Grassley misled on state-operated veterans homes

An earlier version of this commentary appeared in The Prairie Progressive‘s fall 2021 issue.

In a media release earlier this year and a commentary published in some Iowa newspapers, Senator Chuck Grassley asserted, “it appears that the standard of care and quality controls at many state veterans homes falls well short of those required by other government supported nursing homes.” He was referencing the number of COVID-19 deaths and infections in veterans homes across the country.

How many is many? The senator’s letter to U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis R. McDonough cited a handful of media reports in footnotes. Although some of those articles cited statistics provided by the government, the numbers Grassley used are flawed.

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What the federal government has done for veterans in 2021

November 11 was first celebrated as “Armistice Day” in 1919 and became a national holiday in 1926. Since 1954, it has been known as Veterans Day.

It’s customary for American politicians to release statements on this day thanking veterans for their service to the country. But what has the government done concretely to return the favor to veterans? This year, more than usual.

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Miller-Meeks, Kyle Kuehl running in IA-01 Republican primary

U.S. Representative Mariannete Miller-Meeks confirmed on on November 10 that she will seek re-election in Iowa’s new first district, rather than in the new third district, where her home county (Wapello) is now located.

I never doubted that Miller-Meeks would run in the district containing sixteen of the 24 counties she now represents and roughly 80 percent of her constituents. President Donald Trump carried the counties in the new IA-01 by about 2 points. If Miller-Meeks had stayed in the new IA-03, she would have to run against Democratic Representative Cindy Axne in a district Trump carried by just 0.4 percent, where about three-quarters of voters live in Polk or Dallas counties.

Miller-Meeks hasn’t decided where she will move, or whether she will sell her Ottumwa home. Technically she is not required to move; as long as she resides in the state of Iowa, she doesn’t need to live in IA-01 to run there. But other Iowa members of Congress in similar situations (most recently Jim Leach and Leonard Boswell in 2001, and Tom Latham and Dave Loebsack in 2011) have moved after redistricting placed their homes outside the district where they planned to seek re-election.

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The lie wasn't the worst thing Ernst said about Biden, Afghanistan

U.S. Senator Joni Ernst became fodder for fact-checkers last week when she wrongly said of President Joe Biden, “Not once has he expressed empathy and gratitude to the men and women who have put the uniform on and have fought so bravely overseas the last 20 years to keep our homeland safe. And I feel that by not acknowledging his gratitude for them, he’s diminishing their service.”

Before demolishing Ernst’s claim as “plain false,” CNN’s Daniel Dale pointed out that Ernst had pushed the same talking point on Fox News in August, “saying Biden has ‘yet to fully, fully thank the men and women that have served in the global war on terrorism” and declaring that ‘Joe Biden is a disgrace not to thank these men and women that have protected us.’” Dale found six examples of Biden publicly expressing his gratitude to military service members just in the past five months.

As shameful as it is for Iowa’s junior senator to lie repeatedly about the president, another part of Ernst’s short September 1 interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper was arguably more dangerous.

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VA vaccine mandate won't apply to Iowa Veterans Home

Staff at the Iowa Veterans Home in Marshalltown, where a recent COVID-19 outbreak killed two fully vaccinated residents, are not subject to a new vaccine mandate issued by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough announced on July 26 that coronavirus vaccinations are now required for “Title 38 VA health care personnel — including physicians, dentists, podiatrists, optometrists, registered nurses, physician assistants, expanded-function dental auxiliaries and chiropractors — who work in Veterans Health Administration facilities, visit VHA facilities or provide direct care to those VA serves.”

The Iowa Veterans Home is a state-run facility, but it receives some federal funding, is certified by the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, and has residents who use VA health care. At least 900 employees work at the Marshalltown facility, which is Iowa’s largest nursing home. Families and guardians were informed in late June that 70 percent of staff had already been vaccinated for COVID-19. That would leave more than 250 unprotected by any coronavirus vaccine.

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Iowa delegation tries again to address military suicides (updated)

UPDATE: The U.S. Senate passed the Sgt. Ketchum Rural Veterans Mental Health Act of 2021 by unanimous consent on June 24, and President Joe Biden signed it into law on June 30. Original post follows.

From the earliest Memorial Day observances organized by freed slaves following the Civil War, this holiday has focused on remembering military service members who died in wars. More than 26,700 Iowans have died in wartime service, with the Civil War accounting for nearly half of the fatalities.

Far too many Americans with military backgrounds die by their own hands. Hundreds of active-duty troops and more than 6,000 veterans take their own lives every year. That death toll exceeds the total U.S. military fatalities in Iraq from 2003 to 2020.

Iowa’s members of Congress have tried again this spring to improve mental health services for veterans. Unlike in previous years, legislation named after Sergeant Brandon Ketchum made it through the U.S. House and now awaits action in the Senate.

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