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News Briefs: Dec. 10

Dec. 9, 2012 - 02:24PM   |  
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VA, DoD plan to speed up joint medical records

The Defense and Veterans Affairs departments are pushing for a faster timetable to electronically consolidate health records for military service members.

While the $4 billion system is set to be in place by 2017, “we want to meet or beat” that timetable, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said at a joint news conference last week with VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. The two want to see the new plan for the “Integrated Electronic Health Record” by early next month, he said.

Once complete, the system, intended to cover service members as they move from active duty to veteran status, will be the largest of its kind in the nation. It’s scheduled for testing at Hampton Roads, Va., and San Antonio in 2014.

7th defendant sentenced in bid rigging case

Nazim Khan, brother of a former Army Corps of Engineers program manager, was sentenced last week to two years in prison for his role in a case the Justice Department described as “the largest domestic bribery and bid rigging scheme in the history of federal contracting cases.”

According to a grand jury indictment issued earlier by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Army Corps program manager Kerry Khan and program director Michael Alexander had conspired since 2007 with an official at Virginia-based EyakTek, a subsidiary of Alaska Native-owned Eyak Corp., to funnel more than $45 million in payments to an unnamed EyakTek subcontractor.

Nazim Khan, of Accokeek, Md., pleaded guilty in June to a charge of conspiracy to commit interstate transportation of stolen property. He is one of 12 people who have pleaded guilty and is the seventh defendant so far to be sentenced and sent to prison, according to a Justice news release last week.

Among those also sentenced to prison are Harold Babb, former director of contracts at Eyak, and Alexander.

Kerry Khan, who pleaded guilty in May to charges of bribery and conspiracy to commit money laundering, awaits sentencing, according to Justice.

SAIC to lay off 700 in restructuring

Scientific and engineering firm SAIC announced last week it will lay off 700 of its nearly 40,000 employees as part of a restructuring effort.

CEO John Jumper attributed the workforce cuts to “critical fiscal decisions” as the government deals with the threats of automatic spending cuts and tax hikes.

“Under any scenario, we expect government spending to be constrained, especially in the defense market, and we are preparing for the budget pressures,” Jumper said.

SAIC also is splitting into two companies, and the workforce cuts will make the company more competitive, he said.

SAIC contracts with agencies such as the Veterans Affairs Department, where it is helping to create electronic health records for service members and veterans.

Pentagon begins planning for sequestration

The Pentagon has officially begun planning how it would carry out $50 billion in across-the-board spending cut in 2013 if Congress fails to prevent sequestration from taking effect Jan. 2.

The Office of Management and Budget issued guidance to the Defense Department, instructing officials to look at how these cuts will affect military personnel, programs and operations.

Through this planning, DoD expects to identify specific numbers and how to communicate the ramifications of spending cuts to its 3 million-strong workforce.

Sequestration calls for $500 billion in defense spending cuts over a decade, which amounts to about $50 billion annually. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other top officials have called for Congress to come up with a deficit reduction deal that averts cuts to defense spending.

Military pay is exempt from sequestration. But DoD and budget analysts expect furloughs of DoD civilians to pay for military operations.

Interagency task force aims to bolster exporting

President Obama issued an executive order last week to establish an interagency task force to help American businesses export their goods and services.

The task force is intended to give businesses technical assistance and marketing and diplomatic help when bidding for international contracts.

Led by the Commerce Department’s Advocacy Center, the task force will involve representatives from 15 agencies.

The order builds on administration efforts to bolster exports, according to a Commerce Department news release.

The order also requires the task force to help set up voluntary short-term personnel exchanges between the Commerce Department and other agencies to better serve American businesses.

Senators demand answers on failed AF system

In a harshly worded letter, the leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee are asking the Pentagon to explain its handling of a botched $1 billion Air Force logistics management program.

“From what we know to date, this case appears to be one of the most egregious examples of mismanagement in recent memory,” Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and John McCain, R-Ariz., wrote in a Dec. 5 letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

“We believe that the public and the taxpayers deserve a clear explanation for how the Air Force came to spend more than a billion dollars without receiving any significant military capability, who will be held accountable and what steps the department is taking to ensure that this will not happen again.”

Air Force leaders last month scuttled the Expeditionary Combat Support System after acknowledging that they had gotten little in return for the $1.03 billion invested since 2005. The service, which had already restructured the program three times, opted to pull the plug after determining that it would have to spend another $1 billion to get one-quarter of the original capability by 2020.

ECSS had been a key element in the Air Force’s plan to have auditable financial books by 2017. It will now have to rely on aging legacy systems to make that congressionally mandated goal.

The senators also asked Panetta to explain:

• The main causes for the ECSS’ failure and why it took so long for senior management to recognize the problems and cancel the program.

• How the Defense Department plans to change its management of other enterprise resource planning systems to avoid similar problems.

• What steps DoD will take to ensure the performance of prime contractor Computer Sciences Corp. is considered in future contract awards.

• How the Air Force plans to meet ECSS’ original objectives and the 2017 audit-readiness goal.

In interviews with Federal Times last month, senior Air Force officials blamed the program’s demise on several factors, including the lack of a firm master schedule, Oracle software that wasn’t fully developed and CSC’s inability to tailor that software to what the system was supposed to do. CSC, which was fired from the project in March, was paid about $527 million for its work, according to the Air Force.

Another reprieve in posting SES financial forms

Congress has again pushed back the deadline for posting the public financial disclosure statements of thousands of career Senior Executive Service members on the Internet.

Under a bill approved last week, the requirement won’t take effect until April 15 to give the National Academy of Public Administration time to complete a study of potential security issues. While the annual statements are already public, they are usually released only in paper form in response to a written request.

Lawmakers ordered online posting in the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act, signed into law last April. The provision was originally supposed to take effect at the end of August, but lawmakers have repeatedly postponed the date.

The Senior Executives Association, which represents career SES members, and former top defense and national security officials have questioned whether making information on federal employees’ personal finances too readily accessible could put them at risk of harassment or blackmail.

The association is also part of a lawsuit challenging the requirement on privacy grounds.

Group wants high court ruling on VA claims delays

The Supreme Court will decide early next year whether to hear a veterans advocacy group’s lawsuit seeking to order the Veterans Affairs Department to reduce its backlogs of disability claims.

Veterans for Common Sense wants the court to declare that VA’s delays are a violation of veterans’ constitutional rights.

More than 1 million veterans are waiting for VA to decide disability claims, and about 250,000 claims have been pending for more than four years, according to Veterans for Common Sense.

If the court rules in favor of the veterans group, the government would have to find the money and political will to fix the delays, or else risk a barrage of lawsuits from other veterans seeking damages.

Senate approves Hatch Act changes

The Senate last month approved updates to the Hatch Act, which generally bars federal employees from partisan politicking.

The bill would give the Merit Systems Protection Board a broader range of options for dealing with minor violations of the law. Currently, the board’s only option is to fire offending feds unless its members unanimously agree to some lesser penalty.

The bill also would allow federal employees residing in the District of Columbia to run as independent candidates in partisan local elections, which already is permitted in other areas of the country with high concentrations of feds.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, now goes to the House, where Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., has introduced similar legislation.

Suicide triggers lawsuit against VA

On Veterans Day 2010, former Navy corpsman Kelli Marie Grese, 37, swallowed an unknown quantity of the antipsychotic Seroquel — her fourth suicide attempt in eight months using the same drug.

That time, she succeeded. She never regained consciousness.

Her death is the subject of a $5 million lawsuit filed against the Veterans Affairs Department in the U.S. District Court in Newport News, Va., alleging VA physicians failed to monitor her medications and prescribed them excessively.

Her twin sister, Darla Grese, also a former Navy corpsman, filed the suit, saying physicians at Hampton VA Medical Center, Va., ignored her pleas to quit doling out prescriptions to her sister, a known addict deemed at “moderate risk for suicide.”

“I’m hoping better attention will be placed on how many pills are being written and quantities,” said Darla Grese.

She traces her twin’s mental health problems to 1996, when she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after a break-in at the sisters’ off-base housing in Naples, Italy.

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