scott and others say hospital administrators intentionally reduced the number of veterans in the substance abuse program before closing it.
Talbot denied that. But she said she is aware of at least some tensions among veterans caused by the consolidation.
"There has been some bickering in the unit," she said. "But I am not aware of a fight breaking out -- although it may not have been reported."
You can reach Gregg Krupa at (734) 462-2296 or [email protected]
Federal Workers Anxious Over Pay
Some Fear Annual Raises Will Suffer Under New System
By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 5, 2005; A11
Here is why working for the federal government is so good: Federal civil servants, on average, have received a pay raise in every year but two since 1969, meaning they can pretty much bank on seeing their paychecks grow annually.
But there is a cloud inside that silver lining: Average annual wages and salaries in the private sector have grown faster than civil service pay in the past 36 years, and so have consumer prices.
So while federal work has a lot to recommend it, pay is not one of the big draws, said Beth Moten, chief lobbyist for the American Federation of Government Employees. "Overall it's probably a negative," Moten said. "I don't think that salaries are comparable with similar occupations in the private sector. People come because they are public-service-minded."
In a recent survey by the Office of Personnel Management, 62 percent of federal workers said they were either "very satisfied" or "satisfied" with their pay. About 21 percent said they were "dissatisfied" or "very dissatisfied," and the rest said they were "neither satisfied nor dissatisfied."
Many federal workers are growing increasingly anxious about their pay as the Bush administration prepares to toss out the 15-grade General Schedule, which links pay to longevity in a job, and replace it with a system that more directly ties salary increases to performance evaluations.
Starting this summer, such systems will be phased in over several years at the departments of Defense and Homeland Security, which together employ more than 900,000 civilian workers. And Bush administration officials want similar changes throughout government.
Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said she fears that annual raises will suffer.
"I think in part it will come from a lack of funding," Kelley said. "I'm worried about what they will do with the money and whether there will be any recognition at all of the necessity for an annual adjustment that allows federal employees to even have a potential for staying even, from a buying-power standpoint."
At a briefing on the new DHS system earlier this year, Ronald P. Sanders, an associate director at the Office of Personnel Management, said pay increases will be determined both by the available money and by annual performance ratings. "Every employee who is 'fully successful' or better will be eligible to get a performance pay increase every year," Sanders said.
Even under the current system, with its long track record of pay increases, Moten said her members "know that you have to fight for the pay raise every year."
This year it is a fight that the federal employee unions and their allies in Congress appear to be winning. Last week, the House approved a 3.1 percent pay raise for the federal government's 1.8 million civilian employees. The pay raise, which would take effect in January and would be identical to what Congress is providing the military next year, was included in a fiscal 2006 spending bill for the departments of Transportation, the Treasury, and Housing and Urban Development.
The House vote swept aside the recommendation of President Bush, who had proposed a 2.3 percent raise for federal civilian employees and a 3.1 percent raise for the military. While the Senate has not taken up the pay-raise question, the House's action provides a strong signal that federal workers can expect to receive the 3.1 percent increase next year.
Since 1969, federal employees, on average, have received an annual pay hike of at least 2 percent in every year except 1983 and 1986, when there was no increase, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report. The overall pay scales for workers in General Schedule positions has increased by 357 percent during that period. That's higher than the 281 percent increase in congressional pay over the same time frame, although lawmakers' salaries -- $162,100 for most members of the House and Senate -- are far higher than the average federal worker's pay.
Average private-sector salaries have risen faster than federal pay, growing by 522 percent since 1969. Prices also have climbed faster, rising by 410 percent over the period, according to the CRS report.
The Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act of 1990 was designed to bring federal salaries in line with those in the private sector. But the act has been only partly implemented, in part because the Clinton and Bush administrations have taken issue with its methodology and cost. So Congress and the White House instead negotiate the federal pay raise each year.
Hawaii speaks up in support of Pearl Harbor
PORTSMOUTH — Hawaii officials have begun speaking out following news the chairman of President Bush's Base Realignment and Closure Commission had questioned why the Defense Department recommended closing the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard rather than a similar facility in Pearl Harbor.
In his letter to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld Friday, Anthony Principi noted "Naval Shipyard Pearl Harbor is less efficient than Naval Shipyard Portsmouth, according to Department of Navy data and additional savings could be found from reduced unit costs at the receiving shipyards because of a high volume of work."
"Naval Shipyard Pearl Harbor has low military value compared to other shipyards according to DOD analysis supporting the recommendation to close Naval Shipyard Portsmouth."
According to reports published Saturday in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, retired Adm. Thomas Fargo, who was head of all the U.S. forces in the Pacific until May, responded to Principi's comments by saying, "from a strategic standpoint, that doesn't make sense."
"Both today and even more so in the future, the preponderance of our vital national security interests are in Asia and the Pacific," Fargo told the Star-Bulletin.
"From a practical and operational standpoint, the focus of discussion is adding additional naval capability to the Pacific. Closing one of its two major U.S. shipyards in the Pacific would add to the cost to intermediate maintenance and impact our readiness and speed of response," Fargo added.
Invoking Pearl Harbor's history, U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, recalled that during World War II "we turned our back on the dangers that were arising from the Pacific" and that much of the Pacific fleet was destroyed by the Japanese.
"Many experts have noted that in the foreseeable future, the one area of the world which could require our military attention is the Pacific," Inouye told the Star-Bulletin. "We face a belligerent dictator in Kim Jong Il in North Korea. We have terrorist organizations in several countries in the Asia-Pacific region that could jeopardize regional stability. And we know the only country that has the potential to engage us in the near future as a superpower is China."
"The vastness of the Pacific has always made it an area where the Navy was the key power," Inouye added. "The ships of the Pacific Fleet are dedicated to maintaining peace and stability in the region. The Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard provides the basis to keep the ships operating and ready when needed."
From a strategic standpoint, keeping one yard open does not necessarily make it possible to close another, Inouye added, calling Portsmouth "ill-equipped to support the ships of the Pacific Fleet," due to its geographic location in the Northeast.
"If the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard were to remain open, the Navy would still need Pearl Harbor to provide the support for the Pacific Fleet," Inouye said.
According to a report released by the Government Accountability Office Friday, the Navy selected Portsmouth for closure despite the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard's slightly lower military value score because it determined Portsmouth was the only closure that would eliminate excess capacity and maintain a strategic objective to place ship maintenance capabilities close to the fleet.
"In selecting Portsmouth over Pearl Harbor for closure, the Navy noted that Pearl Harbor is in a fleet concentration area in the Pacific theater and is the homeport for many ships while Portsmouth is not in a fleet concentration area or a homeport for any ships," the report states.
"In addition, closing Pearl Harbor would require the ships that are homeported there to transit back to the East Coast, in some cases, for maintenance, which the Navy would essentially view as a deployment and, for quality of life reasons, would want to avoid if possible."
The Navy also noted that unlike Pearl Harbor, Portsmouth does not have the capacity for aircraft carriers, the report said.
The Navy did not consider Portsmouth's widely recognized record of superior efficiency when it recommended the nuclear submarine repair facility be closed, according to the report.
On Thursday, top Navy officials presented Portsmouth with the Meritorious Unit Commendation for its "phenomenal record of cost, schedule, quality and safety performance." The award citation also praised the shipyard for completing six major submarine overhauls early and exceeding the Defense Department's 2006 goal for lost work day compensation rates two years ahead of schedule.
Shipyard advocates, who will present their case to the BRAC Commission during a regional hearing in Boston Wednesday, have long cited Portsmouth's efficiency record as one the reasons the yard should not be closed.
John Joyal, vice president for the American Federation of Government Employees at the shipyard, said Principi's letter assured him the Commission would stay true to its promise to act independently from the Defense Department and evaluate each closure recommendation individually.
"That tells me that the commission is doing its job," Joyal said, referring to the letter. "That's what they're appointed to do."
According to Principi's letter, the Commission is expected to host a hearing in Washington on July 18 and 19 to determine whether to add any military facilities to the proposed list of closures.
Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle told the Star-Bulletin she would lobby in Washington against a Pearl Harbor closure, if needed.
Union officials fear camp cutbacks jeopardize safety
By Eric Mayes
The Daily Item
LEWISBURG — Pressure is building at the Lewisburg prison camp, union officials say, as the ratio of guards to prisoners shrinks and the number of inmates continues to grow.
There are 525 inmates housed at a facility designed for about 380, according to statistics published by the Bureau of Prisons. Often there are only one or two corrections officers on site to oversee all those men.
Union officials worry the situation is putting lives in danger — those of inmates, prison employees and the community.
Warden Joseph V. Smith said that isn’t the case.
Improving technology means more inmates can be safely monitored with fewer staff members. He expected the camp’s population to top out at about 700.
However, the situation is so grave now, says the American Federation of Government Employees, Local 148, that it may begin an informational picket at the end of the month.
Two employees recently spoke on the condition of anonymity. Both worried that by blowing the whistle on what they said was a dangerous situation they would be subject to internal blacklisting if identified.
For the purposes of this report they will be referred to as Mr. Brown and Mr. Jones.
Corrections officers are prohibited by law from striking, so an informational picket would be one way the union can publicly air its grievances.
The union is urging residents to contact their federal legislators to express their concerns.
It’s important to do so, Mr. Jones said, because penitentiary employees live in the community, raise their families here and care about the Valley. The community — and not the bureau’s budget — is their primary interest, he said.
"We live here. We work here. We raise our families here," Mr. Jones said. "Our vested interest is in the community because we live here."
Overcrowding leads to a dangerous situation for everyone, they said. Both worried that in addition to more tension at the camp, overcrowding may also lead to more escapes.
"They’re creating an environment that is going to precipitate more of this," Mr. Jones said.
It’s especially problematic at the camps, Mr. Brown said. The facilities are not fenced and security measures are inadequate.
"You’re giving them an opportunity just to walk," Mr. Jones said.
Mr. Brown also raised concerns about the way escapes were handled.
As a rule, the public is never aware an inmate is on the loose, he said.
Typically, he added, a memo is circulated through the bureau and sent to U.S. marshals. If an inmate stayed on the lamb longer than about two days a poster was put up at post offices in the area. Anytime an inmate was gone for less than two days prison officials probably did not even go that far, Mr. Brown said.
Inmates placed in camps are all classified as minimum-security, but that does not mean they aren’t dangerous, both men said.
"There are violent people at the camp," Mr. Jones said. "The average Joe, someone on the outside, has no idea what goes on in there."
The way he described it, inmates can move from maximum-security facilities down the scale to a minimum-security prison for a variety of reasons. Or many times, he said, a serious offender might go to a minimum-security facility after serving a maximum-security sentence because of a second less-serious offense.
Union officials link the situation at the Lewisburg camp to cost-cutting measures that started at the Allenwood camp and rippled out into the system.
Bureau of Prisons officials do not have congressional approval to close the camp at Allenwood, but prison officials are cutting the number of inmates there and increasing the number at Lewisburg as a way to save money, he said.
That has meant more inmates at Lewisburg. There are now three inmates housed in cells intended for two.
"Somebody," Mr. Jones said, "is going to get hurt."
Rumsfeld challenged over Pearl versus PNSY
PORTLAND, Maine — The base closing commission asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Friday why Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard wasn't considered for closure and why the Pentagon proposed to scale back Brunswick Naval Station instead of closing the base.
Commissioners also inquired as to why the Pentagon chose to close 23 Defense Finance Accounting Service centers — including one in Limestone — and how it settled on three consolidated locations: Indianapolis, Denver and Columbus, Ohio.
The Base Realignment and Closure Commission would need further explanation from the Pentagon before it can consider adding bases to the closure list, and the questions do not reflect how the commission is leaning, said Chairman Anthony Principi.
"We are in the early stages of a multi-step process," Principi wrote in a letter to Sen. Olympia Snowe. "Our request to the secretary is merely for additional data and analysis so that the commission will be more fully and broadly informed before deciding whether or not to formally consider adding installations to this list."
Among the 12 questions posed to Rumsfeld was why the Pentagon did not choose to close the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard and farm out its submarine overhaul functions among shipyards in Norfolk, Va., Puget Sound, Wash., and Kittery, Maine.
The commissioners noted that Pearl Harbor's repair depot is less efficient than the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. They also questioned the Pentagon's previous statements about Pearl Harbor's military value compared to the other yards.
Friday's inquiry came a day after the Navy formally awarded its Meritorious Unit Commendation to the Portsmouth shipyard for its "phenomenal record" of refueling and overhauling nuclear submarines ahead of schedule.
"This is the best performing shipyard of its kind," said Snowe, R-Maine, noting that the BRAC chairman is asking questions that go to the heart of the state's defense of the shipyard. "The other shipyards are inefficient, and they will not be able to absorb the workload from Portsmouth."
John Joyal, vice president for the American Federation of Government Employees at the shipyard, said Principi's letter assured him the Commission would stay true to their promise to act independently from the Defense Department and evaluate each closure recommendation individually.
"That tells me that the commission is doing its job," Joyal said, referring to the letter. "That's what their appointed to do."
As for Brunswick, the commission asked why the Pentagon chose to retain an operational airfield while choosing to move its P-3 Orion and C-130 aircraft and half of its Navy personnel to a base in Jacksonville, Fla.
Commissioners noted that a complete closure would have saved more money and would have opened land to redevelopment to offset the economic impact.
Regarding the DFAS centers, the commission questioned why consolidating all work into three centers was the only scenario considered. "Why did (the Pentagon) not consider other options which could have avoided military construction costs and possibly produced a more cost-effective option?" the commissioners asked.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said the commission's questions show the panel has picked up on the Maine delegation's arguments focusing on the efficiency and military value of the shipyard as well as the strategic value of the air base.
"The fact that they're seeking additional information on all three of Maine's sites demonstrates that they're asking the hard questions," Collins said.
The commission's inquiry came on the same day the General Accounting Office released its analysis of the Pentagon's base closing recommendations.
The GAO report said that closing the shipyard would hinder the fleet's ability to make unanticipated repairs, and it also questioned the assumptions on which the Pentagon's overall cost savings were determined.
Principi asked Rumsfeld to respond by July 18. The commission will meet a day later to consider whether to add bases to the list of those under consideration to be closed or realigned.
That would require a vote of seven of the nine commissioners.
The panel has a Sept. 8 deadline to come up with its final list of recommendations and present it to President Bush.
Arsenal ends mission to armor Army trucks
By Tory Brecht
Feverish work by welders, assemblers and other Arsenal employees came to a successful end Friday as the last of 1,115 armor kits for military trucks was packed and shipped off to soldiers fighting in the Middle East.
Hundreds of employees gave up weekends, vacations and family time as they worked seven days a week, 12 hours a day to fulfill the urgent need, said Col. Bruce Elliott, commander of the Arsenal's Joint Manufacturing and Technology Center.
"Our soldiers are placed in harm's way every day, and these kits they are installing are giving them a degree of safety and comfort," he said. "Our workers here know they have made a difference."
Joe Ford of Colona, Ill., said the overtime he has been paid is great, but added that he would do the extra work for nothing if asked.
"It's for the soldier in the field and for saving lives," he said.
Since February, he has worked many strings of seven-day weeks, with only a couple days off in about six months. Basically, he worked, ate, slept and then worked again.
"I've got a very understanding wife," he said moments after shooting nails into the last wooden crate cradling a M939 5-ton truck armor cab.
The armor fits around the cab of the military's workhorse transport vehicles that are threatened daily by improvised explosive devices and insurgent attacks, armor kit project manager Michael DeWitte said.
His workers were churning out 100 kits a week this month, with an average of two weeks needed to complete a single kit from scratch.
The Arsenal is the largest single producer of add-on armor for the Department of Defense, he added.
Dedication to the job at hand is widespread and grows as stories of armor kits saving lives filter back to the workers, many of whom are veterans or have sons and daughters, relatives or friends serving in Iraq, said Joe Findley, vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees, Local 2119.
"These guys in manufacturing really deserve some accolades," he said. "They understand the value of this mission to the soldiers in the field."
Though the armor kit project is ending, there is much work left to be done, Elliott said. The manufacturing center recently won a $129 million contract to build howitzers and mobile maintenance units.
"We've got a lot more work to do," the colonel said. "We've got enough on our plates right now and we're continuing to hire people."
BRACC reconsiders DFAS plans
Announcement gives hope to Rome workers
Sat, Jul 2, 2005
ROME -- Local Defense Finance and Accounting Service workers received a glimmer of hope Friday when an announcement was read over the office public address system that the Base Realignment and Closure Commission may reconsider plans to close the center in the Griffiss Business and Technology Park.
"People were clapping and very happy," said Ed Abounader, a DFAS employee and president of DFAS-Rome Local 201 of the American Federation of Government Employees. "Some folks were crying. There's a lot of good people here, a lot of them worried about their jobs."
Fellow employee Keith Watkins was heartened by the news.
"It's encouraging," he said. "After hearing this, it's returned my optimism."
On May 13, federal Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld released his list of installations slated from closure or realignment, and DFAS-Rome and 22 other DFAS centers were proposed for consolidation into three "megacenters." But the BRAC Commission, which is charged with assessing and finalizing the list, has requested more information about 12 subjects, including the DFAS plan.
There are no queries regarding Rome's Air Force Research Lab, and local officials say that gives them some confidence the proposal to leave the lab largely intact won't change.
"This is great news for our defense facilities in Rome," U.S. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-New Hartford, said in a prepared statement. "Our fact-based presentation, which highlights military value and cost savings, has proven successful."
Commission spokesman James Schaefer said the queries were simply part of a fact-finding phase of the BRAC process, and that areas with military facilities shouldn't draw any conclusions from them. The questions were sent as part of a letter to Rumsfeld by BRAC Commission Chairman Anthony J. Principi.
"No decisions have been made," Schaefer said.
The commission could vote at a hearing scheduled for July 19 to add facilities to the list of proposed closures or realignments. They will then work off that list to make their final decisions.
Boehlert, state Sen. Raymond Meier, R-Western, and other area officials stated the case for DFAS and for a segment of the lab that could be transferred out of the area at a hearing before members of the commission Monday in Buffalo. A week earlier, Commissioner Lloyd Newton visited the local sites.
Steve DiMeo, who is coordinating local anti-BRAC efforts from his office at the Griffiss Local Development Corp., said Rome's presentations, combined with those of some other DFAS locations, could have had an impact.
"I think we made some very, very strong arguments on Monday and when Gen. Newton was here," DiMeo said. "And the opportunity he had to see things here helped reinforce the fact that the DFAS plan wasn't thought out."
The list of questions, which is posted on the BRAC Web site, asks of the DFAS plan, "Why did (the Department of Defense) not consider other options, which could have avoided military construction costs and possibly produced a more cost-effective option?"
Area officials have argued that three megacenters is too few, and DFAS-Rome could easily and inexpensively be expanded to house up to 1,000 employees. About 380 people now work there.
"We've gotten their attention, and they're asking questions that will enhance our efforts," said Oneida County Executive Joseph A. Griffo.
And that's more than DFAS staffers like Keith Watkins had before.
"My oldest daughter is in 10th grade," he said. "She doesn't want to leave the area or her friends and family
Houses passes amendment to halt job competitions
By Kimberly Palmer
For the third year in a row, the House has approved an amendment that bars the use of federal funds to conduct job competitions under rules established by the Office of Management and Budget.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who introduced the amendment to the fiscal 2006 Treasury-Transportation appropriations bill (H.R. 3058), said its intent was not to stop all job competitions, but to force the Office of Management and Budget to revise the rules, which Van Hollen said were unfair to federal employees.
In the previous two years, the language has been dropped from the bill during negotiations with the Senate before the measure was passed into law.
If the amendment were signed into law, it effectively would prohibit the use of the current job competition rules at all agencies because the amendment prohibits funds from going to OMB to implement the rules.
In a letter to other members of Congress, Van Hollen said he wanted to "give OMB a second chance to rewrite the privatization process in a way that truly promotes the interests of taxpayers and customers and more equitably balances the interests of federal employees and contractors." The current rules were rewritten in May 2003.
Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., sent a letter to colleagues urging them to vote against the amendment. He said the current rules are "the product of a two-year effort that included discussions and negotiations with all stakeholders, including federal employee groups and private sector companies."
"The Van Hollen amendment would prohibit the administration from using this carefully crafted revised process and bring us back to the bad old days of the old discredited procedures," Davis added.
Federal employee unions, which had lobbied in favor of the amendment, were pleased by the vote. Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said the amendment "will go a long way toward ensuring a fair competition process that spends taxpayer dollars wisely."
The White House had expressed concern Wednesday about a number of potential amendments to the Transportation-Treasury bill in a statement of administration policy on the legislation, but only listed the Van Hollen amendment in passing.
"We note the relatively muted level of opposition in the OMB's assessment of the Van Hollen amendment, and we believe that it represents an understanding that the privatization process must be meaningfully revised," said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees.
Matthew Biggs, legislative director for the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, said he would like to see the current job competition rules replaced with the Truthfulness, Responsibility and Accountability in Contracting Act, which Rep. Albert Wynn, D-Md., introduced in 2001.
At that time, Angela Styles, the former administrator of OMB's Office of Federal Procurement Policy, said the act would severely hamper government contracting.
Inspectors at border could lose jobs over new training
BY TAMARA AUDI
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
July 5, 2005
Hundreds of federal inspectors who work at the nation's international border crossings and airports, including those at Detroit's Ambassador Bridge, the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel and Port Huron's Blue Water Bridge, may lose their jobs if they cannot attend, or fail to pass, a four-month training course in Georgia.
While the training may seem like a trivial matter, union officials representing border workers said last week that the extended session is placing an unnecessary burden on agents that will also hurt national security.
In the short term, union leaders say, the training will weaken border security as the remaining workforce has to compensate for the missing agents. In the long term, they contend, it may force out some of the most experienced agents.
But government officials say the training is necessary to update longtime and part-time officers on new technology and techniques used to prevent terrorists and weapons from entering the country.
"Believe me, this antiterror training is something that they've never gotten before," Jim Hawkins, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, part of the Department of Homeland Security, said last week. "There is an important need to get them up to speed with the most important, up-to-date antiterror training."
The four-month course is a new requirement for Customs and Border Protection officers who fall under a classification known as other than full time.
Those workers were initially hired under a program started decades ago to help beef up border inspections and speed summertime traffic through international crossings. It was seasonal work for many; teachers, for instance, were often hired during the busy summer travel months.
But the government has used the other-than--full-time designation -- which pays less than the regular full-time designation -- to hire officers who essentially do full-time work. That was especially true after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, officers and union officials said.
Time and training
Joe Janos, vice president of National Homeland Security Council Local 46, the union that represents Detroit border officers, said last week that he and most of the other-than--full-time employees he knows in Michigan work 40-plus hours a week.
An inspector at the Ambassador Bridge, Janos plans to attend the training this summer and fall, though it means he will be away for a few months right after the birth of his first child.
Charles Showalter, national president of the National Homeland Security Council, said officers like Janos have already passed a condensed federal training course and perform the same tasks as their full-time colleagues.
"Some of these guys have been doing these jobs for 20 years," Showalter said last week. "When it comes to being able to do the hard-core public safety work like identifying fraudulent documents, not only do they receive the training, they have years of experience doing it."
And by forcing the employees to undergo the training, the government could end up pushing out inspectors who can't afford to leave second jobs or family obligations for four months on short notice, Showalter said, adding that the training could be done locally.
In Michigan, for example, at least two public school educators who work as inspectors at Detroit border crossings cannot leave their jobs to attend training, officers said.
About 500 officers received letters last month saying they would have to report to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Ga. Otherwise, they'd lose their jobs.
Mike Burrill, who works at the International Bridge in Sault Ste. Marie, said last week that he and his wife came to the conclusion that she would have to quit her job as a housekeeper at a resort casino to stay home with their two young children while he is gone.
Without his wife's salary, Burrill said he can't afford to keep his Ford F-150 pickup. He's selling it.
Sean Compton, who works at the Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron, said last week that he had already planned his Oct. 22 wedding when he learned he would have to leave for training this summer.
Compton will report to training, dash back up to Royal Oak for the weekend to get married, then return to Georgia immediately.
Showalter said one longtime border officer in Buffalo, N.Y., cannot leave his home because his wife is undergoing cancer treatment.
Showalter also said older agents are concerned that they will not be able to pass medical and physical standards meant for young, new hires.
Hawkins said agents will not be failed if, for example, if they do not complete a 1.5-mile run within the 19-minute guideline, but Showalter contends the government has refused to put that guarantee in writing. He said some agents speculate the agency is pushing them out.
"We are going to lose very valuable officers because of this," he said. "Some agents really feel it's getting rid of the older folks."
Government officials say that is not the case, though they are aware they may lose some officers.
"The need to have our frontline officers, to have them receive the frontline training, is of utmost importance," Hawkins said.
VA Continues to Limp As Funding Gap Looms
By Cory Reiss
Ledger Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- Fred Malphurs has canceled plans to replace equipment, postponed two new outpatient clinics and holds a waiting list of 7,844 people who want appointments at veterans hospitals and clinics in North Florida and South Georgia.
Malphurs, director of the veterans health-care network that straddles the two states, said that last September he told superiors in the Department of Veterans Affairs that his 11 facilities, including hospitals in Gainesville and Lake City, expected to be $108 million in the red for 2005.
(About 56,000 military veterans live in Polk County, according to local veterans' service officials.)
Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill professed shock last week at news that the VA faces a large budget shortfall this year and an even wider gap in 2006, but Malphurs did not.
"It's not surprising to me," he said.
VA officials say they will divert $1 billion from maintenance, equipment and reserve accounts to cover a health-care funding gap through the 2005 fiscal year that ends Sept. 30. In the next fiscal year, the shortfall could be as much as $2.7 billion, the VA said last week.
Criticism fell on VA officials and President Bush as the political and concrete effects of the crunch sank in.
The Bush administration admitted for the first time that despite substantial funding increases since 2001, two wars and policy choices have left the VA short on cash.
In response, the House and Senate passed different solutions for this year and then left for the Fourth of July break without reaching agreement. They have yet to tackle the larger funding dilemma in the 2006 budget, and possibly beyond.
The VA said its models for health care enrollment in the 2005 fiscal year assumed 23,553 patients would be veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A new estimate in March boosted the figure to 103,000 -- which represents $273 million of the 2005 shortfall in the roughly $28 billion health care budget.
A continuing influx of older veterans accounts for most of the shortfalls this year and next, but the VA admits the wars are pinching hospitals and clinics after months of downplaying their effect.
Now, lawmakers don't trust the VA to predict its true needs. Democrats blame the Bush administration for deliberately low-balling VA budget requests since 2002 in an effort to balance the books.
"The buck stops, as Harry Truman said, with a man named George Bush," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said.
Embarrassed and angry, lawmakers in both parties vow to plug the holes.
"Count on us," Rep. C.W. Bill Young, a Florida Republican who chairs the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, assured VA Secretary James Nicholson.
The finger-pointing and unusually sharp debate may offer veterans groups their hardest evidence yet that health care funding should not be part of the annual budget process. Veterans groups want funding to be automatic, like an entitlement program.
"This whole situation really makes the case for assured mandatory funding," said Sen. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
Veterans see a silver lining in that kind of response.
"Every time we try to bring it up with some members of Congress, they say the system is working and they're giving VA what they need," said Joseph Violante, legislative director for Disabled American Veterans. "This clearly demonstrates that they're not."
Nicholson, who took office four months ago, is bearing the brunt of outrage.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis of California told Nicholson the VA's failure to tell Congress of the funding problem months ago "borders on stupidity."
Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., called the situation "a shabby way to treat America's veterans."
Nicholson, a veteran and former chairman of the Republican National Committee whose last post was ambassador to the Vatican, denied he tried to "hide the ball," as one Republican put it.
"The defining element of what we do at VA is take care of our veterans," he said.
But Republicans, in particular, are stung.
In April, Republican senators helped defeat a Democratic effort led by Sen. Patty Murray of Washington to add $2 billion to the 2005 budget. Nicholson had assured Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, chairwoman of the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Subcommittee, in a letter that more money wasn't needed.
"It was a frustration to me," Sen. Larry Craig, the Idaho Republican who chairs the Veterans Affairs Committee, said last week of being wrong, "and an embarrassment."
Nicholson testified the VA discovered the shortfall during a midyear review in March that showed enrollment for 2005 would increase by 5.2 percent instead of the predicted 2.3 percent. Now, 2006 enrollment is expected to rise 6 percent instead of 2.4 percent. The problem became public during questioning at a June 23 hearing.
Nicholson said that because the VA could use reserves and money intended for maintenance and equipment, the department had the 2005 shortfall under control. He said congressional staff was informed.
"I don't think the VA has been forthcoming," said Sen. Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina, a member of the veterans panel.
Democrats say regional VA officials warned them months ago that they were in trouble, which led Democrats to seek more money in 2005. The comments from Malphurs appear to confirm that. He said deficit projections last year resulted in savings directives from above "so we wouldn't go belly up."
Last week, the Senate passed a $1.5 billion amendment to an Interior Department spending bill intended to cover this year's VA shortfall and some of next year's. The House only approved $975 million, an amount the administration requested Thursday. Senators dug in and demanded more.
Congress adjourned for Independence Day at an impasse.
The administration and some GOP leaders have tried to clamp down on VA spending, which has risen 40 percent since 2001.
House leaders this year replaced the chairman of the House veterans panel, who often sided with veterans who complained of inadequate funding. And the previous VA secretary, Anthony Principi, said last year that the White House budget for 2005 was $1.2 billion less than he requested.
Nicholson blamed the shortfalls on models used by the VA to predict growth in the health care system, which don't account for uncertainties of war or include long-term care, dental needs, prosthetics and several other health care areas.
The administration says the shortfall next year compared to the president's budget plan could be up $1.6 billion. That assumes Congress will approve Bush's proposed enrollment fees and drug co-payment increases that lawmakers have repeatedly rejected. Without those added fees, add another $1.1 billion to the gap.
The VA also blames a data lag. Projections for 2005 were based on data from 2002. Projections for 2006 are based on 2003 data, and so on.
"We have computers for crying out loud," said Rep. Michael Bilirakis, a Florida Republican who chairs the Veterans Affairs Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee. "Can't we do better than that?"
Rep. Bob Filner, Democrat of California, asked Nicholson to resign, but he refused.
"The model is not the problem," Filner told Nicholson during a hearing. "You are the problem, and the president is the problem."
I-Told-You-So's are plentiful among veterans and their allies who have complained of crisis for years, but what to do? The VA is working on its 2007 budget using models it says it can't trust.
"We are in a combat era," Nicholson told House members. "We're going to have to calculate as best we can what that means."
House Approves 3.1 Percent Pay Increase In 2006 For Most Federal Workers
July 1, 2005
Federal employees inched one step closer Thursday to receiving a 3.1 percent pay increase in 2006. Following the lead of the House Appropriations Committee, the House Thursday approved a 3.1 percent pay raise for about 1.8 million federal civilian workers as part of the FY 2006 Transportation, Treasury and Housing and Urban Development spending bill.
The administration, as has happened virtually every year since the early 1990’s, proposed a smaller increase for federal civilian workers than for members of the military. This year was no different as the administration initially proposed a 2.3 percent pay increase for federal civilian employees and 3.1 percent for the military.
As happens every year, a bipartisan coalition of Congressional representatives with large numbers of federal civilian workers as constituents work to get a pay parity initiative passed to ensure that federal civilian workers get the same percentage pay increase as their military counterparts.
The good news for federal civilian workers is that the scenario seemingly will be repeated in 2006 after the House approved the bill prior to departing for the July 4 recess. The pay parity bill was again sponsored by Reps. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Frank Wolf (R-Va.), James Moran (D-Va.) and Tom Davis (R-Va.).
House Passes Raise For Federal Workers
By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 1, 2005; A04
The House approved a 3.1 percent pay raise for about 1.8 million federal civilian employees yesterday as part of a fiscal 2006 spending bill covering transportation, housing, the Treasury and the District of Columbia.
The raise exceeds President Bush's proposed increase of 2.3 percent for federal civilian employees and 3.1 percent for the military. The Senate has not yet taken up the pay raise in its version of the bill, but the House's decision sends a strong signal that federal employees can expect to receive the 3.1 percent raise next year.
By wrapping up work on the measure, the House will depart for the July 4 recess having completed work on the last of nearly a dozen annual appropriations bills a month ahead of schedule. House members set aside several major spending controversies for final negotiations with the Senate this fall.
The spending legislation, which passed 405 to 18, includes about $67 billion in spending directly controlled by lawmakers, up slightly from the $63.1 billion in this year's budget. Amtrak would receive nearly $1.2 billion, roughly what it is getting this year and more than double the $550 million that the House Appropriations Committee recommended.
The District of Columbia would receive funding increases for the out-of-state tuition assistance program, the Anacostia Waterfront development initiative and improvements to public schools.
The House passed this and other spending bills with strong bipartisan support and few big fights, reflecting congressional leaders' across-the-board approach to belt-tightening, with few high-profile programs singled out for major reductions. Earlier this week, the House passed a $20 billion foreign aid spending bill that includes $2.7 billion to fight HIV, malaria and tuberculosis, and $240 million in economic assistance to Israel.
In the State Department spending bill, lawmakers cut $1.25 billion from Bush's $3 billion request to fund the Millennium Challenge Account, which rewards companies for pursuing democratic reforms overseas. A Senate Appropriations subcommittee approved $1.2 billion less than Bush had sought for the account when it passed its foreign aid bill this week.
Passage of the spending bills represented a major achievement for new Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) and House GOP leaders, who have sought to restore order to a spending process that had become chaotic in recent years. Given the tight budget that Congress passed this spring, all 11 House appropriation bills were exercises in fiscal discipline that involved difficult choices. The budget ax touched favorite causes of Republicans and Democrats alike.
By restoring funding for Amtrak, House lawmakers diverted funds from other accounts, including $435 million slotted for repairs to government buildings. That was a down payment on the estimated $6.2 billion in improvements that federal properties need nationwide.
Major D.C. construction projects could be affected, including the new Transportation Department headquarters and security improvements to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House.
If the cuts stand, "we may not be able to pay for utilities, for maintenance or cleaning" at federal sites, said Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-Mich), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that wrote the transportation bill.
The House gave short shrift to other programs when it increased funding for public broadcasting by an additional $100 million last week as part of a $142.7 billion labor-health-education bill. The increase for the broadcasters was offset by cuts in Labor Department employment and training administrative services, to the tune of $58 million, and $27 million in cuts to Education Department higher-education programs. Lawmakers may face pressure to restore those cuts during negotiations with the Senate this fall.
The House amended the transportation spending bill with a provision that tightens rules on government public relations efforts, after revelations that the current administration had paid media commentators, such as Armstrong Williams.
But it narrowly resisted a bid to relax rules that determine how frequently Cuban Americans may return to Cuba to visit their families. The amendment was designed to help a Cuban American Iraq war veteran who wants to visit an ill son, and it failed 211 to 208.
• A member of the base closing commission had words of praise for workers at the Defense Finance Accounting Service center in Limestone Tuesday, but he offered no assurances that the Pentagon's plan to close the facility will be overturned.
About 100 to 200 DFAS supporters wearing bright yellow T-shirts lined the road leading to the facility as retired Air Force Gen. Lloyd Newton arrived shortly after 10 a.m. for a tour, a briefing and a meeting with employees. Joining Newton at the facility at the former Loring Air Force Base hospital were Gov. John Baldacci and U.S. Rep Michael Michaud.
Base realignment equals confusion
By Kelley Dull
DFAS workers have good reason to be nervous — and so should American taxpayers
With the state of our military very much on the minds of Americans these days, the process known as Base Realignment and Closure has taken on added importance. The outcome of this process will determine the shape of the U.S. military in the coming years; the communities that will have bases and installations; and the functions performed at each site.
When we think of the military’s most crucial functions, what comes to mind are soldiers and sailors, and the weapons they need to wage war. But in a battlescape such as the one in which our military finds itself today, the office operations are nearly as critical, given the unprecedented number of contractors hired for the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the treasure of taxpayer dollars devoted to those contracts.
So it is most troubling to find that the Pentagon’s BRAC recommendations for the Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS) have been made in an extraordinary careless and confusing manner. One might even call the BRAC recommendations for DFAS — part of an overall BRAC scheme for the military that will be either accepted or rejected by a commission appointed by the president and Congress — an example of management incompetence. With the BRAC commission limited to either accepting or rejecting the Defense Department’s BRAC recommendation “in toto,” such incompetence and confusion should leave the entire recommendation dead in the water, further forestalling any positive change that could have come out of the BRAC process.
In its detailed recommendation to the BRAC commission, the Pentagon recommends moving accounting functions from Columbus to Denver or Indianapolis, then from Denver to Columbus or Indianapolis, then from Indianapolis to Columbus or Denver. Likewise, the recommendation states that commercial pay functions should be moved from Indianapolis to Columbus, then from Columbus to Indianapolis. It’s like the Abbott and Costello “Who’s on first?” routine, only, this time, Lou Costello is running operations for the Defense Department.
Lives are at stake
Meanwhile, real lives are at stake. Among the most confounding of the Department of Defense recommendations are those concerning the number of civilian employees to be retained after the DFAS realignment.
On the spreadsheet included with the recommendation, the Pentagon shows the movement of some 4,500 civilian jobs out of their current locations, and the elimination of nearly 1,100 other civilian positions. Yet another part of the recommendation document appears to call for moving some 6,270 civilian jobs.
Today, as they tend to the work of getting our soldiers paid on time and maintaining the Defense Department’s cash flow, DFAS employees are wondering whether their jobs are on the block, whether they’re moving to Columbus or Indianapolis, or whether any recommendation accepted by the BRAC Commission will be implemented by DFAS as described to the commission.
DFAS workers have good reason to be nervous — and so should the American taxpayer. The agency for which they work has a history of handing over jobs to private contractors in clear violation of federal policy, while the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) looks the other way. In 2004, DFAS privatized technical support services for its own staff without any formal effort to assess any security concerns regarding the access to the Pentagon’s electronic finance system by private corporations (many of which have lately shown a propensity for “losing” sensitive data). In fact, DFAS actually claimed that it had never provided “help desk” technical support to its workers, in clear violation of the truth.
This followed a 2003 incident in which DFAS gave federal employee jobs to a contractor — despite the fact that the price for the contractor’s services was more than $30 million above the cost of keeping the work in-house.
Well-being of our children
Like all Americans, employees of the Department of Defense want to be part of an efficient and superior military system that ensures the well-being of their children and grandchildren. But reading the Pentagon’s sloppy and confusing recommendations for the future of its own finance agency, one has to wonder if its leaders share that goal.
Kelley Dull is a member of the American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO, and president of Defense Finance and Accounting Services Council on the Base Realignment and Closure procedures in Washington, D.C.