Kansas Common Sense


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Calling for VA Secretary's Resignation — Share Your Experience
This week, I spoke on the Senate floor to share a message on behalf of veterans in Kansas and across the country: the VA system is broken and the Department of Veterans Affairs needs major change. I’m deeply troubled by recent reports regarding a VA hospital in Phoenix where 1,600 veterans were placed on a “secret waiting list” to avoid VA policies on extended delays. Some of these veterans waited up to 18 months to see a doctor, and 40 veterans died waiting to receive the care they needed. What is most disturbing is that the situation in Phoenix is not an isolated incident; there are reports and allegations of VA dysfunction and lack of quality care to veterans in VA facilities in Kansas and across the nation.

I shared several stories on the Senator floor this week about veterans who waited decades for their disability claim to be accepted, veterans who suffered after being misdiagnosed by VA physicians, and veterans who lost their lives because of negligence when seeking treatment and care. The sheer absence of care is in rural communities is ignored. For example, the Community Based Outpatient Center (CBOC) in Liberal, Kansas, has been without a primary care provider for three years. On numerous occasions, I have questioned the VA and Secretary Shinseki directly about these quality of care concerns and provider recruitment for rural areas like the Liberal CBOC – but nothing has changed. I cannot recall one instance when one of the complaints we conveyed to the Department resulted in any change in the way the Department of Veterans Affairs is doing business.

The problem is not a lack of resources – the problem is with leadership and the lack of will to change. VA funding levels have increased more than 60 percent since 2009. President Obama himself recently stated that “we’ve resourced the Veterans Affairs office more in terms of increases than any other department or agency in my government.” Unfortunately, the increases in funding have not equaled an increase in service and support to veterans. Veterans are waiting for action, and yet the VA continues to operate in the same old bureaucratic fashion, settling for mediocrity and continued disservice.

There’s a difference between wanting change and leading it to happen. For this reason, on Tuesday I demanded accountability and reform within the VA system from top to bottom and all across the country. I believe that Secretary Shinseki is seemingly unwilling or unable to deliver reform and hold people accountable so change must be made at the top. I asked the Secretary to submit his resignation and I asked President Obama to accept his resignation.

It is the first time in my 18 years of service on Capitol Hill that I have called for the resignation of a sitting cabinet secretary. Amidst the systemic failure and culture of mediocrity within the VA system, I am convinced dramatic top-to-bottom change is needed at the Department in order for veterans to receive the quality care they deserve and the benefits they earned.

Too many veterans are suffering because the Department of Veterans Affairs is failing to serve their needs. If you’re a veteran or family member of a veteran, I want to hear about your experience with the VA. Click here to share your personal story and I will make certain the VA receives your message. Click here to learn more about my call for action, and click here to watch my full speech on the Senate floor. Click here to read the Topeka Capital-Journal editorial on my call for resignation.

Disappointed with HHS Secretary’s Refusal to Testify at Budget Hearing
On Wednesday, I participated in a Senate Appropriations Health Subcommittee hearing on the Administration’s Fiscal Year 2015 budget request for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). I serve as Ranking Member of this subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over funding for most agencies within HHS. Unfortunately, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius refused to testify on her Department’s budget request. I would expect the head of any department in our government to justify its budget request before the Senate Appropriations Committee, especially since HHS requested nearly $70 billion for FY2015.

While I appreciated the expertise and experience of the panel of witnesses who testified at this hearing, none of them were in a position to explain the overall strategy or management of HHS. Not one person on the panel could explain the gives and takes that go into determining how funding is allocated throughout the entire budget. Not one of the witnesses could answer questions regarding the priorities of the Department as a whole. And not one of the panelists could speak to why specific decisions were made. All of these questions should be answered by the HHS Secretary, that is her role, and yet she declined to appear at this hearing. There is a level of respect that the Executive branch and Congress need to pay one another in order for the budget process to work, and the Administration’s tactics here are unprecedented and unacceptable. Click here to watch my remarks about the hearing.

Questioning Agencies about Federal Technology Spending
Also on Wednesday, I participated in a Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee hearing to examine management of federal information technology (IT) investments. The hearing included witness from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), General Services Administration (GSA), Office of Personnel Management (OPM), and the Government Accountability Office (GAO). This year, the Federal government plans to spend about $82 billion on IT, and that total does not include 58 independent executive branch agencies, the CIA, or the legislative or judicial branches. According to the GAO, 30 percent of our spending – some $12.4 billion – is in need of management attention because it will either be over budget, not developed in time, or will not have the functionality that the contract awarded. The failed launch of the Healthcare.gov website is the most recent example of the need to improve our technology strategy. To view a webcast of the hearing, please click here.

Rotary’s Effort to Eradicate Polio
I was honored to be recognized by Rotary International at its Polio Eradication Champions event on Wednesday evening. Rotary is a leading partner in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), a collaboration with the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other partners including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, that is committed to eliminating polio across the globe. Rotary has contributed more than $1.2 billion to date to fight polio. Through 2018, every new dollar Rotary commits to polio eradication will be matched two-to-one by the Gates Foundation up to $35 million a year.

Polio once afflicted thousands of Americans during epidemics into the 1950s. Polio cases have been reduced by 99 percent worldwide, but the disease has not yet been eradicated in Nigeria, Pakistan or Afghanistan. This support saves lives and reduces health care costs – the GPEI will have saved the world $40 to $50 billion from 1988 through 2035 if the eradication of polio is achieved by 2018.

As a fellow Rotarian, I commend the organization and its members for their leadership in eradicating polio across the globe and share this commitment to ridding the world of this terrible disease. Today only a handful of countries in the world still face endemic polio and with continued commitment and determination from GPEI partners, together we can reach this objective. Thank you for this kind recognition. Here, I'm pictured with Rotary International President Ron Burton.

Global Down Syndrome Foundation Annual Be Beautiful Be Yourself D.C. Gala
Also Wednesday evening, I joined hundreds of advocates for individuals with Down syndrome and individuals who are differently-abled at the Global Down Syndrome Foundation’s (GDSF’s) Annual Be Beautiful Be Yourself D.C. Gala. GDSF is dedicated to improving the lives of individuals with Down syndrome and their families through research, medical care, education and advocacy. During the Gala, I was honored to receive GDSF’s Quincy Jones Exceptional Advocacy Award.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is the focal point of our nation’s medical research, and I am committed to prioritizing life-saving medical research. I have also worked to raise the profile of medical research relating to Down syndrome, including its connection with Alzheimer’s disease; by the age of 40, half of those with Down syndrome develop the pathology consistent with Alzheimer’s, yet only half ever develop the disease. In a recent committee hearing, I asked NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins about this connection and the potential medical research holds. A better understanding of how Alzheimer’s disease affects this very special population could produce tremendous benefits for those with Down syndrome as well as those with Alzheimer’s disease. Please click here to view my discussion with Dr. Collins.

Also, I am a sponsor of the Achieving a Better Life Experience Act, legislation that would enable the creation of tax-exempt savings accounts to help individuals with disabilities or the parents of a child with a disability save money to cover long-term expenses such as education, housing, transportation and employment support. This legislation has broad bipartisan support and I hope to have the opportunity to support passage of the ABLE Act in the Senate very soon. Thanks to GDSF and all their supporters.

Meeting with Livestock Marketing Association
En route to Washington, D.C., I was able to stop in and visit with the staff at the Livestock Marketing Association (LMA). LMA is the national trade organization for the livestock marketing business and represents around 70 percent of U.S. livestock markets. We discussed the ever-increasing regulatory environment and what it means for livestock markets and producers. It was good to talk with such a first-class team with an organization that has been serving markets and producers for more than 60 years. Thanks to Corey Schultz, Vince Nowak, Chelsea Good, Lindsay Graber and Mark Mackey.

USDA Disaster Declaration for Five Kansas Counties
This week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) designated five counties in Kansas as primary disaster areas due to production losses caused by the drought. The counties designated disaster areas are: Butler, Kingman, Reno, Sedgwick and Harvey. Farmers and ranchers in the following 12 counties in Kansas also qualify for natural disaster assistance because their counties are contiguous: Barber, Chase, Cowley, Elk, Greenwood, Harper, McPherson, Marion, Pratt, Rice, Stafford and Sumner.

As I travel throughout Kansas, I can see the devastating impact of the drought. By declaring these counties agricultural disaster areas, farmers and ranchers in the affected counties will become eligible for USDA emergency loans. This assistance will enable agricultural operations to continue across our state, in spite of the exceedingly dry conditions.

These counties are now eligible for important disaster programs, such as the emergency loan program administrated by the Farm Service Agency (FSA) and the Supplemental Revenue Assistance Payments Program. Affected farmers should contact their local FSA office for more information: http://www.fsa.usda.gov/ks/

SBA Disaster Assistance to Cherokee, Crawford and Labette Counties
Also this week, it was announced that
the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) will offer low-interest federal disaster loans to Kansas residents and business owners affected by the April 27, 2014 tornado. SBA assistance will be available in the Kansas counties of Cherokee, Crawford and Labette.

I am pleased the SBA quickly responded to Governor Brownback’s request for disaster assistance following the Baxter Springs tornado. After witnessing the destruction of homes, businesses and infrastructure firsthand, these loans will help Kansans rebuild. For more information, visit www.sba.gov/disaster.

McPherson “All Schools Day” Parade
On Friday, I joined area residents for the 101st annual McPherson All Schools Day Parade. The tradition began in 1914 as a way to celebrate 8th grade graduates. Since then, it has grown into a week-long annual Kansas event honoring graduates from eighth grade, high school and college with hundreds of participants. It was nice to see so many old friends and new faces. A special thanks to Scott Werth, my driver in the parade; Donna Viola, who helped arrange my visit and to the 2014 chairperson, Mary Steffes. Mary and her committee did a great job organizing this terrific community event. Here, I'm pictured with McPherson High School Senior Ian Ferguson.

Little River Community Visit
On my way out of McPherson on Friday, I stopped in the community of Little River and enjoyed visiting with folks at the City Library, Little River State Bank, Rice Co. Builders, Mutual Telephone Company, Fat Boyz Bar and Grille and Garden of Eden Grocery. Thanks for the good conversations along Main Street.

Rice County Kansas Listening Tour Stop
After my visit to Little River, I continued my Kansas Listening Tour in Rice County in the community room at Lyons Federal Bank. I enjoyed the opportunity to visit with local residents about a wide range of topics including Cecil Burdette of Lyons who discussed concerns with VA healthcare. Thanks to John Sweet, Lyons City Administrator for helping set up the town hall meeting. The work I do in Washington and the issues I focus on are largely based on the conversations I have with Kansans. I greatly appreciate the hundreds of Kansans who take the time to visit with me at town halls because I learn something from every conversation. Check my website for upcoming Kansas Listening Tour stops.

Meeting with Secretary of Labor on Veterans’ Employment
This week, I had the opportunity to sit down with Department of Labor (DOL) Secretary Thomas Perez in my office in Washington, D.C. The meeting was a follow-up to the April 9, 2014, Senate Labor Appropriations hearing during which I questioned Secretary Perez on what the Department could do to address the employment challenges facing veterans when they return from overseas.

During our meeting, Secretary Perez indicated that the Department is working on several initiatives with the goal of helping veterans. He cited the proposed expansion of Reemployment and Eligibility Assessments (REAs) and Reemployment Services (RESs) – in-person review and re-training exercises – to all recently separated military personnel receiving Unemployment Compensation for Ex-service members. The Secretary also discussed ongoing efforts with the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs to identify and begin providing employment services to service members six months before their discharge date. It is my hope that greater preparation will reduce much of the uncertainty that veterans upon their return home.

In Kansas, DOL currently has 22 full-time employees engaged in veteran employment and training services. The majority of this staff are Disabled Veterans Outreach Program Specialists (DVOPS) dedicated to providing job search and application assistance to veterans who have significant barriers to employment. The job placement rate for these veterans in Kansas is approximately 65 percent, with 85 percent gainfully employed six months down the line. We can and must do a better job of providing our veterans with the proper tools and resources to succeed. Top flight workforce training programs in Wichita and throughout Kansas lead me to believe these numbers will continue to improve.

In addition, I am a cosponsor of the Hire More Heroes Act, legislation that will allow employers to exempt veterans or reservists who already have qualifying health care coverage through TRICARE or the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs from Obamacare’s employer mandate requirement. These employees would not be counted when determining whether an employer meets the health care law’s 50 full-time equivalent employee requirement to provide health insurance, or else pay a $2,000 fine per employee. In March, a companion bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives by a vote of 406 to 1, but no action has been taken yet in the U.S. Senate.

The Independent School Visit
On Tuesday, I had the opportunity to visit with two remarkable young students from The Independent School in Wichita. Eighth-graders Reid McConnaughey and William Rowley were in Washington, D.C. to participate in the Ford’s Theatre Oratory Residency and Festival. They were selected to participate in this program based upon their performance of an important historical speech. As student participants, Reid and William worked with Ford’s Theatre teaching artists to build their speech, writing, and leadership skills. I enjoyed visiting with Reid and William about their experience and the skills they’ve learned through the program, and I wish them continued success as they pursue their education.

Congratulating Class of 2014 at Sylvan-Lucas Unified High School
On Saturday, I had the opportunity to address the graduating seniors of Sylvan-Lucas Unified High School in Sylvan Grove during commencement exercises. When I asked Principal Walter about this class of seniors, he said, “it’s a class of good kids” who will “do anything for anyone at anytime.” In my book, that’s pretty high praise coming from a high school principal. This group of 12 seniors is not only actively involved in school activities, but is also dedicated to serving their local community. In my view, individuals who engage in their churches, schools and communities can have the greatest impact and change lives for the better.

High school graduation is a special time for both families and seniors because it represents a significant turning point in their lives as many prepare to leave home for the first time. During this time of year, most seniors are busy thinking about their future plans. So I took the opportunity to remind them that true success is not marked by what we get out of life, but by what we give back and the kind of person we become. I challenged the seniors to become individuals of character who pursue excellence and put others first. In life, each of us has a higher calling. Not just to make a dollar, but to make a difference. Not just to find happiness, but to fulfill a purpose. No job, regardless of the salary or perks, can take the place of a life committed to a purpose greater than yourself.

Congratulations once again to the class of 2014 on their outstanding achievement. And special thanks to Superintendent Stecklein and Principal Walter for the invitation to speak at this year’s graduation ceremony.

Kansans in the Office
National Breast Cancer Coalition

Stephanie Barr of Solomon
Melissa Skelton of Topeka

Kansas Electric Cooperatives
Dave Holthaus of Topeka        
Stuart Lowry of Hays
Bruce Mueller of Scott City      
Beth Looney of Scott City
Dan Bonine of Great Bend       
Phil Wages of Topeka
Earnie Lehman of Hays
John Blackwell of Larned
Dave Childers of Cheney
Dan Thimesch of Cheney
Steve Epperson of Ulysses
Shane Laws of Dodge City
Randy Quint of Dodge City
Dow Morris of Dighton
Judy Barten of Solomon          

National Brain Tumor Society
Amanda Haddock of Wichita     
Richard Haddock of Wichita
Austin Pearson of Wichita                                            

The Independent School
Donrita Contrell of Wichita      
William Rowley of Wichita
Caroline Rudnick of Wichita
Reid McConnaughey of Wichita
David McIntire of Wichita       

Kansas Hospital Association
Chad Austin of Topeka          
Reta Baker of Fort Scott
Tom Bell of Salina
Jennifer Bruning of Kansas City
Mike Burroughs of Dodge City
Curt Colson of Hoisington
Amy Fluke of Topeka
Dennis George of Overland Park
Val Gleason of Newton
James Haines of Topeka
Steve Kelly of Newton
Mark Miller of Abilene
Randy Pearson of Topeka
Jim Reagan of Council Grove
Cindy Samuelson of Topeka
Janet Stanek of Topeka
Tony Thompson of Goodland

Association for Advanced Life Underwriting
Paul Hanger of Prairie Village          
John Reber of Leawood
John Boma of Leawood                       
Joe Jones of Lawrence
Dexter Umekubo of Salina
Sean Seyb of Leawood

Lawrence Chamber of Commerce
Hugh Carter of Lawrence
Bonnie Lowe of Lawrence
Brad Finkeldei of Lawrence  

Federal Home Loan Bank
Kent Needham of Overbrook
Mark Schifferdecker of Girard
Bruce Schriefer of Wichita
Andy Jetter of Topeka
Dave Fisher of Topeka
Pat Doran of Topeka
Eric Haar of Topeka

National Tooling and Machining Association and Precision Metal-forming Association
Brandon Bohning of Olathe
George Crossland of Overland Park

Kansas Library Association
Jo Budler of Topeka
Carol Barte of Manhattan
Cindy Roupe of Topeka

Leukemia and Lymphoma Society
Jennifer Rodrigues of Shawnee
David Enslen of Prairie Village

Catherine Moyer of Ulysses
Ron Rahjes of Kensington
Scott Whittington of Burlington                                         

Kansas Interfaith Power & Light
Gary Anderson of Meriden
Rabbi Moti Rieber of Overland Park

General Aviation Manufacturers Association
Randy O'Boyle of Manhattan
Charles Perkins of Wichita
Ben Kowalski of Olathe
Michael Thacker of Wichita                                     

National Association of Enrolled Agents
Elizabeth Crist of Overbrook

Wine & Spirits Wholesalers
Tuck Duncan of Topeka

Children’s Mercy
Dallas Polen of Overland Park

Interfaith Working Group on Foreign Assistance
Pastor Amy Truhe of Chapman                      

Kansas Society of Anesthesiologists
Douglass Hagen of Overland Park             
Jean Goodloe of Wichita
Andrew Sack of Kansas City
Jonathan Lamb of Kansas City      

Emergency Nurse Association
Mitch Jewett of Halstead

American Land Title Association
Randy Barbour of Overland Park
Eric Schibi of Hays
John Stauffer of Topeka

American Boating Congress
Gavan Hunt of Neodesha
George Muffick of Neodesha
Bill Wallisch of Neodesha

Kansas Craft Brewery Owners
Philip Bradley of Lawrence
Steve Bradt of Lawrence

International Foodservice Distributors
Tim McKee of Shawnee

National Association of Trailer Manufacturers
Tom Grieshaber of Waterville
John Kerr of Overland Park
Pam Trusdale of Topeka

National Electrical Contractors
Ryan Courtney of Topeka
Roy Reinhardt of Wichita

College of American Pathologists
L. Patrick James of Lenexa

Kansas Pharmacists Association
Pete Stern of Topeka
Clark Balcom of Olathe
Nate Rockers of Paola
Daniel Reit of Olathe
Brian Caswell of Baxter Springs
Van Coble of Winfield
Mike Bellesine of El Dorado
Michael Larkin of Topeka
Michael Burns of Garnett

University of Kansas Cancer Center
Roy Jensen of Kansas City

ALS Association
Greg Steinberg of Leawood
Elizabeth Sterling of Leawood 

Prudential Spirit of Community Award Honorees
Logan Brown of Eudora
Hannah Thurlby of Overland Park

Association of Community Mental Health Centers of Kansas
Michelle Sweeney of Topeka
Kyle Kessler of Topeka
Scott Jackson of Riverton 

Capitol Tour
Dave McIntire of Wichita         
Michael Cummings of Olathe          
Nancy Cummings of Olathe
Nathan Fawson of Iola
Robyn Fawson of Iola
Larry Shawn of Olathe
Donna Shawn of Olathe
Bruce Peshoff of Leawood
Melina Peshoff of Leawood
Grace Davis of Overland Park
Dylan Gregg of Topeka
Kaylee Gregg of Topeka
Madison Gregg of Topeka
Shannon Gregg of Topeka
Richard Schwartz of Topeka
James Duncan of Overland Park              
Lisa Duncan of Overland Park
Kaitlin Duncan of Overland Park              
Richard Merritt of Salina
Kathleen Merritt of Salina            
Col. Linda Crosser of Olathe
Joan Haas-Flynn of Olathe             
Jeff Nichols of Wichita
Jacob Nichols of Wichita

Honored to Serve You in Washington
It is an honor to serve you in Washington, D.C. Thank you to the many Kansans who have been calling and writing in to share their thoughts and opinions on the issues our state and country face. I appreciate the words of Kansans, whether in the form of a form of letter, a Facebook comment or a phone call, who wish to make their voice heard.

Please let me know how I can be of assistance. You can contact me by email by clicking here. You can also click here to contact me through one of my Kansas offices or my Washington, D.C., office.

Very truly yours,


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