2017 Veterans Affairs Budget: Breaking Down the Numbers

Politicians from both sides of the political spectrum tend to use budget data in much the same way a magician conjures a rabbit out of a top hat.  Sadly, the Department of Veterans Affairs (the VA”) budget – in the hands of a politician – often becomes an instrument of posturing for voters rather than a management tool to efficiently allocate limited funds and resources to our Veteran population.

In analyzing the 2017 VA Budget, it is useful to analyze a few broad parameters to help pinpoint the “macro” issues.  Certainly, the VA can operate more efficiently, but this assumes that the VA management is committed to insure that Veterans receive the best care possible.

Unfortunately, management efficiency within the VA is beyond the scope of this very preliminary analysis of the 2017 VA budget.

SFTT’s focus is on how well – in “macro” terms – the 2017 VA budget actually benefits Veterans.

Discretionary vs Mandated Spending at the VA

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, “The President’s 2017 Budget includes $182.3 billion for VA in 2017.  This includes $78.7 billion in discretionary resources and $103.6 billion in mandatory funding.  Our (sic the VA) discretionary budget request represents an increase of $3.6 billion, or 4.9 percent, over the 2016 enacted level.”

Department of Veterans Affairs

In effect, discretionary spending at the VA has been spared the axe of many other government programs.  As stated above, discretionary spending at the VA is projected to increase 4.9%.  This analysis will focus only on discretionary spending to determine whether the proposed increase actually benefits Veterans.

Discretionary spending represents only 43% of the total VA budget, while some 57% is allocated toward “mandatory programs” that support Veterans who meet predetermined criteria.   Needless to say, eligibility for Veterans to tap into those “mandatory” programs are largely determined by the VA. Many question the rationale and the process used by VA administrators to determine eligibility and the level of compensation.

Analyzing the Discretionary Spending Increases at the VA

All too often we confuse an “increased budget” with better service or improved end-user outcomes.  In the case of the VA the “end-user” is a Veteran who avails himself or herself of VA services.

To explain this apparent paradox, I cite the following example.  For instance, if the entire 4.9% budget increase is allocated to existing staff, then Veterans will receive NO better service or end-user outcomes UNLESS operating efficiencies occur within the VA.  In effect, you are relying on the VA’s NEW management to perform a better job than their predecessors rather than expecting the increased budget allocation to improve the lives of Veterans.

The same logic could be applied to price increases for drugs, third-party consulting services and other discretionary contractual obligations.

The budget is cleverly designed to avoid breaking out staff salary expenses.  Instead it focuses on programs such as “Benefits Claims Processing,” “Medical Care, and “Information Technology.”  Therefore,  it is rather difficult (if not impossible) to breakout budgeted expenses to obtain a better understanding to the cost-benefit relationships.

What is clear, is that the Department of Veterans Affairs hires well over 350,000 full-time employees and staffing has increased by roughly 10% over the past two years.  The good news is that over 32% of VA staffing are Veterans:

Veterans Affairs Budget

Without getting into the details of the budget, it is difficult to know whether taxpayer dollars are being spent efficiently within the VA.  With an average annual salary of approximately $50,000 (estimated national average), total VA staff expenses should exceed $18 billion.  To this, one needs to tack on an additional 30% (estimated) in staff-related expenses (social security, severance pay, pension plan, unemployment insurance, etc).

Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that roughly one-third of the “discretionary” budget is allocated toward staff.  It would be most interesting to know, how much money is allocated to third-party contractors, consultants and part-time employees.

Fitch reports that on average, “staff expenses” represent 54% of total operating expenses of privately run hospitals.  As such, the “scratch-pad” analysis above suggests that the VA is woefully understaffed (i.e. 1/3 of discretionary expenses) or that staff expenses and outside contractor expenses are much higher as a percentage of total discretionary spending.

The issue is not to question whether these staffing and compensation levels are appropriate, but to determine whether the end-user (i.e. the Veteran) is receiving the full benefit of this budgetary increase.

I suspect not, but it is next to impossible to determine how funds are allocated and whether they are done so efficiently.

While the new administration appears to be sending the “right” message to the VA, the current budget seems rather superficial and I detect little that represents a major change in direction of a huge government entity that seems more interested in defending its turf than representing the interests of all Veterans.

SFTT Military News: Week Ending Mar 17, 2016

Found below are a few military news items that caught my attention this past week. I am hopeful that the titles and short commentary will encourage SFTT readers to click on the embedded links to read more on subjects that may be of interest to them.

If you have subjects of topical interest, please do not hesitate to reach out. Contact SFTT.

Kim - North Korean

Military Action in North Korea on the Table?
The US has said its policy of “strategic patience” with North Korea is over and suggested it might decide to take preemptive military action. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the option was “on the table” if the threat from the North’s weapons programme reached a level requiring it. During a visit to South Korea, he also said the US was exploring a range of new diplomatic and economic measures. And he defended the deployment of a US missile system in South Korea. The move has angered China, but South Korea and the US say the system is needed as a defence against North Korean aggression.  Read more  . . .

Energy Efficiency Now a Military Priority
The US military sees climate change as a national security threat. So, it’s finding ways to adapt to global warming, to make the armed forces stronger and more flexible.  The US military burns over 1.25 billion gallons of fuel a year, and the Department of Defense is the country’s single largest consumer of fossil fuels, according to Goudreau. “When you talk climate issues, you can talk mitigation or adaptation. Every single gallon of fuel that we burn is carbon going into the atmosphere,” he says.   Read more . . .

Big Increase Proposed in Military Spending
As US president Donald Trump was proposing a $54 billion defense spending hike on March 16, something rather different was happening in Russia. With its economy sputtering, there are reports that it could slash its military budget by 25%. The actual figure is actually more likely to be around 5%, explains Mark Galeotti, a Russian security expert at the Institute of International Relations in Prague. And it comes after several years of rapid growth in Russia’s defense spending. But that still reveals a stark discrepancy. Trump wants to bolster America’s military with an amount not far short of Russia’s entire 2016 defense budget of $65.8 billion (3.8 trillion rubles).  Read more . . .

1,000 Ground Troops to Syria?
The U.S. military has drawn up early plans that would deploy up to 1,000 more troops into northern Syria in the coming weeks, expanding the American presence in the country ahead of the offensive on the Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa, according to U.S. defense officials familiar with the matter. The deployment, if approved by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and President Trump, would potentially double the number of U.S. forces in Syria and increase the potential for direct U.S. combat involvement in a conflict that has been characterized by confusion and competing priorities among disparate forces.   Read more . . .

Dr. David Shulkin, VA Secretary

VA Budget to Grow by 6%
The Department of Veterans Affairs, the second-largest federal agency with 313,000 civilian employees and a far-flung hospital system, is one of the few corners of the government that would see its budget grow in the next fiscal year — by 6 percent. During his campaign, President Trump promised dramatic reforms at an agency he said was filled with a culture of “fraud, coverups and wrongdoing” after a 2014 scandal over coverups of patient wait times for medical care. His first spending plan would boost VA’s budget by $4.4 billion, to $78.9 billion, with much of the new money dedicated “to improve patient access and timeliness of medical care” for the more than 9 million veterans who use the system.  Read more . . .

South Carolina Discussion on Veterans with PTSD Stereotypes
There are many stereotypes surrounding veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Many of them are negative and paint those living with PTSD as violent. However, the Student Veteran Association at the University of South Carolina is aiming to change that perception. “PTSD, it is the normal reaction of human beings who experience extraordinary events,” says Dr. Nancy Brown with the College of Social Work at USC. On Wednesday night, six panelist, with different military backgrounds, all living with PTSD in their own way are hoping to educate and knock down perceptions.  Read more . . .

Drop me an email at info@sftt.org if you believe that there are other subjects that are newsworthy.

Feel you should do more to help our brave men and women who wear the uniform or our Veterans? Consider donating to Stand For The Troops

Cyberwarfare, Spying and All That Jazz: Please Take a Few Precautions

While the press is currently having a field day reporting that “gentlemen” actually spy on each other, it would be useful for readers of SFTT to take a few precautions to protect themselves in this era of unscrupulous hackers and BIG BROTHER.

cyber warfare

Short of going completely “off the grid” – i.e. no email, no social media accounts, no credit cards, no personal data stored online by ANY third party – it is virtually impossible to guarantee that your anonymity will withstand the efforts of a determined hacker or even a casual network intrusion.

Furthermore, even if you taken every step possible to insulate yourself from hacking, a massive cyberattack on the country’s infrastructure system (i.e. power grid, telecommunications, air traffic controller, etc.) could cause great personal and collective harm.   See more below on “Distributed Denial of Service” or DdoS.

Suggestions to Protect Yourself in the Information Age

As suggested above, there is little you can to do to fully protect yourself against determined “bad guys” or State intelligence operatives.   Nevertheless, you can take a few simple steps to help reduce your cyber-profile without compromising your lifestyle too much:

- Scrap your AOL and Yahoo email services for Google.  Regardless of who your service provider is, Google has far more FREE security surveillance features to protect your personal online accounts from hacking;

- Delete any unnecessary social media accounts (i.e. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.);

- Change your password every six months or so and definitely use at least one symbol (?,$,!) and Capital Letter in your password  (1234 is not a password);

- Use Two-Step Security verification to reduce the chance of unauthorized changes to your account(s).

- Do not share your password(s) with others, including your family.  It is not a matter of trust, but your security procedures may be far better than those of your friends or family;

- If you are into chat, photo-sharing, etc. avoid using multiple platforms to simplify your life (for instance, use Google Chat rather than Facebook messaging or What’s App);

- ALWAYS update your accounts with the latest UPDATE from your provider, most updates contain very important security enhancements;

- Cancel as many credit cards and online accounts as conveniently possible;

- Regardless of its convenience, consider ending electronic banking and insist on paper statements;

- Can you live without a cell phone?

Sure, many of these suggestions can be a huge inconvenience, but are you willing to compromise your personal security to make life easier for others?

Distributed Denial of Service or “DdoS”

Last year, cyberattacks temporarily shut down Twitter, Netflix, PayPal and others may be just the beginning of disruptive communications warfare.

While these cyberattacks appear to have orchestrated by a rogue band of hackers who call themselves the “New World Hackers,” it portends an ominous future for cybersecurity.

The “attack” called distributed denial-of-service or Ddos causes tens of thousands of mobile devices to simultaneously query server databases that cannot handle the volume of requests and simply shutdown.  Read more by clicking the link below:

http://time.com/4541790/cyberattack-internet-hackers-cameras-toys/

This cyberattack came on the heels of “leaked” emails from high-ranking members in the Democratic National Party by Wikileaks that may have been provided by Russian government intelligence sources.

Actually, recent information suggests that shared passwords could have been the original source of the DNC leaks according to Luke Rosiak of the Daily Caller:

Imran Awan — the lead suspect in a criminal probe into breaches of House of Representatives information security systems — possessed the password to an iPad used by then-Democratic National Committee Chairperson Debbie Wasserman Schultz when DNC emails were given to WikiLeaks, The Daily Caller News Foundation Investigative Group has learned.

The Department of Homeland Security and U.S. intelligence officials have long feared these attacks and have presumably instituted safeguards and countermeasures to prevent such occurrences.  

DoD Network, Systems and Data or DDNSD

In 2013, the Department of Defense established detailed guidelines to protect the country’s cyber networks.  A hyperlink to the recently updated unclassified version is shown below:

http://iac.dtic.mil/csiac/download/DDNSD_Public_Releasable_11132014.pdf

While our network security has improved dramatically since 9/11, hackers (state-sponsored and independent) continue to breach our security system with increasing regularity.  It is impossible to know how the “defection” of Edward Snowden compromised our security, but most security experts claim that the damage was considerable.  See below . . .

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-23123964

Also the recent “leak” of current CIA electronic surveillance methods certainly doesn’t engender much confidence that we can insulate ourselves from determined cyberattacks.  Question:  If this is the “intelligence information” that is currently publically available, then what should we think about more clandestine intelligent programs that may have already been hacked by hostile State intelligence services?

In Summary

Many years ago (2003-2004),  I attended a lecture on internet security by a security specialist who was then consulting with Homeland Security.  He showed a frightening real time analysis of hacking attempts against Windows-based peripherals, particularly printers.    If fact, I watched this internet security consultant break into the Club Membership database where the event was hosted in less than 30 seconds.

It seems that the New World Hackers were able to orchestrate their assault on vulnerable servers using cellphones and other internet-enabled peripherals.  If this is the case, virtually all systems are vulnerable.   Recent disclosures by Wikileaks on CIA surveillance tools clearly suggest that this is already happening.  

As Hillary Clinton’s “private server” and the DNC hack have shown, we don’t take security-measures seriously.  Unless we wise up, more pain and suffering will be coming shortly.

While you may not be able to control the full spectrum of an electronic invasion of our privacy, do take a few of the steps recommended above to better safeguard your well being.  Lowering your cyber-profile is a good thing!

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