Tapped: The Prospect Group Blog

Seismic Blasting in Whales’ Backyard

The North Atlantic’s marine life may soon be treated to near-constant seismic blasts as energy companies hunt for new oil and gas drilling sites.

A proposal from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), published last month, lays out a plan to allow five companies to use seismic air guns to conduct geological surveys in area ranging roughly from Florida to New Jersey. The companies, which provide geological information to larger drilling firms, claim that after roughly 30 years without comprehensive mapping, they might find new locations for offshore oil and gas wells.

The mapping itself is conducted by ships firing 180-decibel cannon blasts 24 hours a day, and proponents of the practice say adverse impacts are negligible. But environmental groups, fishing industry advocates, and residents of impacted areas are not convinced. The noises from the air guns—like a continual firework display, but at 1,000 times the volume—can wreak havoc on marine ecosystems by killing zooplankton. Most larger creatures, particularly marine mammals that rely on echolocation, would also experience harmful effects, according to scientists.

President Barack Obama had considered seismic blasting as a way to jump-start East Coast fossil fuel extraction, but ultimately bent to environmental, business, and community pressure and ordered a five-year moratorium on it in the final days of his presidency. The military also strongly opposed blasting, saying it threatened key training areas, and a bipartisan group of 103 U.S. House members signed a letter against it. But President Donald Trump put blasting back on the agenda in April, saying that overruling the ban was part of an “America-First Offshore Energy Strategy” and ordering Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to consider granting new permits to companies conducting blasting.

During the public comment period for NOAA’s proposal, set to expire on July 15, industry voices, community leaders, and politicians all spoke out against blasting. The fishing community cites data showing that fish catches could decline by as much as 70 percent due to blasting, while the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast—which represents 41,000 businesses and 500,000 commercial fishermen—claims falling tourism and fishing revenue would devastate business.

Major oil companies are not scrambling for blasting, either. Most have shifted their attention away from offshore projects in recent years, motivated by the doubling of American crude oil production in the past decade and deterred by the dangers of offshore drilling. Royal Dutch Shell suspended its Arctic Ocean drilling in 2015, and ConocoPhillips will end deep-water exploration this year.  

Following the close of NOAA’s public comment period, permits could be issued almost immediately. Seismic blasting in the Atlantic would then be possibly as soon as this autumn. 

FEMA Loophole Leaves Communities at Risk

A disaster-relief program of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) promises greater flexibility in rebuilding damaged towns and cities, but instead often allows for the diversion of resources from those communities.

FEMA’s Public Assistance Alternative Procedures pilot program, created by the 2013 Sandy Recovery Improvement Act, is designed to provide “substantially greater flexibility in use of federal funds,” with “far less administrative burden.” But a loophole allows essential public buildings to be rebuilt far from impacted areas, or abandoned entirely.

The first beneficiary of Alternative Procedures was Vermont’s state government, which utilized FEMA funding to rebuild offices for state employees outside a flood plain. But in Long Island and West Virginia, some residents claim that the misallocation of FEMA funds has jeopardized their communities’ livelihood and health.

In 2014, in Long Beach, New York, the South Nassau Communities Hospital acquired the Long Beach Medical Center for less than $12 million after the medical center filed for bankruptcy following its destruction in Hurricane Sandy. SNCH received $154 million from FEMA to rebuild the center and restore health services in the Long Beach area. Instead, SNCH put almost all the money into restoring its own facilities, five miles away from Long Beach. Long Beach residents have filed suit in federal court, claiming their equal protection rights were violated.

This past year, following massive flooding in West Virginia, the Nicholas County school board voted to consolidate the damaged middle and high schools of Richwood with schools in Summersville and Craigsville, a plan costing $130 million in FEMA funding. Some students from the three towns, which have a combined population of less than 8,000, would have to commute for almost an hour on twisting mountain roads to a new, centralized facility.

Many Richwood residents were angered by secret negotiations between the school board and FEMA that led to the decision to consolidate rather than rebuild local schools: Richwood High School, considered one of the best in West Virginia, is noted for its marching band and high graduation rate. “The whole town is hung on these schools,” says Mayor Bob Henry Baber.

“I think the flood and the fight for the schools has been such an intense struggle that it has … superseded any other political affiliations,” Baber adds, noting that Democratic Governor Jim Justice favors rebuilding the schools. In June, the West Virginia Board of Education sided with Richwood residents, rejecting the consolidation plan and ordering the county to consider alternatives. The Nicholas County school board promptly sued the state.

While some communities have sought Alternative Procedures funding because of its perceived flexibility, the reality for towns like Richwood and Long Beach can be a loss of local control—and essential funds.

Kansas Redux: Illinois Legislature Overrides Governor’s Austerity Politics

It’s becoming increasingly clear that conservative governors trying to push trickle-down tax cuts for the rich and austerity for everyone else will, eventually, face a political backlash.

Once again, a bipartisan coalition of fed-up legislators has overridden their intransigent governor’s veto to keep their state from driving off the cliff. On Thursday, Illinois Republicans joined with the Democratic majority in the legislature to override Governor Bruce Rauner’s veto of a $36 billion budget that raises much-needed revenue with income and corporate tax rate increases and brings an end to the longest running budget crisis in the country.

Rauner, a Republican and multimillionaire, has tried to impose his agenda of spending cuts and attacks on labor unions but has long faced staunch resistance in Springfield, which took the form of a more than two-year political standoff over the budget. The financially troubled state has not had an operating budget since Rauner took office in 2015, leading to $15 billion in missed payments and a series of credit downgrades that brought Illinois’s bond rating to the verge of “junk” status.

While Rauner had for years managed to keep Republican legislators under his thumb, ultimately the state’s worsening fiscal disaster and the governor’s obstinacy provoked 11 Republicans to join with Democrats to override his veto.

The end of the Illinois impasse comes just weeks after a similar scenario in which the Kansas’s Republican-controlled legislature, with the help of Democrats, overrode Governor Sam Brownback’s disastrous tax experiment. As I reported for the Prospect’s summer issue, in a matter of five years, Brownback’s radical tax cuts succeeded in throwing the state into fiscal chaos by blowing a massive whole in the state budget and completely failed to generate Brownback’s promised “shot of adrenaline” to the Kansas economy.

And while sanity ultimately prevailed in Kansas and Illinois, it will take both states several years to dig out from underneath the fiscal rubble left by both governors.

Trickle-down tragedies have a long tail. 

Tax Cuts for the rich. Deregulation for the powerful. Wage suppression for everyone else. These are the tenets of trickle-down economics, the conservatives’ age-old strategy for advantaging the interests of the rich and powerful over those of the middle class and poor. The articles in Trickle-Downers are devoted, first, to exposing and refuting these lies, but equally, to reminding Americans that these claims aren’t made because they are true. Rather, they are made because they are the most effective way elites have found to bully, confuse and intimidate middle- and working-class voters. Trickle-down claims are not real economics. They are negotiating strategies. Here at the Prospect, we hope to help you win that negotiation.

With Air Quality Rules at Risk, Black Seniors May Suffer Most

As the Trump administration moves to dismantle clean air regulations, a landmark study in The New England Journal of Medicine suggests that existing air quality rules do not go far enough.

The nationwide investigation, published last week, finds that long-term exposure to fine particulate matter and ozone, even at levels deemed safe by federal rules, can lead to early mortality. Among the groups most at risk, researchers singled out men, people eligible for Medicaid, and especially African Americans. “Do we really want to breathe air that kills?” Jeffrey M. Drazen, the Journal’s editor-in-chief, wrote in an editorial outlining the paper.   

The results of the study are backed by a 12-year data set that examines health outcomes of more than 60 million Medicare beneficiaries from 2000 to 2012. It found that fine particulate matter (any combination of dust, dirt, soot, or smoke) at levels the National Ambient Air Quality Standard deems permissible increases poor health outcomes and the likelihood of premature death—particularly among marginalized communities. Currently, that federal standard deems levels below 12 micrograms per cubic meter and ozone concentrations at 50 parts per billion to be safe.

This report adds to an emerging body of climate research that considers vectors such as race, age, class, and income and how each separately—and also all at once—reduce one’s quality of life. In an article published in The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, the authors note higher cancer and other health risks linked to “ambient exposure to industrial and on-road mobile source emissions of air toxics” in racially and ethnically diverse areas. The researchers also note that black men and women have a much higher perception of risk than their white and Hispanic counterparts of both sexes. The analysis stresses that black people are not only at greater risk of dying due to air pollution exposure, but black people are also the most aware that they are dying due to exposure.

“I think any place where brown people and poor people are in high concentration, you’re not going to get clean air,” says Olinka Green, a Dallas resident and community clean air advocate. Structural racism has long played a direct role in how climate change affects different groups and communities. In particular, the construction of coal-fire power plants and other toxic facilities in minority neighborhoods across the country has a direct impact on health outcomes for nonwhite residents. A 2016 analysis from the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club cites that 97 premature deaths, mostly those of children, the elderly, and outdoor workers, could be avoided each year if the largest coal mines in the Dallas and Fort Worth areas reduced their carbon emissions by implementing “common sense” safeguards.

In his editorial outlining the air quality study, Drazen outlines two urgent actions: first, the need to lower the annual National Ambient Air Quality Standard, and second, to raise awareness of an attack upon one of life’s most basic necessities—air. The Trump administration’s neglect of environmental problems represents a “headlong” move in the “opposite direction,” Drazen warns. As of late, we have seen Trump share his enthusiasm for reviving the coal industry by withdrawing from the Paris Agreement and eliminating Obama-era environmental regulations despite market indicators suggesting that such policy is not in our best economic interest.

Will this report, and its recommendations, go unnoticed by the Trump administration’s efforts to disregard facts? As more black people die from inhaling toxic air, only time will tell.

New Initiative Takes on Fight for Women’s Leadership in the Labor Movement

Women are set to overtake men in union membership in less than a decade, but their representation in the labor movement’s leadership lags far behind. Georgetown and Rutgers are joining forces in a new project to help bridge the leadership gap.

Women already make up nearly half of union membership, and the Center for Economic Policy Research estimates they will comprise the majority by 2023. But only about 20 percent of the AFL-CIO’s executive council are women, as is just a quarter of the International Vice Presidents of AFSCME.

The Women Innovating Labor Leadership (WILL) Empower project launched in June, when the Berger-Marks Foundation (dedicated to Edna Berger, the Newspaper Guild-CWA’s first female lead organizer) closed its doors and announced it was passing $1.5 million in assets to the program, a legacy project to continue and expand the foundation’s work in supporting female leadership in both union and non-union organizations. The project brings together Georgetown’s Kalmanovitz Initiative (KI) and Rutgers’s Center for Innovation in Worker Organization (CIWO). Windham of KI and Sheri Davis-Faulkner of CIWO lead the project with decades of experience in worker’s rights and women’s rights as organizers, leaders and scholars.

“The project is coming at a very crucial moment for the labor movement, especially for women who are more likely to be affected by recent economic transformations,” says Joseph McCartin, the director of KI.

The 1970s represented a “moment of working-class promise,” says Lane Windham, co-director of WILL Empower, as new laws brought more women and people of color into the work force. The union participation rate for all African American women rose to about 25 percent, and 30 percent for all women. Organizing jobs opened up in unions and women took on jobs as organizers and elected leaders. But when the 1980s saw greater employer resistance lead to a downturn in union activity, women were disproportionately affected.

“On one hand, I knew I had to work twice as hard to show that a woman could lead the biggest department in the AFL-CIO,” says CIWO Director Marilyn Sneiderman, who was the union’s first female national field director from 1995 to 2003. “But on the other hand, I needed to create space for more women to be involved in those roles. WILL Empower is a continuation of my passion in life to support emerging women leaders and help create space for them to lead.”

WILL Empower, scheduled to open its doors in September, will use a multilevel approach to support women in the workforce and the rise of women in leadership positions. According to Windham, the project will offer fellowships to people who want to step away from day-to-day work to build the workers’ movement, and an interactive educational project to students. Georgetown and Rutgers will also run cross-organizational leadership cohorts for women in executive leadership positions.

“There is nothing in the labor movement that helps women who are going to be taking over as regional directors and presidents,” Sneiderman says. “But people can learn so much from each other on how to build the most effective organization they can.”

According to McCartin, WILL Empower’s grassroots collaboration is the key to changing the labor movement.

“We can’t wait for action from Washington or the passage of legislation,” McCartin says. “Change has to happen from the bottom up.”

New Mine Fuels Trump’s Coal Crusade, But Global Energy Markets May Have the Final Say

“You’re going back to work,” President Donald Trump promised a group of coal miners who came to EPA headquarters in Washington to witness the signing of a March executive order on energy independence and economic growth.

The president’s declaration takes his promises to coal country full circle. During the 2016 election campaign, he claimed that the Obama administration had waged a “war on coal,” arguing that stricter environmental regulations led to job losses in coal-producing states.

However, Trump chose to ignore other important forces at work that have hastened the demise of coal. A recent report from Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy found that significant changes in global energy markets contributed to the U.S. coal industry’s decline more than the Obama-era climate initiatives, including a decrease in demand for coal from China which, in turn, produced a major drop in U.S. coal exports.  Stateside, cheaper natural gas contributed to about half of the decline in domestic coal consumption, while a decrease in the demand for electricity and an increase in renewable energy usage were also factors.

The overall result? From 2011 to 2016, U.S. coal production declined 27 percent, 1.096 billion tons to 730 million, the steepest five-year postwar decline in U.S. history, according to the report.

Despite these market signals, the Trump administration continues to call for increased coal production—and American companies have responded. In Raleigh County, West Virginia, the Tennessee-based Alpha Natural Resources plans to open the Panther Eagle Coal mine next month. Charlie Bearse, the company’s vice president for operations said in a statement, “Recent improvement in the [coal] market has created more demand for our coal and strategically increasing production will help meet that need.”

Yet the report’s authors’ noted that in 2011, when Alpha acquired Massey Energy Co. for $7.1 billion, the Chinese demand for coal was expected to remain steady. Five years later, that demand has declined: China now relies on its own coal reserves and plans to invest at least $360 billion in renewable energy sources.

The transition to cheaper natural gas and the ascendance of renewable energy and energy efficiency programs has done little to quell the coal-fixations of the climate-denier in chief. It’s yet another example how the dissonance between Trump’s worldview and the reality of the global energy sector play out.

New Documentary Challenges the Rhetoric of the So-Called War on Coal

Exactly one week after Trump’s announcement that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change, a new film from director Michael Bonfiglio premiered at National Geographic’s Washington, D.C.’s headquarters. From the Ashes closely examines the repercussions—environmental, health, economic—of something the Trump administration has not only denied, but has gone to great lengths to ignore.

Gary Knell, president and CEO of National Geographic, welcomed the crowd on June 8 by praising From the Ashes as a film about a “future solution, and how to get there.” D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser also spoke to the audience about her city’s commitment to going green, mentioning her administration's “Climate Ready DC” plan and the proposed creation of a “green bank,” which would finance the expansion of renewable energy while lowering energy costs, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and creating jobs.

From the Ashes delves into the perceived conflict between environmentalism and economics, acknowledging that coal has been an economic backbone for many rural, middle-class-aspiring parts of the country. Bonfiglio gives screen time to many of those who work or knew someone who has worked in coal, who would suffer from the attrition of coal jobs in their communities.

However, Bonfiglio essentially rejects the cry of there being a “war on coal” by highlighting a number of strategies and programs in multiple states to train dislocated coal workers. The film also discusses how the implementation of these programs as well as robust organizing have together helped some towns avoid the abyss of joblessness. Not once does From the Ashes imply that the shift from coal to clean energy will be easy, but Bonfiglio argues that a post-coal 21st century is at least possible.

In less than an hour and a half, From the Ashes shows how the high stakes of coal production and climate change are not only a problem for the future, but how coal has contributed to a rise in health disparities over the last half-century. A segment on how poor air quality precipitated by coal ash is linked to severe asthma in children is shocking, and seeing how Duke Energy’s unscrupulous practices leave people in North Carolina with questionable drinking water strikes the viewer as criminal. “I’m just trying to keep them breathing,” Misti O’Quinn, a mother from Texas coal country whose children have asthma, says during one of the film’s most poignant moments. O’Quinn spoke on a panel after the film’s premiere, and said that she considered “organizing and education” to be instrumental in the fight against climate change and the coal industry.

Ultimately, what the film, which premieres on June 25 on the National Geographic Channel, drives home is that while we may not be able to solve climate change in one sitting, we stand to lose our planet if national collective action is not taken.

Why Did Brookings Ignore Federal Pre-K's Positive Results?

In the five decades since its launch, more than 33 million low-income children have participated in Head Start, the federal government’s early-childhood education program designed to narrow the gaps between rich and poor students by providing disadvantaged children with comprehensive preschool. Nearly one million children were enrolled in 2015 alone, and research has shown that the program has had positive effects on children later in life and in their education.

But last month, the Brookings Institution, an influential, centrist think tank based in Washington, D.C., published a “consensus statement” on the “current state of scientific knowledge” as it pertains to pre-K research, and failed to include some of the most important research available on Head Start’s impact.

There’s been growing bipartisan interest in expanding pre-kindergarten systems, as legislators and policy experts increasingly view early-childhood learning as a smart investment for youth development and success later in life. The Brookings report, a collaboration among ten social scientists over the past year, was created to help inform policymakers and practitioners on how best to expand and improve pre-K systems based on the existing research evidence.

Yet the Brookings consensus statement, entitled “Puzzling It Out,” is puzzling. The authors write:

“Convincing evidence on the longer-term impacts of scaled pre-K programs on academic outcomes and school progress is sparse, precluding broad conclusions. The evidence that does exist often shows that pre-K induced improvements in learning are detectable during elementary school, but studies also reveal null or negative longer-term impacts for some programs.”

In fact, the most prominent “scaled pre-K program” is Head Start, but here’s what the Brookings consensus statement has to say about the program:

The challenges of scale-up are illustrated by the national Head Start program, for which consistently strong and enduring impacts have been elusive. … Studies examining adolescent and adult outcomes for graduates of Head Start programs during the 1970s and 1980s found positive impacts into early adulthood … but the results of a large-scale, randomized trial of Head Start launched in 2002 were much less encouraging. Despite a boost for children’s academic skills at the end of their Head Start year, the Head Start Impact Study (HSIS) found that these initial gains rapidly dissipated once children began formal schooling.

Curiously, “Puzzling It Out” fails to mention the recent work out of University of California, Berkeley, where social scientists have reanalyzed data used in the 2002 HSIS study, finding much more positive results than previously understood. In a policy brief synthesizing these newer studies, Claire Montialoux of Berkeley’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, writes that the original HSIS conclusions “are too pessimistic and substantially underestimate the benefits of Head Start.”

Brookings’s consensus report also ignores the work of two of its own research fellows, Lauren Bauer and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, who published a study last summer finding that Head Start participation increased the probability that students would graduate from high school, attend college, and obtain a post-secondary degree. The researchers also found that overall, and particularly among African Americans, Head Start led to social, emotional, and behavioral gains that were evident in adulthood.

 

Bauer told the Prospect that she disagrees with the new report’s conclusion that Head Start has largely failed to produce long-term gains. “I think we have fairly convincing evidence from the Perry preschool program, from the Abecedarian program, from the quasi-experimental long-term studies of Head Start, that all suggest that decades after the opportunity to get a high-quality preschool education, children’s’ lives become meaningfully better,” Bauer says. She was not involved in drafting the “Puzzling It Out” report, and says she could not speak to how the authors chose what to include or exclude.

When asked about the report’s omission of positive Head Start studies, Deborah Phillips, a psychology professor at Georgetown and the report’s lead author, first responded by saying that the report simply wasn’t focused on Head Start, and that her team of collaborators “did not delve into that evidence base [when] coming up with their consensus statement.”

Yet their report specifically discusses Head Start, and presents conclusions strongly suggesting that the research to date on the program is not notable. When pressed on this, Phillips said: “Again, we just did not look at that secondary data [from Berkeley]. I think in another year it will be a perfect time to draw conclusions, but for this effort—we were doing much of our work in the fall and early winter and we knew more work would be coming out—we just didn’t feel we could reframe it and include it. But all of us feel it is very important work.”

Important as the work may be, the coalition of scholars working on the new Brookings report apparently saw no reason to let it influence their “consensus” statement. Which, in turn, raises some questions about what, exactly, drives consensus in the first place. 

 

Extreme Gerrymandering Complicates 2018 Congressional Map for Democrats

It will take nothing short of an electoral wave for Democrats to retake the House in 2018, and that’s exactly the problem.

A new report from the Brennan Center at the New York University School of Law underscores the devastating effect of gerrymandering on recent House elections: The researchers found that over the past decade, not only have Republicans stepped up their gerrymandering efforts, they have become more aggressive in drawing maps to benefit GOP candidates.

Of the 26 states that account for 85 percent of congressional districts, only a handful are responsible for the largest imbalances—and Republicans had sole control of the redistricting process in those states.

“It’s easier than ever to create skewed maps. There’s much more robust data and sophisticated technology than there used to be,” says Michael Li, a redistricting expert and a coauthor of the new report. “Gerrymandering was once an art. Now, it’s a science.”

Republicans derived a net benefit of at least 16 congressional seats from gerrymandering in the 2016 election, according to the report. That’s eight less than the 24 currently needed by Democrats to take back the House.

The report found that Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, Texas, and Virginia were all under single-party control when state lawmakers created new congressional districts in 2011. It’s no surprise that all of these states, with the exception of Texas, are tightly contested. The most gerrymandered states are usually battleground states, where the slightest advantage can make a difference.

Democratic and Republican state lawmakers have always tried to redraw districts to their own party’s advantage. But since the last census, Republicans have done it more often and more aggressively. Why? Because they can.

“One of the reasons Republicans are doing it more is because you need sole control of a state to aggressively gerrymander,” says Li. “Republicans have sole control over far more states than Democrats.”

California is a rare exception. Democrats control the Golden State legislature, yet the state has mostly avoided unfair maps thanks to an independent redistricting commission. The report found that maps drawn by independent or bipartisan commissions consistently exhibited far less partisan bias than those drawn solely by Republicans or Democrats. Maps drawn by the courts following a legislative deadlock were also markedly fairer than those drawn by a single party.

For voters in the dozens of states without redistricting commissions, taking unfair maps to court is often the only option. Lawsuits challenging those maps have been filed in 38 states since the 2010 census—and most have failed.

Without any standard for gauging when state lawmakers have gone too far in a partisan direction when they create new districts, judges have preferred to stay out of the political thicket unless absolutely necessary. The authors of the report aim to equip courts with better ways of assessing partisan manipulation. “Courts have had a hard time deciding where the line is drawn,” Li says. “But when three formulas point in the same direction, it gives [courts] comfort.”

Despite promising initiatives to redraw maps in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, it’s unlikely that the electoral landscape will change much before the midterm elections.

Overcoming a 24-seat deficit isn’t impossible—Democrats took back control of the House after a 31-seat swing in 2006— but it won’t be easy. Despite President Trump’s low approval ratings and a radioactive Republican health care bill, Democrats face an uphill battle in 2018.

“If your only hope of winning a majority is through a huge, ‘500-year flood’ voting wave, that’s not exactly encouraging for your party,” says Li.

Despite Assurances, VA Secretary Pushes Toward Privatization

Secretary of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, David Shulkin, has pledged not to privatize the Veterans Health Administration (VHA). He understands, he says, that the VHA’s ability to provide care that, as studies document, is superior to those in the private sector is because veterans are treated in an integrated system that meets all their health needs. In testimony to the House Committee on Appropriations Veterans Oversight Hearing on May 3, Shulkin argued that unlike the private sector, the VHA “defines health far more broadly as physical, psychological, social, and economic.” Such a “unique national resource … often cannot be found in the private sector.”

In spite of this some of Secretary Shulkin’s recent decisions are very troubling. In March, Shulkin announced that the VHA would begin providing emergency mental health services to veterans previously ineligible for them. While that coverage is long overdue, the VA’s budget will likely push some already enrolled patients out of the VHA system and onto private providers. At the same time, Shulkin has proposed outsourcing optometry and audiology care to the private sector. In both cases, the changes threaten to jeopardize the kind of integrated services the VHA provides.

For years, the VHA has not been able to provide care to an estimated 500,000 veterans who have what are known as “other than honorable” (OTH) discharges (as documented by the San Francisco-based veterans service organization Swords to Plowshares). This is because a veteran’s eligibility for VA benefits is determined by the kind of discharge they receive when they leave the military. Only those with honorable, general, or medical discharges qualify. Those with “other than honorable discharges” or “dirty or bad papers” are disqualified because they committed acts that, while not worthy of a court marshal, led to their discharge. In reality, many of these vets went AWOL, got into fights, abused drugs or alcohol, or had discipline problems because they had PTSD, suffered from military sexual trauma, or other conditions arising from their military service.

Shulkin has announced that he wants to provide these veterans with emergency mental health services if they are in crisis, but his position on funding the coverage is worrisome. During his Appropriations Committee appearance, Shulkin was asked how he would pay for caring for hundreds of thousands of veterans who may not have had health-care services for years, even decades. “Maybe this doesn’t fit into the budget,” he replied. “But frankly I don’t care … I don’t want more money for this. We’re going to figure out a way to help these people and then connect them to community resources and get them help because this is the right thing to do.”

Serving these veterans is definitely the right thing to do. But creating what could be an unfunded mandate may be the wrong way to do it.  As Shulkin admitted during his testimony, the VHA is already short 1,500 mental health professionals needed to serve its currently enrolled patients. It will need more staff, and more inpatient psychiatric beds, and outpatient services to care for hundreds of thousands more.

“By definition, the veterans with OTH discharges need intensive mental health treatment because they will enter our system only when they are in crisis,” one VHA psychologist, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Prospect. “Many will have to be admitted to inpatient units and not every facility has enough beds. They will also need intensive treatment. We want to help them. But we need the staff and funds to do it well.”

Veterans with OTH discharges are also, by definition, ineligible to be referred to Choice care in the private sector, the psychologist explained. If the VHA does not have sufficient mental health staff to care for them, currently eligible veterans with mental health problems will face longer wait times or be pushed into Choice. They will thus be referred to private sector providers, who as numerous studies document, may not be trained to treat their complex, military related conditions. 

More recently, Shulkin has proposed yet another way he may seek to privatize VHA services.  Shulkin has told VA health-care directors from around the country that he wants to stop providing audiology and optometry services. “There are LensCrafters on every corner,” the secretary reportedly commented. Not only would this impact the optometry and audiology training the VHA provides to future clinicians, it would curtail two of the most popular and cost effective services the VHA delivers.

Hearing problems from toxic noise exposure are, in fact, a primary reason veterans seek VHA care. VHA optometrists do more than prescribe eyeglasses. Among other things, they evaluate whether patients with impaired vision are eligible for the impressive services offered through the VHA’s national system of 13 Blind Rehabilitation Centers.

And like all VHA employees, VHA audiologists and optometrists are trained to recognize if patients are at high risk for suicide. Would a technician at LensCrafters recognize that a veteran is seriously depressed and contemplating suicide if the patient (now customer) makes a stray comment indicating that he may not be around to collect his glasses?

Outsourcing public sector services and starving a public institution of necessary funding is one of the facilitators of privatization. The challenge facing Shulkin is how to respond to real needs and problems without setting in motion what Garry Augustine, executive director of the Disabled American Veterans, has called the “withering on the vine” of the VHA.

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