July 31, 2014

VA compromise bill receives Sen. Fischer’s support

A compromise measure to address the crisis at Veterans Administration hospitals has the support of Sen. Deb Fischer.

Senate and House negotiators have agreed on legislation that would provide $5 billion to hire additional doctors, nurses, and other staff members at VA hospitals throughout the country.

The VA has been roiled by questions of its competence to give care to the country’s military veterans as well as allegations that staff members at its hospitals routinely falsified records to hide the fact that some veterans languished on extremely long waiting lists.

Fischer says new legislation also provides additional powers to new Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Robert McDonald, the former CEO of Procter & Gamble.

“And part of this new legislation that’s coming out, a big part of it that came out of conference committee, will give him the ability to fire people if they aren’t doing their job,” Fischer tells Nebraska reporters during a conference call. “That’s really important to me. People need to be accountable. And now, he’s going to be able to do that.”

The legislation also will allow veterans on long waiting lines as well as veterans who live far from a VA hospital to seek treatment outside the VA system, as long as the physicians participate in the Medicare system.

“So this is going to open it up so they will be able to use physicians in their own communities,” Fischer says. “It’s going to help them in their care, but it’s important to realize this is also going to help their families and their care givers as well.”

Fischer says there is a lot of optimism in Congress that McDonald will implement the reforms needed at the VA.

Sen. Johanns expects Supreme Court to resolve conflicting health rulings (AUDIO)

Conflicting rulings on the federal health care law might have to be resolved by the United States Supreme Court, according to Sen. Mike Johanns.

Johanns expects the Obama Administration to request the entire Washington, D.C. appellate court to reconsider a ruling unfavorable to the law. Johanns, a Republican, says that might work. Johanns notes Senate Majority Leader, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, changed the rules on judicial confirmations, allowing Democrats – in his words – to use simple-majority votes to stack the court with their hand-picked judges.

“You know, Democrats stick together and there’s been a number of judges confirmed to the D.C. circuit. That may tilt the balance in favor of overruling what the three-judge panel decided,” Johanns says. “But, at the end of the day, it seems to me that these cases are probably headed to the U.S. Supreme Court. That’s what I think is going to happen.”

A three-judge panel in the D.C. circuit ruled 2-1 that the federal government couldn’t subsidize the purchase of health insurance through the federal exchange. Thirty-six states, including Nebraska, operate under the federal exchange.

Only a couple of hours later, another appellate court in Richmond, VA upheld the subsidies for those in the federal exchange on a 3-0 vote.

Johanns says a definitive legal ruling has yet to be reached.

“The Richmond court, and I’ve got the opinion in front of me, said that the defendants had the stronger position, that would be basically the government, and then they went on to say, quote ‘although only slightly’ unquote,” Johanns says. “So, they know they’re out there on pretty thin ice and so what I would suggest is that this probably is going to be resolved at the Supreme Court level.”

The courts upheld subsidies for those getting coverage under state exchanges.

AUDIO:  Sen. Mike Johanns reacts to conflicting ACA rulings. [2:20]

Nordquist works on illegal immigrant driver’s license issue

State Senator Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha is working on legislation that would allow certain illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses in the state of Nebraska.

Nordquist says the issue falls directly under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Those under 16 years of age in the U.S. by June 15, 2012 could remain in the country if they had no criminal record.

Nordquist says the majority of Democrats and Republicans in Congress support doing something for these individuals that were brought into the country as children. He says these children already have documentation as in social security numbers or a work permit. He says the rest of the undocumented population does not have that paperwork and would not qualify. Nordquist says, that is a line, at least at this point, I’m not convinced we should cross and I think that would be a much tougher policy sell.”

Nebraska is the only state that does not allow driver’s licenses issued to those in the country illegally.

Presidential disaster declaration granted in wake of Pilger tornado

Federal officials have informed Gov. Dave Heineman his request for a presidential disaster declaration in wake of the Pilger tornado has been granted.

The declaration covers more than just the Pilger tornado, extending to cover damage from tornadoes and thunderstorms through southern and northeastern Nebraska between June 14th and the 21st.

Still, the biggest damage was done by an EF-4 tornado that ripped through the heart of Pilger, destroying more than half the town.

President Barack Obama has approved the presidential disaster declaration for 12 counties, which suffered storm damage from severe storms, tornadoes, straight-line winds, and flooding.

“We appreciate the approval of the disaster declaration for Public Assistance,” said Gov. Heineman said in a written statement issued by his office. “The federal government and local entities have been good partners working with the State as we assessed the severe and extensive damage that occurred throughout Nebraska. I am proud of Nebraskans for coming together and helping each other in challenging times.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Region VII office notified the governor that the Public Assistance portion of his request had been approved, according to the governor’s office. Public assistance can help offset the cost of clean-up, even repair or replacement of any infrastructure damaged by the storms, including roads, bridges, sewers, and power systems.

Public assistance has been extended to the counties of Cedar, Cuming, Dakota, Dixon, Franklin, Furnas, Harlan, Kearney, Phelps, Stanton, Thurston, and Wayne Counties.

Federal assistance to help individuals from Cedar, Cuming, Dixon, Stanton and Wayne Counties to recover from the storm is pending, according to FEMA officials [CORRECTION: We incorrectly reported earlier individual assistance had been granted. We apologize for the error].

“The public assistance declaration will help Nebraska recover some of the costs of responding to the disaster and will help fund rebuilding public infrastructure damaged by this disaster,” said Bryan Tuma, assistant director of Nebraska Emergency Management Agency in a written statement. “NEMA will work closely with local governments to help speed up the recovery process.”

Public assistance damage is expected to exceed $13 million.

NEMA will coordinate with the Federal Emergency Management Agency in assessing damages and distributing aid.


Sen. Johanns supports McDonald as next Secretary of Veterans Affairs (AUDIO)

Sen. Mike Johanns supports President Barack Obama’s nomination of former Procter & Gamble CEO Robert McDonald as the next Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

Johanns, a Republican member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, says McDonald has the background needed to shake-up the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs.

“I really believe in this person. I like him a lot. He’s got an unbelievable resume. I mean, he’s run very large, complex private organizations,” Johanns says. “But I will say this, it is different in a large, complex governmental organization and I speak from experience.”

Johanns served as Secretary of Agriculture under President George W. Bush.

Criticism of the Department of Veterans Affairs became widespread after a former VA employee alleged that the Phoenix VA Health Care System falsified records to make it appear that patients had much shorter wait times than they actually faced. A VA inspector general report disclosed several VA hospitals throughout the country followed the same practice.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned over the allegations.

Obama has nominated McDonald to take his place.

During testimony before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, McDonald pledged to work hard during the first 90 days as secretary to address the problems plaguing the VA. McDonald, who is a military veteran, stated the mission was personal for him, siting a number of family members who have served.

Johanns has been harshly critical of the VA for falsifying records and providing poor treatment. Johanns says McDonald will have no time to waste.

“He’s got his work cut out for him, but I’m enthusiastically supportive. I like what he says. I like what he stands for; great background, great experience. We can’t get him confirmed fast enough in my opinion and I just pray that he’ll grab ahold of that department, because they really need leadership.”

Johanns worries problem employees at the VA might just try to run the clock on McDonald, knowing that, at most, he has only the two-and-a-half years left in the Obama Administration to overhaul the VA.

AUDIO:  Sen. Mike Johanns comments on Robert McDonald’s nomination as next Secretary of Veterans Affairs. [1:10]