August 18, 2014

A Thought on Political Grievances

"The fundamental problem of the political Left seems to be that the real world does not fit their preconceptions. Therefore they see the real world as what is wrong, and what needs to be changed, since apparently their preconceptions cannot be wrong.

"A never-ending source of grievances for the Left is the fact that some groups are “over-represented” in desirable occupations, institutions, and income brackets, while other groups are “under-represented.

"From all the indignation and outrage about this expressed on the left, you might think that it was impossible that different groups are simply better at different things."

~ Thomas Sowell

Source: His July 5, 2013 column, "The Left’s Central Delusion," posted at National Review Online.

Frown NOTE: There will likely be little if any growling for the rest of August.

August 17, 2014

Wheel Chair Fraud Rolls On?

Today's Washington Post reports on page A1 that "(s)cammers discover that power wheelchair are perfect vehicle for fraud." The story was reported by David Fahrenthold from Los Angeles.

The subtitle of the online story was even clearer: "The government has paid billions to buy power wheelchairs. It has no idea how many of the claims are bogus." Although the story continues on for two complete pages, the essence of the story seems to be:

"The wheelchair scam was designed to exploit blind spots in Medicare, which often pays insurance claims without checking them first. Criminals disguised themselves as medical-supply companies. They ginned up bogus bills, saying they’d provided expensive wheelchairs to Medicare patients — who, in reality, didn’t need wheelchairs at all. Then the scammers asked Medicare to pay them back, so they could pocket the huge markup that the government paid on each chair.

"A lot of the time, Medicare was fooled. The government paid.

"Since 1999, Medicare has spent $8.2 billion to procure power wheelchairs and “scooters” for 2.7 million people. Today, the government cannot even guess at how much of that money was paid out to scammers.

"Now, the golden age of the wheelchair scam is probably over.

"But, while it lasted, the scam illuminated a critical failure point in the federal bureaucracy: Medicare’s weak defenses against fraud. The government knew how the wheelchair scheme worked in 1998. But it wasn’t until 15 years later that officials finally did enough to significantly curb the practice.

“If you play it right, you can make a lot of money quickly, stealing from Medicare,” said James Quiggle, of the nonprofit Coalition Against Insurance Fraud, recounting the lesson of the past decade and a half."

Fahrenthold reports the scam "first appeared in the mid-1990s in Miami — a city whose mix of elderly people and professional scammers has always made it the DARPA of Medicare fraud, where bad ideas begin" although it quickly spread to other cities. The profit margins were also noteworthy. According to Fahrenthold:

"Let me put it to you this way: An $840 power wheelchair, Medicare pays close to $5,000 for. So there’s a huge profit margin there. Huge,” said one California man who participated in a recent fraud scheme involving wheelchairs."

A graphic of the scam shows "who gained and lost" in a typical transaction. While the patient gained a wheelchair, there was $200 - $900 to the recruiter (aka "capper"), $400 - $1,000 to the doctor. $3,600 to the medical supplier, but Medicare was out $5,000 for each wheelchair.

Here are a few of the more information-rich paragraphs in Mr. Fahrenthold's report:

  • "Medicare used to set its payments for most power wheelchairs based on manufacturers’ suggested retail prices. It did not lower those prices significantly for years, even when it was obvious that wholesale prices were far, far lower. So for scammers, each wheelchair brought a hefty profit."
  • "As early as 1998, Medicare had recognized the existence of the wheelchair scam with a national “fraud alert.” But, to front-line fraud investigators, it was obvious that the crooks were still getting their claims paid."
  • "In 2004, for instance, Medicare started to require that any doctor who prescribed a power wheelchair actually had to see the patient, in person. For the scammers, that was a new obstacle. But not a big one. They just had their corrupt doctors see patients in person.

"Then, in 2007, the government began a legal crackdown. It began a “strike force” of prosecutors, who targeted equipment fraud in problem cities."

Federal efforts have slowed the scam, according to Fahrenthold. Total spending, which reached $964 million in 2003, "fell to $190 million last year," adding:

"Finally, last year the feds went after the Scooter Store.

"That company had become famous for its commercials telling seniors: “Your power chair will be paid in full.” In 2007, the store had already been fined for fraudulent practices, which included billing Medicare for power wheelchairs that patients did not want or need.

"Last year, as part of a new investigation, federal agents with a search warrant raided the Scooter Store headquarters in New Braunfels, Texas. No new criminal charges have been brought. But Medicare was still concerned enough to cut off funding to the Scooter Store.

"It was a death sentence. The business, heavily dependent on federal payments, shut down last fall."

Finally, Fahrenthold's report included the following chart shows how the number of beneficiaries and dollars paid has changed from 1999 to 2013:

Unlike so many news reports about government waste, fraud and abuse, Mr. Fahrenthold's report actually addresses why this scam went on for so long. He writes:

"No one knows how much of that money was actually lost to fraud, and how much of it was caused by innocent errors.

"The power-wheelchair scam provided a painful and expensive example of why Medicare fraud works so often. The fault lay partly with Congress, which designed this system to be fast and generous. And it lay partly with Medicare bureaucrats — who were slow to recognize the threat and use the powers they had to stop it. As a result, scammers took advantage of a system that was overwhelmed by its own claims and lacked the manpower and money to check most of those claims before it paid." (emphasis added)

Kudos to David Fahrenthold for an outstanding report, and kudos to the Washington Post for devoting the resources that were obviously necessary to complete the report.

Check out the pictures in the Post story, too.. The ones in the online version are so much better than those in the print edition. They're sure to reinforce just how ridiculous the scam really was. Fahrentold also provides a lot of the outrageous testimony from the scammers trial.

Taxpayers reading Growls who are upset that Congress seems to approve so many programs that are susceptible to waste, fraud and abuse are urged to contact their members of Congress. Information is available at Thomas (use left-hand column). Readers living in Virginia's Arlington County, should contact:

  • Senator Mark Warner (D) -  write to him or call (202) 224-2023
  • Senator Tim Kaine (D) -- write to him or call (202) 224-4024
  • Representative Jim Moran (D) -- write to him or call (202) 225-4376

August 16, 2014

If You Didn't Attend the Global Warming Skeptics Conference

The libertarian-leaning Heartland Institute, which, according to the Economist magazine, is "the world’s most prominent think tank promoting skepticism about man-made climate change. held the Ninth International Conference on Climate Change (ICCC9) conference in July at the Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas.

If you weren't one of the "650 scientists, economists, policy experts and guests" who attended the three-day conference, Norm Rogers, a volunteer Senior Policy Advisor at Heartland provides a summary of the conference at American Thinker, which has published many of his articles about global warming and green energy. Rogers also blogs at Climate Views.com.

Here is a small excerpt from Rogers' summary article in which he describe two of the more prominent skeptics -- Ron Arnold and Anthony Watts:

"Ron Arnold has a long history as an opponent of environmental extremism and wealthy leftism. His talk on dark money describes how foundations manipulate public opinion. He stitches his research together with psychological theories to explain the motivation of wealthy elites who support extremist environmental movements. The video is here.

"Anthony Watts is a meteorologist. He runs an important website on climate, Watts Up With That. Watts undertook, with help from a cadre of volunteers, the large task of reviewing the siting of weather stations in the U.S. He discovered that many were sited near parking lots, air conditioners and other structures or heat sources that would bias the temperature. After selecting the 10% of stations that are well sited and that meet other criteria, Watts computed that the U.S. rise in average temperature from 1979 to 2009 was probably overstated by 100%. The video is here."

Videos (and PowerPoint presentations, when available) from every presenter are available here so that you can still gain an understanding of why global warming skeptics are indeed skeptical about global warming science. In fact, you can access presentations from prior ICCC's there.

Kudos to the Heartland Institute for their continued global warming skepticism. Their interests are not limited to global warming skepticism, however.

August 15, 2014

Budget Shortfall, but Governor Pushes Health Entitlements

Kathryn Watson of Watchdog.org's Virginia Bureau reported today the "Virginia budget could be $2.4B short as governor pushes health insurance expansion."

Here is how Ms. Watson begins her report:

"Virginia’s bleak financial outlook just got gloomier.

"Gov. Terry McAuliffe told members of the joint House and Senate money committees on Friday that Virginia is projected to rake in $2.4 billion less than it’s budgeted to spend during a three-year period. That’s almost a billion more than the shortfall state officials had projected earlier this year.

"And that means there will be major budget cuts — cuts the Democratic governor said he’ll announce by the end of the year. The state also will dip into its reserves to close the money gap.

"McAuliffe said Virginia needs to back off on its dependence on Washington, D.C., blaming defense cuts to Virginia’s military-heavy Hampton Roads area for much of the downturn.

"Even as he emphasized that cuts need to be made, however, he also made another thing clear — he’s going to find a way to expand health care options for Virginia’s poor, and he’s ready to use the power of his executive office to do so."

According to Watson, Governor McAuliffe (D) expects a plan on his desk by September 1 of how "to expand health care for low-income individuals." However, she writes:

"Republicans thwarted attempts by McAuliffe and other Democrats’ attempts to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act this spring and summer. With a long-time blue seat in the Senate likely to turn red in a special election next week, chances look slim for him to win the battle legislatively."

The theme in last week's eNews, the biweekly newsletter of the Virginia Municipal League (VML), one of Arlington County's two major lobbying arms in Richmond, was similar. They wrote in part:

"The news, however, is even worse. McAuliffe cited the impact of federal budget and military defense cuts that have hit hard in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. The governor told the Advisory Council that the “economy of the past, where we could simply take the economic benefits of federal government activities in our state, is over. We need to discard this entitlement mentality and build an entrepreneurial, innovative and dynamic economy.”

"The state’s Joint Advisory Board of Economists met in June to consider the economic outlooks prepared by the Virginia Department of Taxation. The economists reportedly adopted a pessimistic forecast of low economic growth and revenues for the state, meaning fewer receipts from income and sales taxes.

"In talking about the revenue collapse in May and June, McAuliffe said this “marks the first time that revenues have declined in the Commonwealth outside of a national recession.”

Although the outlook for state revenues has turned gloomy, VML told their clients the bottom line is:

"The bottom line for local governments is that downward revisions to the state revenue forecast will likely have negative budget impacts in this fiscal year. And, as the state struggles to develop a new economic model that depends less on federal spending, localities will have to diligently monitor local revenue collections and state efforts to curtail local taxing authority in 2015."

Meanwhile, an item in the online Arlington Sun Gazette this morning reports (HT Suzanne Sundborg) that "(c)ountywide during the second period, the office-vacancy rate was 20.4 percent, up from 16.4 percent. In Northern Virginia as a whole, it rose from 14.9 percent to 16 percent."

Growls' bottom line from the three data points is that unless the Arlington County Board jumps onto the fiscal bandwagon of its newest member, and starts to set serious and sustainable budget priorities, Arlington County taxpayers should prepare for a another spike in their real estate tax bills.

Arlington County taxpayers who think their local tax burden is already too steep are urged to strongly express their views to the Arlington County Board. You can e-mail the County Board by clicking-on the following link, or call them:

  • Call the Board office at (703) 228-3130

To e-mail Governor Terry McAuliffe, click here.

And tell them ACTA sent you!

August 14, 2014

A Most Inexplicable Political Paradox

In the Washington Examiner today, investigative reporter Luke Rosiak tackles the question of why "Americans revile Congress -- but keep re-electing incumbents over and over," explaining:

"It’s the most inexplicable paradox in politics: Americans revile Congress and its inhabitants, yet are voting the same individuals into office far longer than at any time in the nation’s history.

"In 2012, 147 sitting lawmakers had been in office for two decades, while 53 had served for three decades. It didn’t used to be that way.

"Exactly a century prior, only 26 members had been in office for two decades, and only four had served for three decades, according to a Washington Examiner analysis of congressional elections dating back to the nation’s founding."

Rosiak provides some numbers to show how things have changed in over 130 years: "In 1882, most congressmen had been in office six years or less, and only 10 percent had served for 12 years. Now, most have served for a decade or more, and 10 percent have served for more than a quarter-century."

He also provides two interesting profiles, which document the rise of the career lawmaker:

  • First, he charts how some senators "rarely go home." but others "do it constantly." For example, "Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) rarely makes time to travel back to Nevada and listen to the voters who sent him to Washington . . . Reid's office budget showed only 11 trips in three years, far fewer than any other senator." At the other extreme, there's Senator (D-Delaware), who perhaps for geographical reasons -- "the rail lines running from Union Station, next to the Capitol -- to his state of Delaware make it physically possible" -- "manages to do what Reid cannot, balancing home-state responsibilities with a powerful national position." According to Rosiak, "Travel records show 145 trips back to Delaware in the three-year period."
  • Second, Rosiak shows that "Senators' trips home decline with time in office," thus "boosting claims of term limits advocates." According to Mr. Rosiak:

"Long-serving senators are more out-of-touch with constituents than recently elected lawmakers who return home more often to meet with constituents, according to a Washington Examiner analysis of congressional travel records.

"The analysis appears to confirm what has long been claimed by populists and political cynics: Senators who have served multiple six-year terms tend to “go native,” becoming more focused on the priorities of special-interest groups in Washington than with the worries and concerns of the "folks back home."

"High re-election rates also mean many citizens are served by lawmakers who are well past retirement age yet occupy posts that are extraordinarily physically demanding for those who intend to make every vote and travel home every weekend."

Rosiak concludes his informative analysis saying:

"In the end, like so many things, it may come down to money — in this case the rising cost of campaigning that is virtually always a benefit to incumbents, who run for local office using money raised from national interests, often the industries they regulate via their committee posts.

"Political activity by industries and lobbying have risen as the government has grown and the stakes have become higher, which also makes it harder for citizen legislators to return to the towns they came from and resume life as a doctor, store operator or the like, as they may have in earlier times.

"Instead, members can ride out their own seats as long as they can and then stay in Washington and collect money for lobbying their former colleagues.

“I think there is some truth to the idea of government and ‘government relations’ being more of a profession than it used to be, as the government has grown,” Kondik said."

Luke Rosiak talked about the Washington Examiner series on incumbency this morning on C-SPAN's Washington Journal. The video lasts just over 41 minutes. Click here to watch.

Term limits is just one of a number of proposals made by Mark Levin in his book, The Liberty Amendments. To learn more, listen to this 16-minute discussion between Mark Levin and Glenn Reynolds. Visit the Convention of the States website for more information.

August 13, 2014

Homeland Security IG's Audit of Immigration Detainees

Longtime readers of Growls know of our advocacy for a strong, independent, and fully-staffed internal audit or inspector general function for Arlington County government. The Homeland Security audit discussed below explains why only one Arlington County Board member openly advocates for a strong and independent audit/IG function.

Stephen Dinan reports in today's Washington Times on a recent audit by the Department of Homeland Security's Inspector General (IG). According to Mr. Dinan:

"The administration violated the law when it released thousands of illegal immigrants last February, more than 600 of whom had criminal records, according to an internal audit released Tuesday that blamed the problem on poor planning and bad leadership from Washington.

"Compounding matters, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) gave bad information to Congress about the releases, initially blaming the looming budget sequester rather than the agency’s own budget pressures, the Homeland Security inspector general concluded."

The 48-page IG report is here. A "stoplight" of the report is here.

Dinan continues by writng:

"The new report does exonerate top Homeland Security officials of accusations they had pressured ICE to release the immigrants to create maximum pain from the sequesters as a political tool to end them.

"Instead, investigators said the problems lay at the senior levels of ICE itself, finding that top officials botched planning, didn’t inform their own superiors of the problems and didn’t even know the law required them to hold 34,000 immigrants a day until they were reminded of it by congressional staffers."

He explains the response of DHS/ICE management this way:

"In a response Wednesday, ICE officials said they felt they had no choice at the time both because they were already running over capacity for detention and because they were afraid of how the budget sequesters might affect them.

“Throughout this process, ICE took careful steps to ensure public safety by focusing efforts to reduce the detained population on non-criminal, non-mandatory detention cases and cases involving individuals who posed no serious risk to community safety,” the agency said in a statement."

Homeland Security's IG explains why this audit matters:

"In February and March 2013, media sources reported ICE released hundreds of immigration detainees, including detainees with criminal convictions. The publicized releases occurred the weekend before sequestration went into effect on March 1, 2013, generating speculation that the releases were improperly motivated. Senators Tom A. Coburn, M.D. and John S. McCain requested we review: the circumstances of and reasons for the release of the detainees; the selection criteria and process used; whether ICE accurately applied its selection criteria and processes; and whether ICE received guidance guidance or directives from the Executive Office of the President."

Following is an excerpt from the report's executive summary"

"We determined that the following factors influenced ICE’s decision to release 2,226 immigration detainees between February 9 and March 1, 2013:

  • The Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act (P.L. 113‐6) requires ICE to maintain an average daily population of 34,000 detainees and expects ICE to fund detention at this level. Congressional appropriations cover approximately 31,300 of those beds. ICE secures the remaining funding from fluctuating revenue sources or by transferring funding from other programs. This funding structure leaves ICE with inadequate resources when there is an increase in detainees.
  • From fiscal year 2011 to fiscal year 2012, total apprehensions in the Rio Grande Valley increased from approximately 59,000 to 98,000, or 66 percent. Accordingly, ICE started fiscal year 2013 with an average daily population of 35,610 in its immigration detention facilities.

During fiscal year 2013, ICE faced reductions as a result of being funded through a continuing resolution based on prior years’ funding and the impending sequestration budget cuts. In addition, funding typically used to cover the shortfall—breached immigration bonds and user fees—collected in fiscal year 2013 were lower than ICE’s projection. However, ICE did not develop contingency plans to address the budget shortfall.

  • When ICE’s budgetary shortfall became apparent in January 2013, ICE leadership assumed it would be able to manage the shortfall by reducing the number of detained aliens. ICE’s Chief Financial Officer decided to cover part of the shortfall through a sharp and immediate reduction in detention bed space.
  • Only after House appropriations staff informed ICE’s Chief Financial Officer on January 31, 2013, that maintaining 34,000 average daily population is a statutory requirement did ICE executive leadership realize ICE would need to obtain additional funding to cover the detention budget shortfall.
  • Of the 2,226 budgetary releases reported to Congress, ICE released approximately 1,450 immigration detainees over the weekend of February 23, 2013.

"The execution of the releases was problematic as well. Insufficient ICE executive leadership planning and limited engagement with its Enforcement and Removal Operations field offices contributed to the timing and number of alien releases. Prior to the detainee releases, ICE executive leadership did not communicate effectively with Enforcement and Removal Operations, and did not inform Department of Homeland Security (DHS) leadership or the Executive Office of the President about the budget shortfall. In addition, ICE did not notify DHS’ Secretary about plans to release aliens as a remedy for the budget shortfall.

"Between February 9 and March 1, 2013, Enforcement and Removal Operations field offices released some aliens with criminal convictions whose detention was statutorily required. However, field offices did not release aliens they considered a danger to the community. Given the short timeframe of the releases and the mandate from ICE headquarters to do so, Enforcement and Removal Operations Field Office Directors applied selection criteria and processes appropriately. Enforcement and Removal Operations officers reviewed their own detained alien dockets to determine the best candidates for release. Enforcement and Removal Operations supervisory field officers reviewed each release recommendation."

Although we are normally more concerned with the fiscal aspects of government policy, it's worth pointing out that government also wastes taxpayer's money whenever it carries out government policy in an ineffective or uneconomical manner.

Is it a surprise, then, why a majority of the Arlington County Board manages to put off having a strong internal audit function?

Taxpayers reading Growls who are concerned with immigration policy and how the administration is carrying out its Congressionally-mandated responsibilities on immigration are urged to contact their members of Congress. Information is available at Thomas (use left-hand column). Readers living in Virginia's Arlington County, should contact:

  • Senator Mark Warner (D) -  write to him or call (202) 224-2023
  • Senator Tim Kaine (D) -- write to him or call (202) 224-4024
  • Representative Jim Moran (D) -- write to him or call (202) 225-4376

And tell them ACTA sent you!

August 12, 2014

Both 48th District Candidates Support Streetcar Referendum

In a story today at the online Arlington Sun Gazette, Scott McCaffrey reports that both "candidates affirm they will introduce streetcar-referendum legislation if elected."

Here is an excerpt from Mr. McCaffrey's reporting:

"Its chances for getting through Richmond may be slim at best, but the two candidates for the 48th District House of Delegates special election have affirmed their promises to introduce legislation allowing Arlington residents to vote on the controversial Columbia Pike streetcar.

"In fact, in an Aug. 11 Arlington forum prior to the Aug. 19 special election, both Democrat Richard “Rip” Sullivan Jr. and Republican David Foster said a referendum measure would be the first piece of legislation they would introduce, if elected.

"The comments came at the second, and final, debate between Sullivan and Foster, held at George Mason University’s Arlington campus.

"The pro-streetcar faction on the County Board contends it does not have the authority to hold an advisory referendum on the streetcar or any other topic, although some other Virginia jurisdictions do have that power. Del. Patrick Hope (D-47th) has asked state Attorney General Mark Herring (D) for an advisory opinion on the matter.

"If there is such a prohibition, it could be lifted by the legislature. While the General Assembly would not necessarily require the County Board to authorize a referendum, it could give Arlington leaders the authority to do so.

McCaffrey notes that while "(a) number of prominent Arlington political leaders have expressed support for the concept of a referendum." their support "does not necessarily translate into opposition to the $350 million Columbia Pike streetcar project."

Meanwhile, the Office of Voter Registration provides the following significant information:

  • The recent resignation of Del. Bob Brink (48th) means a Special Election will be held on Tuesday, August 19  for residents of that House of Delegates district only. The voter registration deadline is Aug. 12.
  • The deadline to register to vote for the Nov. 4 election is Tues. Oct. 14.
  • Other information, including sample ballots, information about absentee voting, and where to vote.

As most readers of Growls know, turnout for special elections in Arlington County tends to be low, if not very low. So your vote carries more weight than in a general election. Here are the websites for the two candidates in the August 19 special election:

Arlington County taxpayers who oppose the Columbia Pike streetcar project are urged to strongly express their views to the Arlington County Board. You can e-mail them by clicking-on the link, or call them:

  • Call the Board office at (703) 228-3130

And tell them ACTA sent you!

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Items in Growls are written by individual ACTA members and do not necessarily represent the views of the Arlington County Taxpayers Association, Inc. Please send comments about Growls to The Growl Meister