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Roby Says that 67 Day Wait for Veterans with Mental Health Issues is Too Long

Brandon Moseley

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By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

Monday, December 1 U.S. Representative Martha Roby responded to a recent report about recent wait times for veterans. Rep. Roby called the reported 67 day wait for mental health patients a, “Major public safety issue.”

According to the new report from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs new veteran patients at Central Alabama Veterans Health Care Systems (CAVHCS) seeking mental health care must wait an average of 67 days, which has actually increased from the 56 day average reported in May.

Congresswoman Roby said in a written statement that such a digression represents a disservice to veterans and a serious public safety issue.

Representative Martha Roby said, “The latest data shows we still have a major problem with mental health services at the Central Alabama VA, and it is actually getting worse.” “I hope people understand how serious a problem it is for veterans in need of mental health care to have to wait more than two months for an appointment. That is obviously a disservice to veterans, but it is also a major public safety issue for Central Alabama. To think that a soldier returning from Afghanistan with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has to wait two months for an appointment to get care he needs and deserves­ – it’s a disgrace.”

The GOP Congresswoman said, “We know it’s going to take time to fully reform the VA, but we should not be moving in the wrong direction.”

Rep. Roby supports and has long been an advocate for more utilization of outside health providers to cut down on wait times at the VA. Rep. Roby said that the VA reform law passed this summer included specific requirements and funding for VA medical centers to refer patients to outside providers when demand exceeds capacity.

Rep. Roby said, “We passed a law that gave veteran patients forced to wait more than 30 days for an appointment guaranteed access to outside care. So, I want to know how many mental health patients CAVHCS has referred to outside providers in light of these numbers.”

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According to the report, 91.58 percent of patients at the Birmingham VA were able to get an appointment within 30 days. That ranged from a low of 88.69 percent for Huntsville to a high of 99.23 percent in Rainbow City. The average wait time for an appointment for a new mental health patient in the Greater Birmingham VA area was 25 and a half days, with Florence being the worst at over 36 days and Bessemer being the best at just 9 days.

At CAVHCS however only 72.58 percent of the appointments were scheduled within 30 days of the request. Within CAVHCS, Columbus, GA and Tuskegee performed the worst with just 64.16 percentg and 68.82 percent. Monroe County performed the best with 249 out of 254 appointments occurring within 30 days. The average wait time for a new mental health patient seeking an appointment for a new patient was over 67 days. This varied from a worst of 81 and a half days for Columbus to a best of less than 17 days for the Wiregrass.

In Tuscaloosa, 90 percent of the appointments were scheduled within 30 days of the request and the average wait time for a new patient seeking a mental health appointment was just over 30 days.

To read the full report go here: http://www.va.gov/HEALTH/docs/pending_access_data_using_CD_and_DD_11202014.pdf

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Perspective | Huntsville doctor recounts protest dispersed by police tear gas

Dr. Pippa Abston

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Dr. Pippa Abston is a Huntsville area physician. The following is her first-hand account of the protest in Huntsville, Alabama, on Wednesday, where police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at demonstrators after an Alabama NAACP rally.

I arrived at Big Springs Park at about 4:30 before the start of the protest at 5 p.m. I am pleased to say that multiple medical people and first aid volunteers came. We had at least one EMT. People brought armloads of supplies and water. We had a medical area set up towards the back, and some of us walked through the crowd. I carried a medic sign on a pole.

After the speakers — which I don’t think I can do justice to describing, other than to say extremely inspiring — we were led up the stairs on the side of the park to march. There was chanting. It seemed to me that there were a whole lot more people than on Monday night. The line of marchers really couldn’t move much. We chanted.

Instead of a big march around the square, mainly people seemed to settle in the area in front of the courthouse. Everything I saw appeared peaceful in that area. Again, there were large numbers of police on the courthouse steps. This time they were holding large numbers of wrist ties, indicating to us that they planned to do a lot of arrests, I suppose. We could see people posted on top of the courthouse, and I was told they were snipers, but I couldn’t get a close enough look to verify that.

Suddenly — and again for no discernible reason — police dressed in riot gear lined up along the intersection where Fountain Circle turns into Southside Square. We heard a siren and then once again, unintelligible talking over some kind of sound system. I was roughly opposite the courthouse steps, and none of us could hear them.

It turned into that game “operator” that kids play. People were passing along information that they had heard, but it wasn’t the same information. Some said we were supposed to leave in 4 minutes, others said everybody just had to get off the street and onto the sidewalks.

Toward Clinton, which was blocked also on Monday, there was no riot line of police, but there were some police cars, and it wasn’t clear to anyone standing there if that was an exit route. I asked several people if anyone had provided an exit route, as is required, and they said no.

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Around that time, some people started coming up to us and reporting that first aid volunteers were being detained and ordered to remove their red cross signs made with tape, on the grounds that they were impersonating doctors. Because of this, the many medical volunteers we had were not identifiable to the crowd.

Several people came to me over the course of the night, because I still had the sign and a red cross on my shirt and backpack. I had put my medical license in with my ID, and I said “let them just try that.” But no one did.

We were also told that police on the courthouse roof were targeting medics — that they were pointing out our position. We were warned by several people to watch out because of that.

A few minutes later, people started passing down the word that they were about to start shooting rubber bullets. So the medical team I was with once again went down the stairs towards Big Spring Park, thinking likely that would be the way folks would flee again.

There was an initial rush of folks running down the stairs again, with some screaming, but this was brief and then people went back up again. We were unsure what to do but decided to stay in the park to be ready for their return. We heard chanting.

After some amount of time, which I did not note, because I intentionally left my watch at home, a large crowd of people came screaming, running down those same stairs again into Big Spring Park, being chased by police and we heard shooting of rubber bullets. We ran also. We heard several large explosions that sounded like bombs. We were told it was tear gas. Even though it wasn’t really too close to where we were, my eyes did burn.

People passing us said that police had told them we had to leave Big Spring Park, a city park, because it was private property, and that we would be fine if we went across Church Street as long as we didn’t get near businesses.

So a lot of us — maybe 100 or so — walked over there. As we were heading there, we saw a large line of patrol cars with lights and sirens on, coming down Church Street, and we wondered if it was ok after all to go there, but they passed by. We were told they were circling the courthouse.

People milled around on the sidewalk area across near Church Street, which is definitely public property, talking, wondering what was next. Again, we stayed in case we needed to give medical help and also because we had never received any instructions from the police about where to go.

We got word that they were loading up large numbers of police into trucks and coming … to do what, we didn’t know, but we were worried, so we walked further away from Church Street toward the Von Braun Center area.

We saw a line of police advancing down Clinton and onto Monroe Street, and we were worried we were going to get trapped. A large crowd to the left of us were moving past the art museum, and suddenly there were explosions again and what looked like fireworks aimed at the crowd. I was told it was tear gas.

People were running and screaming and several of us were trying to help wash their eyes. These tear gas explosions happened several times. We thought they were trying to drive us to Monroe Street, but we had also seen troopers marching that way, and we didn’t know if we were going to get cornered.

We were still washing people’s eyes. Some people were having intense skin reactions to the gas, burning and redness.

One person had been hit so badly in the eyes that they couldn’t see to find their ride, so they walked with my group back to where we were parked and got a ride with my friends. It seemed like protesters were mostly dispersing from that end of the park. We heard there were continuing protests on Jefferson Street.

I made it home. That was like being in a war, getting shot at, having gas thrown at us. And once again, one of the scariest parts was that it wasn’t clear where to go and be safe from being shot at.

We have to keep showing up for these protests. They are obviously trying to terrorize us into staying home, but we must persist.

The Huntsville police chief is saying that us putting on eye protection and getting out first aid equipment was one of their reasons for gassing and shooting us, because it was a sign we wanted violence.

If I go hiking during hunting season with an orange hat on, am I hoping a hunter will shoot me in the head?

If I lock my car door, am I hoping to have my window broken?

If I wear a mask, am I hoping to get COVID-19?

They had snipers yesterday. If we come wearing bulletproof vests — and no, I don’t own one — are they going to shoot us and say well, look what they made us do?

Could it be that we are aware of their weapons and their history of unprovoked brutality and want to protect ourselves while we exercise our First Amendment rights?

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Computer issue causes under-reporting of Alabama COVID-19 cases

Chip Brownlee

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An issue with the computer system the Alabama Department of Public Health uses to calculate and publicly report COVID-19 cases on the state’s public-facing dashboard is causing delays and a temporary underreporting of positive COVID-19 cases over the past several days, Alabama’s top public health official said Thursday.

“We’re working with our IT folks and the vendor of the program to try to get it straightened out, but yes, we are undercounting the positives on the public dashboard right now,” State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said in an interview with APR Thursday.

The data issue is causing daily case counts to artificially decline, Harris said, adding that the undercounting is not purposeful.

Either way, the decline may give some the false sense that the pandemic has subsided when the decline has more to do with technical issue than a real decline in transmission of the virus.

It does not appear that the data issue is causing the Department of Public Health to miss positive cases but rather the issue is related to inputting those cases into a system that then posts the data for public consumption.

Once the system returns to normal functionality, the case count is expected to adjust, which may cause a spike in daily cases.

The Alabama Department of Public Health, in a tweet Thursday morning, said the issue with the program was due to the large increase in the volume of test results being processed by laboratories nationwide, causing the “national surveillance pipeline” to become overwhelmed.

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The overwhelmed system, the department said in the tweet thread, is causing delays in reporting, but the department, at least on Twitter, did not specifically address whether the delay was causing an underreporting of cases in the near term.

Harris said the issue has affected several other states, and he hopes it will be resolved soon.

“There is definitely more than one state that has had the same problem because this is like an open-source program. There are other states that use it in public health — their own versions of it. So yeah, there’s more than one state having that problem,” Harris said.

The delays in data reporting are artificially making it seem as if the state’s daily case count is declining when it may not be, Harris said.

Over the past four days, the number of new cases per day has plummeted from more than 500 on May 31 to just 216 on Wednesday.

The 7-day average of new cases and the percent of tests that are positive, widely cited as better ways to assess trends, has also dipped as a result of the decrease in new reported cases.

“I’ve had several calls today, and I’m trying to make it clear to everybody that we don’t know that that’s true,” Harris said of the declining daily case counts. “The last four or five or six days, we’ve had 300, 400, sometimes 500 cases a day, and I don’t know why that would be different in the last day or so.”

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Huntsville police chief: Protesters “brought this on themselves”

Chip Brownlee

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Huntsville’s police chief and the Madison County sheriff defended the use of tear gas and rubber bullets on protesters in downtown Huntsville Wednesday evening, claiming the demonstrators “came here for the fight, not us.”

Chief Mark McMurray said Thursday that demonstrators — whom he described as “anarchists” — “brought this on themselves” after refusing to disperse following the expiration of a permit at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday evening.

“We kept asking them to leave,” McMurray said. “They brought this — this group brought this on themselves. They came here for the fight, not us.”

Huntsville police and Madison County sheriffs deputies deployed tear gas and fired rubber bullets at peaceful protesters and demonstrators Wednesday evening, injuring several people.*

Video from the scene shows demonstrators in the aftermath of a peaceful Alabama NAACP rally peppered with rubber bullets and tear gas as law enforcement helicopters hovered overhead and police with guns moved among the rooftops in downtown.

One protester who was at the demonstration described her experience.

“After being forced into the park, the police boxed in the crowd and then shot tear gas behind us,” said Kelly Jovenitti. “I was forced to run into a cloud of it. Everything was chaotic. I couldn’t see. I know someone grabbed me and a medic was called. Some kind lady told me to take off my glasses and quickly rinsed my eyes the best she could.”

She said she has asthma.

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“I couldn’t breathe,” Jovenitti said. “My face was one fire. But the police were still coming. The gas was still coming. The rubber bullets were still coming. It sounded like a warzone.”

Jovenitti said she was not an anarchist. “I just love all people and believe we all should be treated the same,” she said.

McMurray said police felt they needed to clear the area before dark because protesters began donning protective equipment. Video shows a peaceful protest interrupted by police moving in.

“It’s darkness coming on, when we lose the fight,” McMurray said. “We have daylight, we win. It’s 90 minutes. It’s an unauthorized protest against the government. That’s what it is. That’s what anarchists do. This was not NAACP. This was a separate splinter group that took advantage of a peaceful protest and hijacked it to cause anarchy against our government. Their way is to cause damage, set fires, loot, pillage.”

He said law enforcement saw guns and other weapons among the crowd, though none appear to have been used. The police chief said two officers had minor injuries and were back at work Thursday, but that protesters threw rocks and water bottles at police cars, which he said counts as assaulting a police officer.

Protesters had bleeding wounds on their legs after being hit with rubber bullets, and a small child — less than four years old — was engulfed in tear gas Wednesday evening, according to AL.com’s Ian Hoppe.

“The whole tensions changed as they brought out more and more equipment, as they brought out the masks, the goggles and all of the bags started coming out,” McMurray said. “We didn’t change that tension.”

Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle, in a statement Thursday, said he supported law enforcement’s tactics Wednesday night.

“What occurred after the NAACP event was disheartening. A second event occurred, structured by people who were not part of our community,” Battle said. “They gathered at the courthouse to block the square and protest. This was not part of a permitted event, and there were no local organizers in charge, which becomes a public safety issue. Even so, police allowed the protestors time to express themselves before asking everyone to leave. Most complied, but others did not. Police were clear in their instructions and worked with the remaining protestors for more than an hour before using non-lethal irritants. The protesters had every opportunity to peacefully leave and they chose otherwise. The leadership of this second group is not our community.”

The first sign of any offensive action by protesters came after police deployed smoke and after trooper cars sped through the area, according to reporters at the scene, when the protesters threw water bottles at state trooper cars.

“How many warnings do you give before you lose your sunset?” McMurray said.

Huntsville has so far not imposed a curfew, but law enforcement declared the event an unlawful assembly after a city-issued permit expired at 6:30 p.m.

“I think that law enforcement needs to be very, very careful about what they’re doing and not anticipate violence,” said Sen. Doug Jones, a former U.S. attorney. “I saw some people say last night in Huntsville that they were trying to prevent violence before it started, and you don’t do that, I don’t think, with gas and rubber bullets.”

Jones called for a “good, long review” and said images of snipers on roofs and children gassed were disturbing.

At least 24 people were arrested Wednesday evening, all of them from Madison County, the chief said. Twenty were arrested for disorderly conduct for participating in the “unlawful assembly.” But he also claimed that outside splinter groups agitated the crowd and “anarchists” organized the demonstration.

“The ones who stayed began donning all their protective equipment,” McMurray said. “They put on their eye protection. They put on their gas masks. They broke out their first aid kits, their water, their milk, their preparations for combat, and they stood their line, and they were confrontational with us.”

The police chief and sheriff said they were confident the protesters were an out-of-state splinter group because they saw cars with out-of-state tags.

“A lot of these people came in to ramp up the numbers of what happened Monday,” McMurray said, referring to the first time law enforcement deployed tear gas against protesters in Huntsville after a protest Monday evening. “They weren’t here for the NAACP. They were here for anarchist movements.”

McMurray displayed what he said was an anarchist poster found at the demonstration. He also showed photos of pipes and other materials, which he said were weapons stashed by the demonstrators, though none appeared to have been used.

Madison County Sheriff Kevin Turner said police “did the right thing” Wednesday evening.

“We did the right thing last night,” Turner said. “At 6:30, when that permit was over, when they came to the square, we still showed patience and allowed them to march that square — when we could have initially just ended it. There is tensions across this country. We see it every single night on TV. It is a terrible thing, a terrible thing that happened to Mr. Floyd — terrible. But we’ve got to do the right thing. By doing these acts and coming into our town, or any town for that matter, and destroying it, it takes everything away from what happened. And we’re not going to allow that here in the city of Huntsville or in Madison County. We’re not going to do it.”

*Correction: This article previously stated that State Troopers joined Huntsville police and Madison County Sheriff’s Deputies in deploying tear gas and rubber bullets. The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency says State Troopers were only present as backup support and did not fire tear gas or other dispersants.

“Huntsville is one of several Alabama cities this week requesting support from ALEA. The agency has assigned ALEA Troopers to serve as backup during protests, but they have not participated in deploying tear gas or using other such means to disperse crowds. Details are law-enforcement sensitive and not available,” an ALEA spokesperson said in a statement.

 

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Opinion | What happened in Huntsville Wednesday night was disgraceful

Josh Moon

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Law enforcement officers in Huntsville assaulted dozens of people Wednesday night following a peaceful protest and march. 

This is the accurate description of what took place in Huntsville. 

I don’t care what you heard on “the news” or what you read on Facebook or Twitter. That’s what happened. 

Following a peaceful protest downtown — for which the NAACP obtained a permit, because it planned to block traffic — dozens of protesters, gathered to speak out about police brutality of black citizens in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, began to march around the downtown area. 

This is their right. It is guaranteed by the U.S. constitution. 

Contrary to popular belief, and according to legal guidance posted by the American Civil Liberties Union, you do NOT need a permit to peacefully assemble. In fact, it is against the law for anyone — or any law enforcement agency — to prevent you from peacefully assembling in response to a breaking news event.  

And yet, that’s exactly what happened in Huntsville. 

Huntsville Police, the Madison County Sheriff’s Department and — for some reason that no one could immediately explain — the Alabama State Troopers began firing tear gas and rubber bullets at people who were peacefully marching. 

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In attempting to explain why such actions occurred, Lt. Michael Johnson of HPD essentially admitted that officers acted improperly. 

He told TV station WHNT-19 that officers attempted to clear the area by telling the lawfully gathered crowd to disperse. When the crowd instead decided to exercise its right to assemble, Johnson said, officers began using force, including firing the rubber bullets at innocent men, women and children and spraying the crowd with pepper spray and tear gas. 

(Just a quick little FYI: Tear gas has been deemed a chemical agent and the Geneva Convention specifically bans its use in war. But it’s still legal for police departments to toss into peaceful crowds.)

Johnson said officers used force because they weren’t “going to roll the dice” and take a chance that the crowd could become hostile. 

Which — and while I’m no attorney, I feel comfortable going out on this limb — is not how the law works. You can’t impose force because you believe someone might break the law. Particularly when there is no evidence of that. 

And how do we know there is no evidence of it? 

Because Johnson just kept on talking during that interview, an interview led by WHNT’s Jerry Hayes, who was — and I’ll put this kindly — very police-friendly. As Hayes praised the police response and told everyone that the cops really had no choice but to clear the area by gassing children, Johnson explained just how well it had all gone. 

No officers were injured, Johnson said. No property was damaged, he said. They even had single-digit arrests/detainments, he said. 

So, again, law enforcement fired rubber bullets at peacefully assembled men, women and children who didn’t damage property, didn’t assault police officers and had every right to march on and alongside a public street. 

It’s not hard to understand why people are marching against police abuse. 

Democratic state Rep. Anthony Daniels, who represents the Huntsville area and who spoke earlier in the evening at the NAACP-organized event, compared the actions and the optics of the police attacking citizens to “Bloody Sunday” in Selma. On that day in 1965, Alabama State Troopers attacked a group of peaceful marchers because the marchers refused to disperse, and instead continued their march out of Selma towards Montgomery.

“I want someone to explain to me what the state troopers were doing at a peaceful event,” Daniels said. “What happened was a disgrace. That was a peaceful protest. Those people were following the laws and were not out of line.”

The same cannot be said for the officers. 

There are a number of videos of cops from various agencies firing tear gas canisters at people who are posing no threat, and in most cases are backing away from the officers, and randomly spraying down groups of people with pepper spray for no discernable reason. In one video that was viewed several hundred thousand times by late Wednesday evening, an HPD officer exits his patrol car, pepper spray in hand, and just starts strolling along, periodically dousing terrified people with the spray. 

It was disgraceful. It was ignorant. It was, most of all, simply wrong. 

There has been a lot of condemnation over the last few days of violent protests and criminal acts. And rightfully so. While many people understand and can empathize with the anger that lies beneath these protests, the majority doesn’t want to watch cities burn. 

I hope the same people who condemned those acts will also speak out against the violence committed by law enforcement in Huntsville on Wednesday.

 

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