Wednesday, May 23, 2012

VCS Submission to House Veteran's Affairs Committee on For-Profit Schools

Official statement for the record of the U.S. House Veteran's Affairs Committee on behalf of Veterans for Common Sense, submitted 16 May 2012.

By Chris Miller and Patrick Bellon

The economic opportunities of America’s veterans are being threatened by bad actors in the for-profit education sector. After America’s young men and women in uniform have finally come home and hung up their uniforms for the last time they expect and deserve the right to pursue happiness like any other American and to enjoy the benefits that come along with having devoted years of their lives to serving their country. An important part of that pursuit is the ability to obtain higher education using the GI Bill, a program that not only benefits veterans, but the nation as a whole. The GI Bill is not only a successful veteran’s program; it is the most successful public education and employment program in American history.

Unfortunately, some are taking advantage of veterans and this successful program for their own profit in the name of greed. They mock the sacrifices of our men and women in uniform. Troops still in uniform and veterans at home find their mailboxes, inboxes, and social networking pages filled with paper and electronic advertisements by for-profit universities. All of them claim to have veterans’ best interests at heart.

Unfortunately this is not true. The stories are becoming numerous, well known and difficult to explain away or excuse as isolated. For-profit recruiters sign up Marines who are being treated for brain injuries. Sailors are not being told that the classes they’re working hard on and their benefits are paying for won’t transfer to other schools. Soldiers are not informed that they’re paying many times what the same program would cost at a local community college. Airmen are finding that the support they were promised by recruiters is not there. Veterans are finding out that industry won’t recognize their qualifications and home town schools do no recognize the accreditation of their for-profit of choice. U.S. taxpayer dollars are lining the pockets of for-profit colleges rather than benefitting the veterans and servicemembers they’re awarded to. This is unacceptable. Our veteran’s futures must be protected.

Recently President Obama stood up to these bad actors and signed an Executive Order that goes a long way to begin to address the problem. The order will ensure troops get more information on costs, financial aid, graduation rates, support provided, and which colleges have agreed to cooperate. It will keep predatory recruiters off installations, prevent misleading advertisements using the term ‘GI Bill’, and orders further vigilance in acting against those for-profits that abuse or violate laws and regulations. The order is a leading step in the right direction. More needs to be done. Veterans and those still serving continue to be preyed upon by for-profit universities. While the EO is a much needed step in the right direction and should be supported by everyone who has veterans best interest’s at heart it is far from being enough. We need new laws to protect our veteran’s economic opportunities, so that they can make the best choices for their future and not be taken advantage of as a profit center.

Congress needs to take the lead by implementing measures to stop predatory practices by for profits. This is not political, it is not about free enterprise, it is about right and wrong.

Ideal legislation would address the following issues, only comprehensive reforms can protect our brave men and women. For-profits should not be allowed to use taxpayer funds for marketing essentially using taxpayer money to procure more taxpayer money by ripping off veterans. Veterans and service members must be informed in clear language about the transferability, industry recognition, and accreditation and graduation rates for the programs they’re considering undertaking. They must be fully informed of all the costs associated with programs. A mechanism should be made available with which troops and veterans can compare these various qualitative and quantitative measures side-by-side with other programs to make a fully informed decision on where to direct their hard-earned benefits. For-profits granting degrees should be subject to the same standards as established for Title IV schools. Finally, the target should be removed from service members and veterans backs by immediately changing the so-called ‘90/10’ rule. This ridiculous rule should be altered to include VA education and DOD benefits alongside DoE benefits in the cap on for-profit colleges receiving federal funds.

For-profits are taking advantage of our service members and veterans by misleading them, providing them an inferior product, lining their own pockets with taxpayer dollars, subverting the goal of the GI Bill and military Tuition Assistance for veterans and servicemembers, and depriving American society as a whole of the follow-on benefits of furthering the education of those who served. Congress must take action to ensure our veterans, in uniform and out, are not being taken advantage up for the sake of profit. This exploitation hurts our veterans and our society and must be stopped now.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

VCS Commentary: VA Not Meeting Vets Mental Health Needs

This article originally appeared on the Veterans for Common Sense website on 8 May 2012.

From VCS Advocate and Purple Heart Iraq Veteran Christopher Miller

The majority of VA frontline service providers work hard every day to give veterans the care they have earned and need. Yet the VA admittedly continues to have problems providing care up to their own standards, especially when it comes to mental health care. This is a serious problem at a time when an American veteran takes their life every 80 minutes, usually more deaths per month than in combat in Afghanistan. Veterans for Common Sense continue to push for action on the issue.

In a report issued last month by the VA’s Office of Inspector General and in Congressional testimony, the VA admitted it is not properly meeting the mental health needs of veterans. When a veteran contacts the VA with a possible mental health issue they are required to be seen by a mental health care provider within 24 hours with a follow-up scheduled within 14 days. VA data reported it met that requirement in 95% of cases. However, the VA IG report found this was based on false data and estimated the actual rate at around 51%. Some veterans had to wait as long as 50 days to be seen. Those responsible for collecting the data recorded and reported false dates and wait periods.

Why was false data reported? In testimony before Congress, OIF Veteran and former-VA Mental Health Administration Officer Nick Tolentino offered from his experience that the VA mental health system, as hard as care providers work, is flawed because it is more focused on meeting data targets than it is on helping veterans. VA schedulers were not recording accurate data because administrators feared accurate reporting would show the requirements for timely access to mental health care were not being met. This has gone on for years. Had the data been accurately recorded, the depth of the problem could have been reported earlier. Tolentino’s statement also included stories of care providers being forced to find ways to meet numerical goals to the detriment of patient health.

The problem is deep and stems from staffing shortages and budgetary problems. The VA has had a shortage of mental health clinicians for several years now. In 2011, they had 1,500 open positions. In 2012 the VA increased the number of wanted hires to 1,900 mental health workers and support staff. Mental health staffing shortages stem from the fact that most of these open positions are described as ‘not to exceed one year’ or two years. Most professionals will not leave a current fulltime, unlimited position to come work for the VA in a job they may only have for a couple years, thus the continuing shortages.

So who is to blame for the mess? It would seem some of the blame lay with VA administrators focused on meeting numerical targets than providing accurate data that may improve care. If accurate data had been reported, perhaps the problem could have been addressed by now. But Congress also shares in the blame. The VA does not make its own budget and Congress must give the VA the funding it needs to ensure veteran’s health care needs can be met in the long term. Truly addressing the issue will require administrators focusing on veterans more and numbers less and Congress giving the VA the budget it needs to do its job.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Greek Election Results: Greece May Pull the Whole EU Into a Nightmare Spiral

This article originally appeared on PolicyMic on 8 May 2012.

There is a school of thought that holds when something is so broken or has been repaired too many times, it is a better option to break it up completely and start all over again. If this was the goal of the average Greek voter in the Sunday elections then their mission was accomplished. Unfortunately, the vote was not this nuanced but was instead based in failure to accept that the Greek system must change. The larger fear is that Greece may drag Europe and the euro down with it.

Greek voters roundly rejected the two main parties, the center-right New Democracy and socialist Pasok, in favor of the far-left Syriza and far-right Golden Dawn, more than doubling their seats in Parliament. New Democracy remains the largest party, but no party gained a majority to govern alone and the first attempt to form a coalition has failed. If no government can be formed in the coming weeks, new elections will be held in 30 days.

The outgoing center-right government agreed to accept a raft of reforms in exchange for a second bailout after the first in 2010 proved not to be enough. The negotiations, led by Germany and France, and the uncertainty they created led to worldwide economic turmoil. The election results threaten to undo the agreement. Both Greek far-left and far-right parties roundly reject the so-called "austerity" reforms, the acceptance of which formed the basis of the agreement.

Greeks retire at 53, compared with mid-60s in other EU states. Public employees have gotten used to receiving annual bonuses of one or two month’s pay without a performance connection. Corruption is widespread. Tax evasion is estimated to cost Greece 5 billion euros annually while it is far below many neighbors in revenue collection. It is the lowest ranked European economy on the Index of Economic Freedom and Global Competitiveness Index.

The Greek government is an absolute mess. The stipulated "austerity" reforms, such as raising the retirement age to 67, spending cuts, and increasing public revenue, are hardly austere at all. They’re rather necessary reforms that will bring Greece in line with the rest of the European Union. In exchange for doing what they should have already done, the government will receive financial aid, funded mostly by German taxpayers.

But it was these reforms that largely caused Greeks to take to the streets and this week vote for extremist parties who campaigned on a platform against the agreement. Without the agreement there will be no bailout; without the bailout there will be no economic stability. Without economic stability, the situation will continue to deteriorate. Greece seems to be on the path toward a textbook example of a downward spiral. To make matters worse, the common currency and market of the European Union mean that economic instability in Greece will translate to instability in the euro and European markets.

It is one thing for Greeks to stick their heads in the sand when it comes to the necessity of belt-tightening in their own Hellenic Republic, but it is quite another to do so when refusal to recognize the need for reform will drag Europe down with it. If Greeks cannot do what is in the best interests of the European Union then perhaps their membership ought to be reconsidered