Editorial: VA health system continues to need bandaging

A month ago USA Today published the results of a months-long investigation of the Department of Veterans Affairs that found the agency covered up mistakes and misdeeds by doctors, nurses and staffers, often by cutting secret severance agreements and then writing large severance checks.

“In some cases, agency managers do not report troubled practitioners to the National Practitioner Data Bank, making it easier for them to keep working with patients elsewhere,” the newspaper reported. “The agency also failed to ensure VA hospitals reported disciplined providers to state licensing boards.”

This past week Nevada senior Sen. Dean Heller, a Republican, joined with Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, to introduce a bill that prohibits such behavior by requiring the VA to report major adverse actions to the National Practitioner Data Bank and state licensing boards within 30 days. It would also prohibit the VA from signing settlements with fired or dismissed VA employees that allow the VA to conceal serious medical errors or purge negative records from personnel files.

“The investigation’s findings are downright shameful, and we need action immediately to ensure that the VA does not hide medical mistakes or inadequate care,” Heller, a senior member of the U.S. Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, was quoted as saying in a press release announcing the bill. “That’s why Senator Manchin and I introduced legislation that demands transparency and accountability from the VA and puts a stop to concealing serious medical errors through settlements with fired or dismissed VA employees. It is our responsibility to stand up for those who put their lives on the line for this country and provide them with the world class medical care they expect and deserve. The VA lists integrity as its first core value, and VA employees make the promise to act with high moral principle and adhere to the highest professional standards. Our legislation will make sure of it by holding the VA’s feet to the fire so that the veterans the agency exists to serve have trust in their caretakers.”

Heller noted that the nation has 21 million veterans and 300,000 of those live in Nevada. He noted that the VA’s mission statement reads: “To care for him who shall have borne the battle.” But in recent years, the senator noted, the VA hasn’t always lived up to that mission statement.

In 2014 VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned as a result of the scandal over veterans dying while waiting to receive treatment at a Phoenix VA hospital. The inspector general report called the VA’s problems “systemic.”

The inspector general found that the Phoenix VA hospital staff lied about its waiting list, claiming veterans waited on average 24 days for their first primary care appointment, when the average was 115 days. There were 1,400 vets on the official waiting list, but another 1,700 had been excluded from the list.

A subsequent audit issued on the day Shinseki resigned revealed that 64 percent of 216 VA facilities reviewed had tampered with waiting lists.

This latest scandalous revelation is nothing new to the VA. In 1945 the head of the VA hospital system resigned after a series of news reports about shoddy treatment. In 1976 an investigation of a Denver VA hospital found some veterans’ surgical dressings were rarely changed. In 1986 the inspector general found 93 VA physicians had sanctions against their medical licenses, including suspensions and revocations. In 2007 a commission reported “delays and gaps in treatment and services.”

In 2012 the VA opened a new hospital in North Las Vegas. It cost $1 billion, four times the original budget, and took six years to build. The emergency room was too small and had to be doubled in size a year and half later. The hospital is many hours away for rural Nevada veterans.

While Heller’s bill is needed to stanch the latest hemorrhage, perhaps it is past time  for Congress to disband the VA health care system and just give veterans vouchers for the doctors and hospitals of their choice.

A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.

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Newspaper column: Constitution stretched to the breaking point

A Utah prairie dog peeks out of an artificial burrow after arriving at a remote site in the desert, some 25 miles away from Cedar City, Utah. (AP pix via WSJ)

If words can mean anything anyone says they mean, then words are meaningless. That is what the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has done with the Commerce Clause of the Constitution.

The appellate court overturned a federal judge who found that the Commerce Clause does not give Congress the power under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to regulate a species that exists only within the boundaries of one state and has no commercial value whatsoever — specifically the Utah prairie dog.

Nevada has joined with Utah and 21 other states to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to strike the circuit court ruling, saying that if the ruling stands “then Congress has virtually limitless authority, and the Tenth Amendment is a dead letter,” as well as the concept of federalism. (prairiedogamicusbrief)

If Nevada is to have any control over any economic activity within its borders, which include numerous endangered and threatened species, it is vital that the high court reverse this Constitution-rendering exercise in legerdemain.

The circuit court judges stretched the meaning of the Commerce Clause — which gives Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce in order to promote commerce by preventing interstate tariffs — to include anything Congress could imagine in its wildest flights of fantasy.

“We conclude that Congress had a rational basis to believe that regulation of the take of the Utah prairie dog on nonfederal land is an essential part of the ESA’s broader regulatory scheme which, in the aggregate, substantially affects interstate commerce,” the circuit court ruled, without any hint as whether that conclusion was at all rational rather than delusional sophistry.

The judges dived further into base speculation by stating, “‘ESA’s drafters were concerned by the “incalculable” value of the genetic heritage that might be lost absent regulation,’ as well as observing that the majority of takes of species ‘result from economic activity …’” Might that incalculable value be zero? Species became extinct before mankind arrived on the scene.

The amicus brief filed by the attorneys general of 23 states paraphrased the 10th Amendment in the Bill of Rights by stating, “The Framers correctly concluded that both restraints – separation of powers and federalism – are necessary to preserve individual liberty and avoid tyranny. So powers not given to the federal government are reserved for the States and the people. But federalism serves its purposes only if the federal-state interplay remains properly balanced. That means courts must ensure that the federal government operates only within its enumerated powers so the States can function within their proper spheres.”

Adding insult to constitutional injury is the fact the state of Utah was actually doing a better job of protecting the prairie dog population than the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Fish and Wildlife rules made it a federal crime to “take” the Utah prairie dog — which means to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture or collect — without first obtaining time-consuming and expensive federal permits. Meanwhile, the burrowing prairie dogs were damaging parks, sports fields, airports and cemeteries and preventing the construction of homes and businesses. Especially hard hit is the small college town Cedar City.

During the time after the federal judge blocked the Fish and Wildlife rules the state of Utah spent a considerable amount of money to move the prairie dogs from population centers to remote and safer conservation areas, allowing the population to boom from a low of 24,000 in 1984 to an estimated 80,000 today.

The original lawsuit was brought by 200 private property owners calling themselves People for the Ethical Treatment of Property Owners. They were represented by the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), which litigates on behalf of personal liberty and property rights.

“For decades, the federal government’s harmful Utah prairie dog regulation has prohibited residents of Cedar City from doing things that most of us take for granted in our own communities,” PLF attorney Jonathan Wood is quoted as saying in a press release. “They have been blocked from building homes, starting small businesses, even protecting playgrounds, an airport, and the local cemetery from the disruptive, tunneling rodent.

“The Commerce Clause has long been a source of federal mischief, but the Supreme Court has never allowed it to be stretched this far,” Wood noted. “With their prairie dog regulation, federal bureaucrats have asserted control over local activities that are not interstate commerce, do not affect interstate commerce, and are not necessary to any federal regulation of interstate commerce.”

If the words of the Constitution are so malleable, it has no meaning and Congress is our dictator.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

Newspaper column: Tax reform bill divides Nevada delegation along party lines

Like everything else to come out of Washington, the House tax reform bill introduced this past week has turned into a partisan hissing match in a fact-free zone.

Republicans hail it as an economy stimulating second coming, while Democrats decry it as a sop to the wealthy and a death knell for the middle class.

The bill lowers the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 20 percent, doubles the standard deduction, lowers the individual tax rates for all but millionaires, allows 100 percent expensing of business costs instead of the current 50 percent, eliminates deductions for state and local taxes, except for property taxes, and allows mortgage interest deduction.

Republican Dean Heller said the bill will provide tax relief for middle class families, while Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto said the bill rewards corporations and the rich at the expense of working families, seniors and the poor.

“As a member of the U.S. Senate’s tax-writing committee, I’m waking up each and every day with the sole focus of ensuring that Nevada’s hardworking families and small business owners come out ahead when the Senate passes its final product,” Heller said in a statement, adding, “I’m going to continue fighting for a major tax overhaul that will help my state and push for policies that will create jobs, boost growth, and make it easier for Nevadans to provide a better life for their kids.”

A Cortez Masto press release fulminated, “Republicans in Congress have one priority: ripping off America’s middle class and working families. Rather than transparently writing a bill that puts economic growth and American’s financial security first, the current Republican tax proposal targets Nevada families. The latest Republican proposals would put our country even further in debt, take money out of working families pocketbooks …”

Cortez Masto also claimed, “The average tax increase on families nationwide earning up to $86,100 would be $794.”

But the Washington Post fact checked that claim and found it was based on a report by Democrats on the Joint Economic Committee who actually said, “If enacted, the Republican tax reform proposal would saddle 8 million households that earn up to $86,100 with an average tax increase of $794 …”

But you see, there are 122 million households making less than $86,100. Thus only 6.5 percent of those households would see a tax hike of that amount. The Post reported that more than 97 million, or 80 percent, of that group would get a tax cut averaging about $450.

Republicans say the bill would result in a tax savings of $1,182 for a typical household of four with gross income of $59,000, resulting in their tax bill being only $400.

Las Vegas Democratic Rep. Dina Titus joined the partisan fray by calling the bill “a red herring tax plan that relies on the myth of trickle-down economics in order to give the nation’s top earners a handout.”

Titus said she could not see how working families could save money if the bill removes certain deductions, including the one for state and local sales taxes — ignoring the fact 70 percent of Americans take the standard deduction and do not itemize, nor the fact Nevadans who do itemize can deduct only about 10 percent as much as taxpayers in high-tax states such as California and New York and thus are subsidizing those states.

Democratic Rep. Ruben Kihuen, who represents southern rural Nevada and northern Clark County, used the occasion to solicit contributions while slamming the bill by saying, “We expected Paul Ryan and the Republicans would bend over backwards to make big corporations and the super rich the winners in this plan, and that’s exactly what they did. Meanwhile, it’s all at your expense.”

Republican Congressman Mark Amodei, who represents northern Nevada, took a more nuanced approach, promising in an email to constituents to thoroughly research the 429-page bill, while also saying, “I think we can all agree the American taxpayer would be better off if Congress were to reform our current tax code in favor of a system that is simpler, fairer, and has lower tax rates.”

The bill also eliminates the $7,500 tax credit for purchasing electric cars, such as Teslas, whose batteries are built in Sparks, and drops the tax exemption for municipal bonds to finance sports stadiums, such as the one planned for Las Vegas for the Raiders.

Next, Congress needs to address the runaway federal spending.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

(AP pix)

Newspaper Column: Federally funded gun study misfires

A potential buyer checks a gun at a Las Vegas outdoor trade show. (AP pix by John Locher via LA Times)

Spend enough money, crunch enough data — you can “prove” anything.

A recent study out of the hallowed halls of the University of California at Berkeley found a 70 percent increase in gun deaths and injuries in California communities after gun shows in nearby Nevada cities, but no increase in gun violence following gun shows in California.

If research shows it, it must prove something nefarious about the difference between state gun laws in California and those in Nevada, right?

“Our study suggests that California’s strict regulations — on firearms, generally, and on gun shows, specifically — may be effective in preventing short-term increases in firearm deaths and injuries following gun shows,” a news account quotes the study’s lead author, Ellicott Matthay, a Ph.D. student, as saying.

The study was funded in part by more than $2 million in federal funds from the National Institutes of Health.

The news account detailed the findings, “Compared to the two weeks before the gun shows occurred, post-show firearm injury rates remained stable in regions near California gun shows. But post-show firearm injury rates increased from 0.67 per 100,000 people to 1.14 per 100,000 in regions near Nevada shows. This 70 percent increase translates to 30 more firearms deaths or injuries in California near the state line after 161 Nevada gun shows.”

There is no mention of whether or not anyone bothered to ask whether any of the guns used in said deaths and injuries had any link to any gun show anywhere ever. It was noted that the California areas “near” Nevada gun shows are largely rural.

Presumably gun shows in California are largely in urban areas surrounded by typical urban rates of violence less susceptible to spikes than rural areas. If you have 100 incidents in a two-week period, followed by 110 incidents in the next two weeks there is no “spike.” But if you have two incidents in two weeks in a rural area and four in the following weeks, that’s a “spike.”

Nor was there any mention of whether there was a spike in gun violence during a new moon as opposed to a full moon.

It is also unclear which gun show intervals were chosen since there are usually at least two gun shows a month in Nevada, meaning the study intervals are likely to overlap.

The news account also duly noted that all firearms sales in California require a background check, including private sales, such as those at gun shows, while Nevada does not. Nevada voters narrowly approved a law requiring background checks prior to private sales, but the law was written in such a way as to make it unenforceable.

“The study suggests that travel to less-restrictive states may threaten the effectiveness of firearm laws within California,” Matthay was quoted as saying. “When a less-restrictive is next to a state that is more restrictive, there may be spillover effects. More research is needed to know for certain.”

The news account neglected to mention that federal law prohibits an unlicensed seller transferring a firearm to an individual who does not reside in the same state.

“Generally, for a person to lawfully transfer a firearm to an unlicensed person who resides out of State, the firearm must be shipped to a Federal Firearms Licensee (FFL) within the recipient’s State of residence. He or she may then receive the firearm from the FFL upon completion of an ATF Form 4473 and a NICS [National Instant Criminal Background Check System] background check,” according to an Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms website, which answers frequently asked questions.

The last time we checked, federal laws take precedent over more lax state laws.

The Washington Free Beacon quotes John Lott, president of the Crime Prevention Research Center and author of “More Guns, Less Crime,” as being critical of the Berkeley study’s conclusions and methodology.

Lott pointed out that the better metric is to look at what happens in states after they change their gun background check laws. He said his research found a 2 percent increase in firearm murders after laws requiring background checks on private transfers were enacted.

Cause and effect? Coincidence?

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

 

What fate awaits the Bunkerville standoff defendants in latest trial?

Bunkerville standoff. (R-J pix)

Equal justice under the law?

Today Bunkerville rancher Cliven Bundy and sons Ryan and Ammon, as well as self-styled militia member Ryan Payne, go on trial in federal court in Las Vegas for charges stemming from the April 2014 armed standoff with BLM agents attempting to confiscate Bundy’s cattle for failure to pay grazing fees on public land. Charges include obstruction of justice, conspiracy, extortion, assault and impeding federal officers.

They have been jailed for nearly two years pending trial. The trial is expected to take months to complete. Six more defendants, including two more Bundy sons, Dave and Mel Bundy, is scheduled for 30 days after the current trial ends.

In an earlier trial defendants Ricky Lovelien of Oklahoma and Steven Stewart of Idaho were acquitted of all charges by a jury. That jury acquitted two others of many charges but could not reach a unanimous verdict on four counts against Eric Parker and two counts against Scott Drexler, both of Idaho. Parker’s attorney told The Associated Press that a juror told him that votes were 11-1 for acquittal on those six counts.

Parker and Drexler have since pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and released for time served.

Internet blogger Peter Santilli entered a guilty plea to a conspiracy charge earlier this month and faces a potential six-year term.

Gerald “Jerry” DeLemus of New Hampshire pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit an offense against the U.S. and interstate travel in aid of extortion. He was sentenced to seven years in prison.

A jury convicted Gregory Burleson of Arizona of eight counts, including assault, threats, extortion, obstruction of justice, and multiple gun charges. He was sentenced to more than 68 years in federal prison. Todd Engel of Idaho was convicted by the same jury but apparently has not yet been sentenced but faces up to 30 years in prison.

The fate of those now on trial may depend largely upon who is picked as jurors. The judge in the case has ruled that the defendants may not argue that their actions were justified by the First Amendment right to free speech or their Second Amendment right to bear arms. She concluded, “The Court will not permit argument, evidence, or testimony regarding Defendants’ beliefs about the constitution as such beliefs are irrelevant and a possible jury nullification attempt.”

So far the Bunkerville prosecutions have not resulted in equal outcomes.

Facade of U.S. Supreme Court

Editorial: Good riddance to Clean Power Plan

President Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency has pulled the plug on the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which called for power plants in every state to reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 — a not so thinly veiled plan to destroy the coal industry.

It was a senseless and futile gesture that would have cost Americans dearly while doing nearly nothing to protect the planet from global warming.

The U.S. Supreme Court had already blocked enforcement of the plan after 29 states filed suit saying the plan violated the law and the concept of federalism. Nevada filed an amicus brief with the court agreeing with those claims.

According to a Heritage Foundation report, Obama’s plan by 2030 would have cost an annual average employment shortfall of nearly 300,000 jobs with a peak employment shortfall of more than 1 million jobs. It also would have created a loss of more than $2.5 trillion (inflation-adjusted) in aggregate gross domestic product (GDP) and reduced total income per capita by more than $7,000 (inflation-adjusted).

According to the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, the EPA proposal would increase the price of electricity in Nevada an average of 18 percent between 2020 and 2029.

Nevada’s friend-of-the-court brief noted, “EPA’s expensive economic experiment, imposed by fiat, will increase electricity prices for consumers and may well compromise the reliability of electric power service. The best estimates of how much prices will rise, performed by the NERA (National Economic Research Associates) economic consulting group, projects increases of as much as 14 percent per year costing Americans as much as $79 billion in present dollars.”

Although Obama’s EPA administrator Gina McCarthy insisted those costs were well worth it in order to save the planet, Obama’s own former Assistant Secretary of Energy Charles McConnell said at a congressional hearing in 2016, “The Clean Power Plan has been falsely sold as impactful environmental regulation when it is really an attempt by our primary federal environmental regulator to take over state and federal regulation of energy.”

McConnell told the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology that he estimated the plan would only reduce global carbon dioxide emissions by 0.2 percent, and the rule would only reduce projected warming by 1/100th a degree Celsius and reduce projected sea level rise by 1/100 of an inch.

“We can now assess whether further regulatory action is warranted, and, if so, what is the most appropriate path forward, consistent with the Clean Air Act and principles of cooperative federalism,” said EPA administrator Scott Pruitt in announcing the rescinding of the Clean Power Plan. The previous rule, he added, “ignored states’ concerns and eroded long-standing and important partnerships that are a necessary part of achieving positive environmental outcomes.”

The change will not affect Nevada as much as other states since the state’s lawmakers, at the behest of former Sen. Harry Reid, have already dictated that all coal-fired plants in the state be shuttered prematurely and the ratepayers pick up the tab. The move is expected to destroy 2,630 jobs by 2020 and cut real disposable income by $226 million per year, according to one study.

The EPA rule change should be a boon to the national economy for years to come, and is a welcome breath of regulatory fresh air, so the speak.

A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.

Newspaper column: Gun law backers too wily for their own good

The backers of a 2016 ballot initiative to create a state law requiring criminal background checks for all private party gun sales — something not required by federal law — are asking the courts to fix a fatal flaw that they themselves created.

Failure to comply with the Background Check Act requirement would carry a penalty of up to a year in jail and a $2,000 fine — if it were enforceable.

The measure, Question 1 on the November ballot, passed with a mere 50.45 percent of the vote, failing in every county except Clark.

The initiative backers — in order to avoid having a fiscal note saying what the mandatory background checks would cost taxpayers, something that might cost votes — wrote the new law to say that those in involved in a private gun sale must contact a licensed gun dealer to conduct a background check and: “The licensed dealer must contact the National Instant Criminal Background Check System [NICS], as described in 18 U.S.C. § 922(t), and not the Central Repository, to determine whether the buyer or transferee is eligible to purchase and possess firearms under state and federal law …”

The Central Repository is handled by the Nevada Department of Public Safety and uses NICS data as well as state and local data to run background checks required by federal law and those sought voluntarily by private gun sellers.

After the initiative passed the FBI was twice asked if would conduct the private sale background checks for the state, but refused, saying state law “cannot dictate how federal resources are applied.”

Attorney General Adam Laxalt’s office issued an opinion saying the law is unenforceable since the state could not force the federal government to perform the background checks and the law specifically prohibits the state from doing so.

The lawsuit filed earlier this month on behalf of three individuals names Gov. Brian Sandoval and Laxalt as defendants. The suit asks the court to force Sandoval to enforce the background check law or, in the alternative, to sever any portion of the law that is invalid or unenforceable. In other words, rewrite the law that the voters so narrowly approved.

Like most laws the Background Check Act contains a severability clause that states if any portion of the law is found invalid or unconstitutional that should not affect the law as a whole because that part could be excised. But the section that the suit seeks to remove was placed there specifically to avoid incurring cost to the taxpaying voters. Without that section the election outcome might well have been different.

On the day the suit was filed Laxalt sent an opinion to the governor telling him that he has the authority to again ask the FBI to conduct private sale backgrounds, but that the request would be “unique and unprecedented” and might jeopardize the state’s current status in which it conducts all federally required and voluntary private sale background checks.

In the December opinion declaring the Background Check Act unenforceable, Bureau Chief Gregory Zunino pointed out that the state-run background checks are in fact superior to those run through just the federal database.

“Because background checks run through Nevada as the Point of Contact incorporate data from both NICS and Nevada’s own state records, the process as currently administered by the Department ensures that persons legally barred from firearms possession do not circumvent the bar simply because the FBI may lack records that Nevada possesses, like mental-health records, records of domestic violence, misdemeanor criminal records, arrest reports, and restraining orders,” Zunino noted. “By having Nevada serve as the Point of Contract, a wide net is cast. The FBI recently suggested, for instance, that the lack of Point of Contact program in South Carolina played a role in Dylan Roof acquiring a gun before murdering nine congregants at a church in Charleston, South Carolina.”

It should be noted that the gunman who fired into a country music concert from the 32-second floor of the Mandalay Bay killing 58 and injuring about 500, obtained his dozens of weapons legally, passing all required background checks in Nevada and several other states.

The initiative was a futile gesture at best, but the backers outsmarted themselves by trying to hide its true cost from the voters.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.