VA’s Medical Research Failures Continue to Grow

A new example of VA’s failures on medical research — an often overlooked area where VA remains badly broken — has emerged near Fort Hood.

An Austin, Texas newspaper reports that a $3.8 million mobile MRI machine, widely touted by VA at the time of its 2008 inauguration, has been sitting empty and unused.  While VA announced in 2008 in detail the life changing brain research it was going to conduct using the equipment, VA never conducted that research and the equipment sits empty.   (“Lost Opportunity: With wars winding down, VA’s brain research failed to launch,” Austin Austin American Statesman-Staff, Sep. 7, 2014, Jeremy Schwartz reporting).

Among VA’s known, systemic medical research failures:

  • Cooking the books on medical research.  In March 2013, top VA epidemiologist-turned-whistleblower Dr. Stephen Coughlin testified to Congress about concerted efforts in the VA’s Office of Public Health to deliberately cover-up research findings that might show connections between military deployment and health risks.  Just like there were real consequences of VA’s cooking the books in the healthcare access scandal rippling outwards nationwide from the Phoenix VA medical center, veterans who were found by VA during some VA medical research to be suicidal were never aided and ultimately did commit suicide.  Coughlin’s array of assertions were found to be valid.
  • Denying scientific truth.  Over the past decade, the mainstream media has covered a myriad of stories on how VA research and benefits officials have downplayed, fought against, and outright denied the consensus findings by the penultimate National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine and the VA’s own Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses that Gulf War Illness is a real,  debilitating, and enduring medical condition, that it is not psychiatric or psychological in nature, that it was likely caused by environmental exposures, that it afflicts roughly one-third of the veterans of the 1991 Gulf War, and that treatments can likely be found.
  • No Confidence.  After more than two decades and hundreds of millions of dollars expended, the VA’s own Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses blasted VA research officials with a unanimous finding of “no confidence in the ability or demonstrated intention of VA staff to formulate and execute an effective VA Gulf War illness research program,” and a, “failure to acknowledge that the central health problem of this war even exists.”  
  • Retaliation.  True to form in retaliation against VA whistleblowers and those who speak up and out about problems in VA, VA’s leaders swiftly moved against the Gulf War Illness panel, gutting its leadership, membership, charter, and independence.
  • Making medical decisions for budgetary reasons.  In April 2014, widely reviled VA Undersecretary of Benefits Allison Hickey was revealed in a Military Times expose to have secretly weighed in with the Institute of Medicine in an effort to quash the IOM’s broad recommendation to the world’s medical community of calling “Gulf War Illness” by that name.  Her apparent goal was to prevent VA from being burdened with more disability claims from veterans suffering from Gulf War Illness, a covert roll-back of existing federal benefits law.
  • “Lost” database.  VA acknowledged that a critical research registry database containing medical data on hundreds of spouses and children of 1991 Gulf War veterans has been irretreivably “lost”.
  • Footdragging.  VA officials dragged their feet for years in implementing a registry of veterans with potential lung and other effects resulting from exposure to massive overseas burn pits.  There is no announced research related to veterans on the registry that might help provide a pathway to treatments and improving ill veterans’ health and lives.
  • Inability to Lead Research to Targeted Outcomes.  An array of important veteran-related medical research aimed at targeted outcomes has had to be directed by Congress to be conducted more effectively outside VA, from prosthetic limbs development by the Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to research on traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in DoD’s Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program.

From foot-dragging to outright attempting to roll back the clock on Gulf War Illness research, VA’s systemic medical research issues remain largely on the back burner of Congressional, media, and public attention — if they are being addressed at all.

Read the full Austin article here:

http://projects.statesman.com/news/va-center-of-excellence/

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Ill Gulf War Veterans Protest VA Failures on Gulf War Illness

The following article appears courtesy of 91outcomes.com.  It is reprinted in full with the permission of 91outcomes.

 (91outcomes.com) – In VA medical centers across the country, Gulf War veterans suffering from Gulf War Illness are speaking up and out.   

Faced by VA’s failure to try to find effective treatments and further afflicted by VA’s expanded efforts  to deny their disability claims, ill veterans of the 1991 Gulf War are facing a new wave of denial by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

In various corners of the country the media is also paying attention.

In Missouri, the Columbia Daily published a feature article that included Gulf War veteran Marsha Young’s poor treatment by VA.   “We may have missed the boat with your group back in the ’90s,”  Truman Memorial VA Medical Center Chief of Staff Lana Zerrer told her.  

And in Central Florida, The Tampa Tribune’s Highlands Today published an extended article detailing the experiences of ill Gulf War veterans Larry Roberts and Randy Livingstone.

As VA continues its series of public Town Hall meetings at every VA medical centers across the country, VA leaders will continue to hear from ill Gulf War veterans who continue to suffer, not just from their debilitating Gulf War Illness, but more tragically from VA’s continuing failure to cook the books on Gulf War research and failure to try to develop effective treatments to help improve their health and lives.

Read the latest full articles here:

http://highlandstoday.com/hi/local-news/local-veteran-fights-for-gulf-war-illness-help-20140905/

http://www.columbiatribune.com/news/local/veterans-voice-concerns-compliments-at-truman-town-hall/article_6b60ca5f-a6a7-5f98-9b71-fd5f6ca1bd44.html






 

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Chairman Miller Responds to OIG Report, What’s Still Needed

The following statements were released by the office of Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL-01), Chairman of the U.S House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

On August 7, a statement by Rep. Miller on the signing into law of the VA Reform Bill included this sage insight and advice:

VA’s problems festered because administration officials ignored or denied the department’s challenges at every turn. In order to prevent history from repeating itself, President Obama must become personally involved in solving VA’s many problems.”

*****

Miller Statement on VA OIG Review of Phoenix VA Health Care System

WASHINGTON – Aug. 26, 2014 — Following the release of the VA Inspector General’s review of the Phoenix VA Health Care System, Chairman Jeff Miller released the below statement.

“The inspector general’s report paints a very disturbing picture. Delays in care that VA officials tried to hide caused harm to veterans. Even though the IG says it can’t conclusively assert that deaths were caused by VA negligence, the report does link 20 deaths to substandard care.

Almost as troubling as the report itself is the fact that VA officials sought to downplay it by selectively leaking portions of the department’s response to the review prior to its release. The VA scandal was caused by bureaucrats who chose to whitewash or conceal the department’s problems.

The fact that some department officials are still engaging in similar practices underscores the dire need for real accountability throughout the organization. So far, despite repeated requests from our committee, we have seen no evidence that the corrupt bureaucrats who created the VA scandal will be purged from the department’s payroll anytime soon. Until that happens, VA will never be fixed.” –

-Rep. Jeff Miller, Chairman, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs

***

Miller Statement on President Obama’s Speech to American Legion National Convention

WASHINGTON – Aug. 26, 2014 — After President Obama’s speech to the American Legion National convention, Chairman Jeff Miller released the following statement.

“President Obama’s actions today fall far short of what’s needed to regain the trust of America’s veterans. VA’s problems festered because administration officials ignored or denied the department’s challenges at every turn.

In fact, I wrote to the president more than a year ago about a string of serious VA health care problems, lapses in employee integrity and failures in accountability, but the president didn’t bother to respond. Instead, I received a boilerplate letter from then-Sec. Eric Shinseki that assured me everything was OK at the department – an assertion that couldn’t have been further from the truth.

Additionally, White House claims that VA is improving when it comes to accountability, transparency and protecting whistleblowers don’t add up, especially when no one has been fired as a result of the VA scandal, the department is still sitting on 113 outstanding information requests from the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and VA whistleblowers who tried to expose problems are still enduring retaliation.

What we need from the president right now is more follow-through and less flash when it comes to helping veterans. A good place for him to start would be to meet with family members and veterans who have been struck by the VA scandal, order the department to cooperate with the congressional committees investigating VA, and force DoD and VA to work together to establish a joint electronic health record integrated across all DoD and VA components.”

– Rep. Jeff Miller, Chairman, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs

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VA Cooking the Books on Suicide Data, too

Over the course of this year, systemic failures at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) have become known to the public, including VA cooking the books on veterans’ healthcare, disability claims, and medical research.

A new investigative report by USA Today sheds light on VA cooking the books on yet another area under its vast military veteran purview — veteran suicides.  ["VA touts progress on suicides; data tell another story," Aug. 25, 2014, Dennis Wagner reporting]

A widely touted statistic related to veteran suicides — that there are an average of 22 a day — now appears to be not only horrific, but vastly underestimated, according to the USA Today investigation.

“Craig Northacker of Vets-Help.org said death records do not capture the real tally of veterans’ suicides, which he estimates at 30 to 35 daily.

[VA deputy director for suicide prevention Caitlin] Thompson acknowledged the data dilemma: “Numbers of suicides are just very, very difficult to get, period.” ”

USA Today also showed how slow real change is to come to VA.  Seven years ago, VA’s top mental health officer, Dr. Ira Katz, was exposed in a media scandal of covering up the true impact of the veteran suicide crisis.  According to USA Today, Katz sought to minimize the crisis in secret internal emails marked so they would not be released to the media, which they were eventually anyways:

” “Shh!” Katz wrote in one message. “Our suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1,000 suicide attempts per month among veterans we see in our medical facilities.” “

This renewed public exposure revives a longstanding issue:  Why is Ira Katz still at VA in the same position of responsibility over veteran suicides?

The USA Today story includes a bulleted list of veteran suicides following VA failure — statistics and anecdotes not reported by VA anywhere.

These tragic statistics and anecdotes mirror the findings in a 2007 Veterans for Common Sense lawsuit filed against VA that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and definitively showed that veterans were committing suicide awaiting VA care and benefits decisions.  [Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth and Justice v. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs].

Veterans and the public await justice and the long-overdue removal of Ira Katz and others like him from the federal agency entrusted with the care of our nation’s veterans, their widows, and their orphans.  in the meantime, the public’s recognition continues to grow regarding how wide the extent is of VA officials cooking the books over many years:  veterans’ VA healthcare, veterans’ VA benefits claims, veteran-related VA medical research, and the latest…  VA’s monitoring, tracking, reporting, and preventing veteran suicides.

***
Read the full USA Today story here:

http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/08/25/vets-suicides-data/14554371/

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M. ZACCHEA: The Canary in the Coal Mine for Veterans’ Disability Compensation

Michael Zacchea, Lt. Col. (Ret.), USMC, is a veteran of U.S. operations in Somalia, Haiti, and the Iraq War, and a member of the Veterans for Common Sense Board of Directors.  

*****

The Canary in the Coal Mine for Veterans’ Disability Compensation

By Michael Zacchea

On August 7th, 2014, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a report entitled, “Veterans’ Disability Compensation: Trends and Policy Options.

The Ranking Member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee (HVAC), Rep Mike Michaud (D-ME) requested the report. The purpose of the report is to develop proposals to reduce payments for disability compensation for veterans, in response to “budgetary pressures.” The report itself is incomplete — amazingly, absent from the CBO report’s proposals is “Don’t enter into long-term wars of aggression under false pretenses” – that is the first way to reduce disability compensation payments. Curiously, the CBO does not offer as a way to pay for the disability compensation of disabled veterans by repealing the Bush tax cuts of 2001, and 2003, which cost the country more than $2.2 trillion in tax revenues from the wealthiest people in the country. In truth, there are no budgetary pressures; there are only political pressures from constituents who don’t want to pay for the sacrifices of veterans who fought for their freedom and to defend the Constitution.

The report begins with a summary of how veterans disability benefits payments have changed since 2000. To wit, the report mentions that the number of veterans receiving disability benefits from the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) has increased from $2.3 million to $3.5 million, while disability compensation payments have increased from $20 billion per year in 2000 to $57 billion per year in 2013. Although the report recognizes that our nation has been at war in two countries for more than a decade, the report fails to correlate the increase in disability benefits to the actual increase in veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan accessing the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) system for health care, and applying for disability benefits; or to the severity of disabling conditions those veterans with which those veterans are returning.

The non-partisan veterans advocacy group Veterans for Common Sense did a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the quarter ended on March 31st, 2014. As of that date, more than 2.6 million Americans had served in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2001. More than 2 million are in the VA system, and more than 1 million have sought healthcare through the VA. Of the more than 1 million veterans seeking healthcare, more than 969,000 have filed claims, more than 890,000 claims have been adjudicated, more than 875,000 have a service-connected disability, and finally, more than 816,000 are receiving disability benefit compensation.

A casual back-of-the-envelope calculation will show that the VBA has increased its rolls by 1.2 million. A second casual back-of-the-envelope calculation will show that nearly 75% of the increase of veterans receiving disability benefits are veterans of the so-called Global War on Terror. The VA has a demographic projection that the veteran population in the US will decline by 33% by 2040 to 15 million from a current 22 million total. This is an important consideration when the CBO proposes implementing a “statute of limitations” on submitting a disability claim, or implementing a lifetime cap on disability compensation.

This report comes at a most inauspicious time. In the very recent past, Secretary of the VA, General Eric Shinseki was forced to resign over the ongoing scandal that has engulfed the agency. Indeed, this recent article at the National Journal “The VA Scandal Just Keeps Spreading,” shows that the scandal is systemic, that more than 100,000 veterans have been systemically denied access to healthcare without due process in violation of their constitutional rights per the 9th Circuit Court decision, and veterans are dying while waiting for healthcare.

The optics of this report are terrible. In February 2014, Republicans in the Senate filibustered the Veterans Omnibus Bill, effectively killing it, despite the bill being endorsed by 20 major veterans organizations. The bill would have cost $21 billion over 10 years, and provided for infrastructure improvements, opening new Vet Centers, and hiring healthcare professionals and staff. In attempting to justify their “no” votes, Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee said “That is more money we were going to spend that we haven’t spent, that we never had because we were borrowing it.”

Then the scandal broke in the spring, and the politicians scrambled to do something. They resurrected the Veterans Omnibus Bill, renamed it the Sanders-McCain Veterans Bill, and passed it in June. Three Republican senators voted against, it, Sen. Bob Corkey (R-TN), Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL). Sen. Sessions (R-AL) put the cost-benefit analysis explicitly,“I feel strongly we’ve got to do the right thing for our veterans. But I don’t think we should create a blank check, an unlimited entitlement program.” The bill was passed by the HVAC and the House – their last vote prior to the August recess – and signed into law by President Obama on Aug 7th – interestingly, the same day the CBO report was released.

Virtually at the same time, the Iraqi Army has collapsed in the face of the onslaught by the terrorist organization ISIS, and an Afghan soldier murdered the US Army Major General who was responsible for the training of Afghan security forces. Former President George W. Bush stated his gambit for winning the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: “And that is why we are on the offense. And as we pursue the terrorists, our military is helping to train Iraqi security forces so that they can defend their people and fight the enemy on their own. Our strategy can be summed up this way: as the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down.”

These events may appear to be unconnected, but to the contrary, they are profoundly connected. This series of events is a twin scandal and crisis. First, our country’s leadership manifests a failure of political will to win wars. Our elected politicians have essentially come up with a way to “outsource” winning wars to third country labor, similar to corporations that outsource manufacturing to lowest-cost labor countries; this is politically palatable to the electorate and creates political capital for the politician to be re-elected as a “wartime” politician. At the same time, no one has questioned the risk involved in trusting our nation’s geopolitical strategic interests with non-American troops whose motivations and interests are very very different from our own. In short, trusting third-country troops to fight and win our wars is a recipe not just for losing, but for disaster. It was a failure in Vietnam, it is a failure in Iraq, and it is failing in Afghanistan.

Secondly, and at the same time, those same politicians now express a failure to live up to President Lincoln’s words in his second inaugural address, which have since become the VA’s motto. to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.”

Without the Bush doctrine, there would be no Iraq war, and there would be no strategy ‘as they stand up, we will stand down.” Had the American electorate been told the truth about these wars, hundreds of thousands of Americans and American families would not now be living with the long-term health effects of disabilities incurred as a result of service in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Iraq war has been estimated to cost $3 trillion dollars (this just happens to be the same amount the Bush tax cuts cost us) by the Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and Professor Linda Bilmes, largely regarded as one of the leading experts on U.S. budgeting and public finance.  If the VA is fully funded every year, for the next fifty years, the cost for caring for the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan will be $1 trillion a decade for the next five decades. To add insult to injury, recent reports from the University of Minnesota and from Feeding America show that 28% of veterans and military families now rely on food assistance programs; at the same time, the HVAC is asking for — and the CBO is offering — policy proposals to reduce disability compensation payments.

Put it all together, and our nation is in real trouble. Our politicians no longer have the political courage to win wars, no longer have the will to pay for the care of veterans of our wars, and have inoculated the rest of the country from the true cost of war. Outsourcing wars, training foreign armies to fight our wars, refusing to pay the healthcare and disability costs of the veterans of those wars, shielding the 99 percent of civilian population from the costs of war for political efficacy is a recipe for disaster. It is a recipe for empire. It is a recipe for perpetual war.

The CBO report is the canary in the coal mine. They are looking for ways to reduce the costs of caring for veterans with disabilities who served in the longest wars our nation has fought, in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the military downsizes through 2020, and more than one million veterans leave active service by the end of the decade, the politicians will continue to try to find ways to, “respond to budgetary pressures,” by taking out those pressures on the less than one percent of Americans — fewer than 3 million total — who served and sacrificed for more than 310 million American citizens. Politicians have come up with a way to outsource wars and build political capital with the American electorate, and effectively inoculate the American taxpayer from the true costs of the war. As well, this toxic combination combines to create a disincentive for Americans to take the oath of service. There is no upside if our nation’s politicians consider veterans usable assets, and once the veteran is no longer military useful, veterans are on their own for any disabilities that they may suffer in combat.

All Americans should agree that it is morally wrong and a betrayal of the social and legal obligation that the nation has to its veterans, to respond to “budgetary pressures” on the backs of the less than one percent of Americans who have served and sacrificed in defense of the Constitution. George Washington wrote in 1781 to the first governor of Connecticut, Jonathan Trumbull, “Permit me Sir to add, that Policy alone in our Present Circumstances, seem to demand that every Satisfaction which can reasonably be requested, should be given to those Veteran Troops who, ‘thro almost every Distress, have been so long and so faithfully serving the States . . .”

That intent remains as fresh and immediate today, in light of the present VA scandal and the explicitly stated unwillingness to pay for veterans disability benefits, as when it was written. Service in defense of the Constitution is special. Veterans are truly the best and brightest our nation has to offer in its defense. There is no such thing as budgetary pressure, only what our nation is willing to pay for, and what it’s not willing to pay for. If our nation is not willing to pay for veterans, this two-centuries-old experiment in democracy will not last.

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Military Times: Military Officer Discharged for Reporting Burn Pit, Other Enviro Hazards

An investigative article published this week by the Military Times publication group describes a U.S. Navy officer who was discharged for reporting hazards to U.S. troop health from burn pits and contaminated water.

According to the August 19, 2014 article, (“Ex-officer says she was discharged for reporting burn-pit danger,” Patricia Kime reporting):

Former Lt. Cmdr. Celeste Santana, an environmental health expert, said in documents filed Aug. 1 in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims that she was relieved from duty at the base in 2009 in retaliation for reporting “serious environmental health issues” affecting the safety of U.S. troops and local Afghans.

According to Santana, troops showered and washed their hands and food in bacteria-laden water and were exposed to chemicals in bottled water stored at high temperatures. Their health also was endangered by the proximity of their quarters and offices to burn pits where “several tons of toxic material was burned daily.”

Santana said when she tried to warn senior officers of the issues, she was instructed to stop taking samples and “stand down” for “exhaustion.” She later was relieved of her duties for “loss of confidence” and sent home, but not before she reported a sexual assault she believes was in retaliation for reporting health and safety issues outside her chain of command.

Read the full article here:

http://www.militarytimes.com/article/20140819/NEWS/308190063/Ex-officer-says-she-discharged-reporting-burn-pit-danger

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Tampa Bay Times: VA Mislead Congress, Public on Veteran Deaths

During the ongoing investigation into the growing scandal of VA cooking the books on veterans’ healthcare access, disability claims denials, and medical research coverups, a new trend has emerged:  VA officials at every level lying to Congress, the media, and the public.

Such is the case in a story reported this week by the Tampa Bay Times (“VA Numbers on Treatment Delays were Misleading“, Aug. 1, 2014, William Levesque reporting).

According to the investigative report, the VA, “told Congress and the public in April [in a fact sheet] that the agency reviewed 250 million medical consultations, dating back to 1999, and found 76 veterans seriously harmed by treatment delays for gastrointestinal cancers. Of them, 23 died.”

However, the Tampa Bay Times investigation found that all of these cases were in fact in 2010 and 2011, not dating back to 1999, and data from 1999 to 2009, and 2012 to the present, have not yet been released, and VA officials tried desperately to stonewall the media investigating this matter.

According to the TBT article:

“They tried to misdirect Congress and the American people away from the facts,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Pensacola, the committee’s chairman. “I think they got caught and now they are trying to modify their story. . . . The misdirection was, in fact, designed in Washington.”

….

The VA is embroiled in what might be the worst scandal in its history, with disclosures that hospitals across the nation engaged in rampant “gaming strategies” that hid delays in treating veterans and that some facilities tried to hide patient deaths.

Allegations have also been reported that the VA engaged in widespread whistleblower retaliation.

The Tampa Bay Times, based in St. Petersburg, Fla., is one of Florida’s largest print newspapers.  St. Petersburg is also home to the Bay Pines VA Medical Center and Florida’s VA Regional Office, also located at Bay Pines.  The Bay Pines VAMC had the 13th worst wait times in the entire United States, according to data in a recent VA Inspector General investigative report.

Read the full Tampa Bay Times article here:  http://www.tampabay.com/news/military/veterans/va-stats-on-consultation-delays-dont-reach-as-far-back-as-implied/2191157

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VCS Among 35 Organizations Calling for Stronger U.S. Humanitarian Engagement in Iraq

August 4, 2014 (Washington, DC) – This week 35 nationally respected organization, including Veterans for Common Sense, joined together in a call for a robust U.S. response to the growing humanitarian and human rights crisis in Iraq.

At least 8,060 civilians have been killed in Iraq this year and another 13,598 civilians have been wounded according to UN reports and medical sources. The escalating violence has forced more than 1.2 million Iraqis to flee their homes, adding to the 2 million Iraqis who remain displaced within Iraq from previous years of violence.

Addressed to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and other senior members of the Obama administration, the joint NGO letter calls for a greater U.S. commitment to assist and protect vulnerable populations and to further Iraq’s long term development while addressing the root causes of the conflict.

Along with EPIC, which led the effort, signatory parties include Mercy Corps, International Rescue Committee, Save the Children, Amnesty International USA, Human Rights Watch, National Council of Churches USA, the Presbyterian Church USA, and Veterans for Common Sense. (See below for the full text of the letter and list of signatory organizations. The letter is also available here as a PDF.

“The crisis in Iraq intensified in January with little attention from the United States. To date the trend has continued with an underwhelming U.S. humanitarian response,” EPIC director Erik Gustafson continued, “It is time for the U.S. to deliver more effectively on its commitment to assist and protect vulnerable Iraqis, to help other vulnerable populations in Iraq, and to do more to address the root causes of the conflict.”

About EPIC: Founded in 1998 by U.S. veterans of the 1991 Gulf War, EPIC is a 501(c)3 charitable organization dedicated to the advancement of Iraq’s peace and development. In Washington DC, EPIC leads lifesaving advocacy on Iraq, supporting the NGO community as chair of the Iraq Crisis NGO Working Group (Iraq-CWG). On the ground in Iraq, EPIC is supporting the educational needs and aspirations of Iraqi youth and Syrian refugee children through TentEd and PhotoVoice Iraq.

LETTER to SECRETARY OF STATE KERRY and FULL LIST of SIGNATORY ORGANIZATIONS:

July 30, 2014
The Honorable John F. Kerry
U.S. Department of State
Washington, DC 20520

Dear Secretary Kerry:

We, the undersigned organizations, are writing to express our grave concerns about the deepening human rights and humanitarian crisis in Iraq. Together, we call for a stronger response from the United States, including a clear, long-term strategy for addressing what could become a protracted situation.

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), an estimated 1.2 million people have been displaced by fighting in western and northern Iraq this year. Seeking safety in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) and other areas across the country, this new wave of internally displaced people compounds the challenge of assisting more than a million Iraqis who remain displaced from previous years of violence and other vulnerable populations including 212,000 registered Syrian refugees in Iraq. Also contributing to the crisis are reports of targeted killings and other abuses by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and other armed groups, reports of human rights violations by the Iraqi Security Forces and associated groups, and reports of some IDPs being prevented from reaching safer areas, including cases of discrimination against certain minority groups.

The Government of Iraq (GOI) has an obligation to do all that it can to support displaced and vulnerable populations within its borders and resolve issues that impede or prevent the delivery of that assistance. The U.S. can play an influential role in pressing the GOI to live up to that obligation in the near-term, including support for Iraqi civil society organizations that reach underserved areas and encouraging better cooperation with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), while helping the GOI develop more capable, publicly accountable institutions over time. As one United Nations official put it: “The situation is reaching a critical point. As bad as Syria is, the crisis here is growing by day and exceeding the capabilities of the government. Effectively there is no centralized government over all of Iraq now, and in past years, they were already relatively weak (‘A Reignited War Drives Iraqis From Their Homes in Huge Numbers,’ The New York Times, June 29, 2014.)”

Displaced Iraqis—who have primarily sought refuge in the KRI, but are found in locations across the country—face a number of acute needs which are compounded by the extreme heat during the summer months and fuel shortages. With many of the IDPs living in schools, mosques, monasteries, abandoned buildings and other precarious dwellings, the need for safe shelter options is paramount. Cash assistance for basic necessities is also critical as the resources that families fled with dwindle. Furthermore, in the KRI, there is an urgent need to mitigate the impact that large numbers of displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees are having on host communities, public services, and government structures. Baghdad’s withholding of government salaries and resources related to its ongoing dispute between the KRG has only made the situation worse.

In recent weeks, there have been some positive developments. UN OCHA is officially taking the lead in coordinating actors on the ground. Thanks to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s unprecedented $500 million contribution, the United Nation’s $312 million Strategic Response Plan (SRP) is over-funded. According to UN officials, the funds will be shared by the UNHCR and other UN agencies to assist and protect IDPs inside Iraq, and must be spent by the end of winter. While these developments are welcome, the U.S. and other humanitarian donors remain essential to monitor and respond to assistance gaps and protection challenges, such as helping vulnerable populations in hard-to-reach areas, and to formulate a clear, long-term strategy for Iraq’s peace and development.

Recognizing these challenges and opportunities, we are writing to urge you and the U.S. administration to undertake the necessary diplomatic and assistance efforts to respond to the scale, suffering, and dangers represented by this growing crisis.

In particular, we recommend a stronger long-term U.S. response that includes:

* A scale-up of immediate, direct humanitarian engagement in Iraq, including the KRI, to ensure that the U.S. government play a much greater role in addressing the urgent humanitarian and protection needs of vulnerable Iraqis, including those displaced by the escalation in hostilities in Anbar and northwestern Iraq.

* Ongoing consultations with key stakeholders and monitoring implementation of the UN’s SRP to identify assistance gaps and protection challenges – including delays and problems with access – and ensuring appropriate bi-lateral efforts to address those unmet needs.

* A comprehensive approach to assist Iraqis displaced during different waves of violence, including in Anbar earlier in this year and those who have remained displaced since the war.

* Support to help families and communities hosting displaced people in the KRI.

* Encouragement of the KRG to allow all Iraqis fleeing violence safety in the KRI regardless of age, gender, ethnicity or religious background.

* More robust, longer-term engagement in Iraq’s peace and development through a continued presence of the USAID Mission and support for U.N. work in Iraq. This should include ongoing support for good governance, education, civil society, and conflict management programming. Many of these critical programs could be linked to humanitarian programs designed to help displaced individuals in Iraq.

By taking the actions above and coordinating diplomacy and assistance with the United Nations and allies, we strongly believe that the U.S. government can deliver more effectively on its commitment to assist and protect vulnerable Iraqis, to help other vulnerable populations in Iraq, and to further the long-term development of Iraq and the KRI. We thank you for your dedicated attention to this matter and look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

Alliance for Baptists
Alliance for Peacebuilding
Amnesty International USA
Catholic Relief Services
Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce
Church of the Brethren, Office of Public Witness
Church World Service
Community of Christ
EPIC: Education for Peace in Iraq Center
Friends Committee on National Legislation
Global Ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and United Church of Christ
Heartland Alliance International
Human Rights Watch
International Medical Corps
International Orthodox Christian Charities
International Rescue Committee
Iraqi Research Foundation for Analysis and Development
Jubilee Campaign
Life for Relief and Development
Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns
Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Washington Office
Mercy Corps
National Council of Churches, USA
NETWORK, A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby
Open Doors USA
Pax Christi International
Presbyterian Church (USA)
Peace Action
The Peace Alliance
Refugees International
Relief International
Save the Children
Sisters of Mercy of the Americas
Student Peace Alliance
Veterans for Common Sense
Zakat Foundation of America

Cc: Ambassador Samantha Power, United States Mission to the United Nations
Susan Rice, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, White House
Anne C. Richard, Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration, Dept. of State
Dr. Rajiv Shah, USAID Administrator, Dept. of State
Nancy E. Lindborg, Assistant Administrator, Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, USAID

- See more at: http://www.epic-usa.org/press_release_ngo_letter_to_kerry/#sthash.KMT2HTRq.dpuf

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