Oh, the misplaced agony and outrage over smaller IRS refund checks!

For a while this morning the lede news story on Yahoo!’s opening page was a HuffPost piece about people being angry that they are getting smaller refunds due to the Trump tax cuts.

The story reports on the chagrin thusly:

“The average refund check paid out so far has been $1,865, down from $2,035 at the same point in 2018, according to IRS data. Low-income taxpayers often file early to pocket the money as soon as possible. Many taxpayers count on the refunds to make important payments, or spend the money on things like home repairs, a vacation or a car.”

The story does at one point in passing note that the tax code changes meant that in some cases not enough money was withheld by employers. But nowhere in it does it note that in the vast majority of these cases the total tax bill for 2018 is less than the prior year. People just got to kept it with each paycheck and did not make interest-free loans to the federal government.

At the least the USA Today version of this story does mention the overall lower tax bill, but not until the last paragraph, which reads:

“Getting a smaller refund doesn’t mean you’re paying more in total in taxes. In many cases, much of your tax savings showed up in each paycheck, which could result in a smaller refund.”

As Bugs Bunny would say: What a bunch of maroons. Chalk this up as fake news.

USA Today photo illustration

 

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.

Pipeline protesters show their respect for the environment

Protesters trying to block the Dakota Access pipeline from being placed under a river because it might, maybe, somehow, someday pollute the water already were leaving behind tons of trash, debris and human waste in the river watershed prior to the spring thaw, but, just to add insanity to pollution, they set 20 fires in their camp today, their deadline for evacuation.

Twenty protesters were arrested and two children were treated for burns due to the fires.

The Army Corps of Engineers is cleaning up the site.

Fires set at protest site. (Getty Image via USA Today)

Fires set at protest site. (Getty Image via USA Today)

 

 

 

 

Editorial: Past time to abolish VA health system and give vets vouchers

This past week the Department of Veterans Affairs reluctantly released to USA Today quality of care rankings — one to five stars with one being the poorest and five the best — for its 146 VA medical centers. The VA health facilities in Las Vegas and Reno warranted only two stars each, placing them solidly in the bottom third in the rankings.

At about the same time the agency also released Inspector General reports on wait time manipulation at facilities in eight states, including one for the mental health division of the VA Southern Nevada Healthcare System in Las Vegas.

The IG has been looking into wait time manipulation for the past couple of years after it was learned a number of VA medical centers lied about how long veterans were delayed in receiving medical care.

North Las Vegas VA Medical Center

North Las Vegas VA Medical Center

In 2014 it was revealed that the VA hospital in Phoenix was claiming veterans waited an average of 24 days for their first primary care appointment, when the average was actually 115 days. There were 1,400 vets on the official waiting list, but another 1,700 who were not even included on that list. Some died waiting to be seen by a doctor.

A subsequent audit found 64 percent of VA facilities had tampered with waiting lists.

The recent report on the Las Vegas waiting list said the inspection was launched following a complaint by a former VA mental health staffer who said he and others were directed by their boss to schedule the next available mental health appointment date as a vet’s desired appointment date, even when that was untrue.

He said he was told to do this “so the numbers looked good” and it appeared there was no waiting.

The IG interviewed 11 VA employees and reviewed emails. Though many staffers denied being pressured to manipulate the wait times, most admitted the methodology of recording desired appointments had this effect.

The report said of one staffer: “He stated that he was told the only acceptable wait time for appointments was zero days. He said he was told by a lead MSA (medical support assistant) to cancel appointments for veterans with wait times and reschedule them using the next available appointment date as the veterans’ desired date so that the wait times appeared to be zero. … He said this was done to make the wait times appear shorter than what they actually were.”Still another staffer said she was handed a list of 50 patients by her boss and told the appointments had been scheduled improperly. The wait times varied from 45 to 60 days. She was told the patients agreed to the appointment date, so the appointment date should be recorded as the desired date, making the wait time zero.

The report concluded, “The investigation determined that some MSAs were not scheduling appointments correctly because of confusion over the scheduling directive, incorrect information from coworkers, and incorrect information received during previous training. Several of the MSAs interviewed indicated that they were directed by supervisors to manipulate scheduling data.”Though the report was referred to the VA’s Office of Accountability Review back in February, there was no indication any disciplinary action was taken.

The local VA released a statement to the Las Vegas newspaper saying, “The VA Office of Accountability reviewed the … findings and concluded there were no accountability issues that warranted action and that revised training addressed the scheduling deficiencies discovered.”The problem is that the VA health system is socialized medicine, pure and simple. A bureaucracy, like any other organism, has at its base the objective of self-preservation, not the objective to provide quality service. No matter who President-elect Trump may appoint to head the agency, it will fail, as it has done so over and over again over the decades.

Nevada has had more than its share of VA woes. The VA Medical Center in North Las Vegas cost $1 billion to build — twice what a private hospital costs — and took four years longer than scheduled. It opened with too small of an emergency room and no ambulance drop-off ramp.

For rural vets it is too long a drive to Reno or Las Vegas.It is time to dismantle the VA health care system and give veterans vouchers to use at whatever doctor or hospital they wish.

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.

UPDATE: Some newspaper editorials are so persuasive that they get considered even before they are published. In a meeting this week the president-elect was asked about the possibility of veterans being given an option allowing them to go to any hospital of their choice.

Those who don’t recall history are, well, doomed

Advisors are being sent to train foreign troops. Where have I head that before?

On June 10, 2015, Obama announces he is sending up to 450 more U.S. troops to Iraq to act as advisors and to train Iraqi troops to fight the Islamic State.

 

“This train, advise, and assist mission builds on lessons learned during the past several months and is just one aspect of our commitment to support the Iraqi Security Forces,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest was quoted as saying by USA Today.

The plan also is to stop insurgents from flowing into both Iraq and Syria.

On May 11, 1961, Kennedy announced he was sending 400 Special Forces troops to Vietnam in addition to 100 advisors.  He also ordered an infiltration of Laos to locate and disrupt supply lines. That later become known as McNamara’s Wall.

By the end of 1961 there were more than 3,000 Americans in Vietnam.

American soldier gives instructions to Iraqis. (Photo by Sgt. Shawn Miller)

How long does it take to train foreign soldiers?

 

LEED, follow or get out of the way … of taxes that is

I was reading the other day about how all those buildings with LEED ratings are costing taxpayers, and recalled all those casino executives bragging about how their then-new casinos and hotel were “green” friendly because they earned an LEED rating.

What I don’t recall, nor do I recall any news reporter ever asking, is just how much the ratings saved the builders in tax exemptions.

You know LEED, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, those designations handed out like so much Halloween candy by the U.S. Green Building Council for being efficient and environmentally friendly.

Plaque in lobby of Palazzo.

It turns out, according to an article in USA Today this past summer that I somehow overlooked, a LEED tag can be worth millions, not in savings on power bills, but on tax exemptions.

The Palazzo hotel and casino, built by the Las Vegas Sands and its owner Sheldon Adelson, 12th richest person in the world, managed to grasp a $27 million tax break over 10 years because it did such things as putting a bike rack in the garage and putting cards in hotel rooms suggesting towels could be used more than once.

The green building gurus reportedly looked past their own policy and overlooked the fact smoking is allowed in the 2.5-acre casino.

The Palazzo also got credit for having preferred parking for fuel-efficient cars. When USA Today checked those spots were occupied by Ford Expeditions, Chevy Tahoes, Range Rovers, Mercedes E320s, Chrysler 300s, Audi A6s, vans, sports cars and a Hummer.

Writing in the Washington Times recently, David Williams, president of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, reported that a study of 11 U.S. Navy-owned buildings revealed four certified green structures were outperformed by noncertified structures; three more were at parity; and four others narrowly outperformed conventional buildings.

“The U.S. General Services Administration, which serves as the landlord for the federal government by managing its various properties, estimates that each federal project in which LEED certification is pursued costs the taxpayers an additional $150,000,” Williams wrote.