By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System (CAVCHS) Director James Talton and Chief of Staff Dr. Cliff Robinson have both been removed from their positions at the very troubled Montgomery VA facility.
U.S. Representative Martha Roby (R) from Montgomery and U.S. Senator Richard Shelby (R) from Alabama both applauded the management changes at CAVHCS. The pair noted in a Thursday August 21 written statement that the installation of new leadership is an important step toward better health care for area veterans.
Late Thursday the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs confirmed that both CAVHCS Director James Talton and Chief of Staff Dr. Cliff Robinson have been removed from their positions. Shelby and Roby had both been highly critical of the administration at CAVHCS and has sent a letter to newly installed Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald urging him to take action.
Congresswoman Roby said in a written statement, “Leadership starts at the top, and this change in senior management at CAVHCS was sorely needed. I applaud the VA for taking decisive action. Our local system is infested with a culture of complacency when it should in fact be home to a culture of excellence. Congress gave Secretary McDonald the tools he needs to hold people accountable and make improvements in care, and we will expect him to use those tools. We’ve worked very hard to fully understand the problems at CAVHCS, and I think this move is a step toward finding solutions—but it is only one step. We’ll continue to work with the VA to hold bad actors responsible, support positive changes, and ensure that we get the best care possible to our veterans.”
Senator Shelby said in a written statement, “When I met with Secretary Robert McDonald last month prior to his confirmation, he assured me that he would act expeditiously to address my and Congresswoman Martha Roby’s concerns about the inexcusable mismanagement of the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System. His action today in replacing the two top officials in Montgomery who presided over such mistreatment is a promising sign that he is serious about addressing the many problems at the VA across the country, and particularly in Montgomery. This is only the first step in a difficult journey to improve care for our veterans, but it is an important one and I welcome it.”
The VA has named Robin Jackson, Ph.D., as the acting medical center Director at CAVHCS, and Srinivas Ginjupalli, M.D., has been named the acting Chief of Staff. Dr. Jackson is the deputy network director at the VA Southeast Network in Duluth, Ga. while Dr. Ginjupalli is the deputy chief of staff at CAVHCS. According to the VA, both Director Talton and Dr. Robinson have been placed on administrative leave.
In July, Congress passed bipartisan legislation that greatly expands the Patient Centered Community Care (PC3) program to allow more veterans to seek care from non-VA providers and allocated more funds to hire additional doctors, while giving the VA more power to fire or demote Senior Executive Service employees for poor performance.
Sen. Shelby and Rep. Roby in their letter to Secretary McDonald wrote: “Reports regarding the treatment of veterans in Alabama are dire and appalling. While we have yet to see a comprehensive account of the allegations, it is our understanding that the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System (CAVHCS) has the eighth longest average wait times in the nation for veterans to receive care, even with its recorded manipulated recordkeeping. Whistleblowers allege that veterans’ x-rays have been lost, which may have in turn led to cancer and other life-threatening conditions going untreated. The leadership of the CAVHCS is alleged to have tolerated or encouraged whistleblower intimidation and retaliation, which possibly continued and exacerbated the abuse. To date, we do not believe that proper action has been taken to mitigate these allegations. Instead of swiftly working to fix the serious problems at the CAVHCS, all reports suggest that its leaders are focused on dodging blame and personal cost rather than serving veterans and providing the care and treatment promised. We have lost trust in the leadership at the CAVHCS.”
Just this week allegations were made that a CAVHCS employee drove a troubled vet to a local crack house, bought the vet drugs, and hired the services of a prostitute while on the unauthorized ‘field trip.’ That employee, like the VA pulmonologist who was discovered to have falsified more than 1,200 patient records, are both still on the job. The allegedly dishonest pulmonologist received a “satisfactory performance” review from the VA despite being a repeat offender.
Rep. Roby’s office has been investigating serious allegations of mismanagement, negligence and cover-up within Central Alabama’s VA system. Two senior members of her staff have been assigned to meet with whistle blowers and to identify and expose problems within the system.
Rep. Roby said on Thursday, “I want to thank all those who had the courage to step forward and provide my office with information regarding the problems at CAVHCS. I know that there has been real fear of retaliation, which makes these individual’s willingness to expose wrongdoing so admirable.”
The new leadership at CAVCHS will have to deal with the growing amount of evidence against staff and employees at CAVCHS while improving the care delivered to VA employees.
Department of Justice sues Ashland Housing Authority alleging racial discrimination
“AHA has engaged in a pattern or practice of race discrimination by steering applicants to housing communities based on race,” the complaint alleges.
The U.S. Department of Justice on Tuesday filed a lawsuit alleging that the Housing Authority of Ashland violated the Fair Housing Act by intentionally discriminating against Black people who applied for housing because of their race.
The DOJ in its complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama, names as defendants the Housing Authority of Ashland, the Southern Development Company of Ashland Ltd., Southern Development Company of Ashland #2 Ltd. and Southern Development Company LLC, which are the private owners and managing agent of one of those housing complexes.
The department’s complaint alleges that the Ashland Housing Authority denied Black applicants the opportunity to live in overwhelmingly white housing complexes on the city’s East Side, while steering white applicants away from properties whose residents were predominantly Black in the West Side. The AHA operates seven public housing communities spread across both areas, according to the complaint.
“From at least 2012 to the present, AHA has engaged in a pattern or practice of race discrimination by steering applicants to housing communities based on race and by maintaining a racially segregated housing program,” the complaint alleges.
The federal government states in the complaint that as of June 2018, 69 percent of all AHA tenants were white, but 99 percent of tenants at Ashland Heights, on the East Side, were white, 92 percent of tenants at another East Side community were white and 91 percent of tenants at yet another East Side housing development were white.
Similar disparities were seen in public housing communities in the West Side, the complaint states.
AHA kept separate waiting lists for both segregated areas, the complaint alleges and allowed applicants who decline offers of housing “without showing good cause, even when they decline offers for race-based reasons,” to maintain their position on the waiting list, in violation of AHA’s own policies intended to prevent race discrimination.
“On April 11, 1968, one week after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the United States enacted the Fair Housing Act to outlaw race, color and other forms of discrimination in housing. Denying people housing opportunities because of their race or color is a shameful and blatant violation of the Fair Housing Act,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Civil Rights Division in a statement. “The United States has made great strides toward Dr. King’s dream of a nation where we will be judged by content of our character and not by the color of our skin.”
“The dream remains at least partially unfulfilled because we have not completely overcome the scourge of racial bias in housing,” Dreiband continued. “Discrimination by those who receive federal taxpayer dollars to provide housing to lower-income applicants is particularly odious because it comes with the support and authority of government. The United States Department of Justice will not stand for this kind of unlawful and intolerable discrimination. The Justice Department will continue to fight to protect the rights of all Americans to rent and own their homes without regard to their race or color.”
U.S. Attorney Prim F. Escalona for the Northern District of Alabama said in a statement that individuals and families should not have their rights affected by their race or national origin. “Our office is committed to defending the civil rights of everyone,” Escalona said.
The lawsuit seeks damages to compensate victims, civil penalties to the government to vindicate the public interest and a court order barring future discrimination and requiring action to correct the effects of the defendants’ discrimination.
The DOJ in a press release encouraged those who believe they have been victims of housing discrimination at the defendants’ properties should contact the department toll-free at 1-800-896-7743, mailbox 9997, or by email at [email protected] Individuals who have information about this or another matter involving alleged discrimination may submit a report online at civilrights.justice.gov.
The DOJ in August the U.S. Housing and Urban Development determined that the Decatur Housing Authority was disallowing Black people to live in public housing located in riverfront towers while requiring Black people to live in less attractive apartments elsewhere.
Clean water advocates want a comprehensive water plan for Alabama that creates jobs
Under new leadership, a plan for preserving clean water and fair access to it may be within reach in Alabama.
Environmentalists are optimistic about making progress on water resource issues and the state’s climate change preparedness under the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden and next Congress, particularly because the president-elect is indicating that economic gains go hand-in-hand with protecting the environment.
“It’s really exciting to see the Biden administration put jobs in the same conversation with their climate and environmental policies, because for too long there has been that false argument that jobs and the environment don’t go together — that you can’t have a regulated business sector and create jobs,” said Cindy Lowry, executive director of Alabama Rivers Alliance.
On a recent post-election call with other advocates, Lowry said that the current policy outlook reinforced the importance of voting. There have been some steps forward for conservation during the presidency of Donald Trump, she said, like the president’s signing of the Great American Outdoors Act in August, but the administration has prioritized industry interests.
Under new leadership, a plan for preserving clean water and fair access to it may be within reach in Alabama.
“We have spent so much time and energy as a movement trying to defend and basically just hold the line against so many of the rollbacks, and now we can focus on moving forward on certain areas,” Lowry said.
Julian Gonzalez, a clean water advocate with the nonprofit Earthjustice in Washington D.C., said on the call that the incoming Congress will be the “most environmentally aware Congress we’ve had.” Still, the real work remains.
“Everything needs to be one conversation, and you should be able to go call your Congressperson and say, ‘How are you going to fix America’s water problem?’ and they should have an answer, but right now that’s not the case,” Gonzalez said.
For Alabama’s water advocates, priorities are what to do with coal ash, how to prepare for droughts and flooding, improvements to water and wastewater infrastructure and providing relief to communities that have been affected by environmental degradation.
While production of coal ash has reduced due mostly to market-driven decreases in the burning of coal, enough facilities still use it that Alabama is developing its own permitting process and regulations for storing it. The Biden administration can provide leadership on the issue, Lowry said.
While many people associate water issues with drought, Lowry said the topic encompasses much more than that. Pipes that contain lead need to be replaced. There’s plenty of water, she said, but the state needs a comprehensive water plan that prepares communities for drought management, especially as more farmers use irrigation, which uses more water.
Her organization has been working toward a state plan that can ensure fair access to water without depleting the environment of what it needs to remain stable.
With the increased frequency and intensity of storms being attributed to climate change, water infrastructure will need to be upgraded, Lowry said. Many communities rely on centralized treatment centers to handle their wastewater, and many of those facilities are overburdened and experience spills. Storms and flash floods push old pipes and at-capacity centers past their breaking points — pipes leak or burst and sewage pits overflow.
Lowry said that there has been some progress in recent years on funding infrastructure upgrades in communities and states. It’s a more bipartisan conversation than other environmental issues, and communities that have been hit hard by multiple storms are starting to have new ideas about how to rebuild themselves to better withstand the effects of climate change.
Still, Alabama’s preparedness efforts are all reactionary, which is why a comprehensive water plan is a priority, she said.
“Policies like that — proactive policies that are really forward-thinking about how we will make decisions if we do run into challenges with our environment — are something that this state has not been very strong on,” she said.
Lowry hopes for more emphasis on environmental justice, with official agencies working more with local municipalities to provide relief to communities hurt by pollution and weather events. Such problems are characteristic of the Birmingham area, where Lowry is based, and the Black Belt.
She wants to see stronger permitting processes for industry projects and easier access to funding for cleanups in communities that need them. North Birmingham activists have been trying for years to get a Superfund site there on the Superfund National Priorities List.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to address these problems, Lowry said. Having multiple avenues for access to funding is important so that all communities have options. Smaller communities can’t always pay back loans, so they need access to grants.
Lowry emphasized that new jobs must be created without exacerbating climate change. Although Alabama tends to look to heavy industry for economic gains, she said she’s hopeful that a different approach by the Biden administration will trickle to the state level.
Lowry also said that conversations about climate change in Alabama have to be put in terms of what is happening in Alabama.
For her and other environmentalists working in the Deep South, it’s all about relationships and establishing trust. The environment becomes a less partisan issue when you focus on the basics, she said, because everyone wants clean water.
“I’ve found it much more easy to have conversations with elected officials at the state level in places like Alabama, where people do kind of grow up a little closer to nature and conservation, and [by] just kind of meeting people where they are,” Lowry said.
Governor issues statement urging school systems to return for in-person learning
The governor urged local school districts to resume in-person instruction.
Gov. Kay Ivey on Tuesday issued the following statement, urging schools to resume in-person instruction.
“Due to COVID-19, 2020 has been an extremely challenging year for everyone, especially for our parents, teachers and students. I’m extremely grateful for the flexibility everyone has shown as they have adapted to virtual instruction,” Ivey said. “However, virtual and remote instruction are stop-gap measures to prevent our students from regressing academically during the pandemic. These practices cannot — and should not — become a permanent part of instructional delivery system in 2021. As we are learning more about COVID-19, we are seeing more and more clear evidence pointing out that our students are safe in the classroom with strong health protocols in place.”
“There are nearly 9,800 fewer students enrolled statewide in this academic year and a five percent reduction in students on the kindergarten level,” Ivey said. “This will not only result in a critical learning loss for our students today but will also likely lead to an equally negative impact on the readiness of our workforce in years to come.”
Additionally, it could have an equally important economic loss that affects funding for classrooms and teacher units, according to the governor.
“As we begin the holiday season and contemplate a return to a normalcy in 2021, I strongly urge our education leadership on both the state and local levels to return to in-person instruction as soon as possible,” she said. “My Administration will work with Dr. Mackey, all of our local superintendents and the Legislature to ensure that our kids are back in the classroom in 2021. Our employers, our families, our communities, Alabama’s taxpayers, and most importantly, our students, deserve nothing less.”
Energy Institute of Alabama names Alabama Transportation Institute’s Parrish as senior policy adviser
Alabama Transportation Institute Executive Director Allen Parrish is the newest senior policy adviser for the organization.
The Energy Institute of Alabama is pleased to welcome Alabama Transportation Institute Executive Director Allen Parrish as the newest senior policy adviser for the organization.
In this role, Parrish will provide expert guidance to EIA to continue serving as the leading voice and advocate for public policies that ensure reliable, affordable and clean energy for Alabamians.
“The addition of Dr. Parrish’s experience, expertise and voice as a Senior Policy Advisor will greatly benefit EIA for years to come. His accomplishments speak for themselves, and we are grateful for his vision and ongoing commitment to the people and economy of Alabama,” said EIA Chairman Seth Hammett.
Parrish began his career at the University of Alabama, where he worked for 26 years as a professor of computer science and ultimately served as the founding director of the Center for Advanced Public Safety.
In 2016, Parrish left the university to become the founding chair of the Cyber Security Program at the U.S. Naval Academy. He most recently served as the associate vice president for research at Mississippi State University before coming back to Alabama as ATI executive director in February 2020.
“Here at the Alabama Transportation Institute, we are focused on innovative research solutions to build and maintain a transportation system that propels Alabama forward by increasing safety, furthering economic growth and conserving our energy resources,” Parrish noted. “Whether it’s smart cities, electric vehicles, freight delivery efficiency or simply ensuring quality roads and bridges, we are committed to a 21st Century transportation system that supports our state’s economic vitality.”
Parrish joins an already well-established suite of senior policy advisers that are helping to further EIA’s mission. Additional senior policy advisers include Jim Sullivan of The Sullivan Group, Dr. Steven Taylor of Auburn University’s Center for Bioenergy and Bioproducts and Oliver Kingsley of Auburn’s College of Engineering.
“EIA, ATI and the state of Alabama are lucky to have someone like Dr. Parrish leading the collaborative transportation efforts and policy development that continues to modernize our state’s transportation system,” said Alabama Power Company’s Houston Smith, who serves as the EIA vice chairman. “We fully support these efforts and modern infrastructure initiatives, like electric vehicles, that are major drivers of our state’s economy.”