4 years ago

Roby slams VA for reported $6 billion in waste, fraud, and abuse


(Video Above: Rep. Roby discusses the recent report showing $6 billion a year were wasted at the VA)
WASHINGTON — A new report finding the embattled Veterans Affairs system squandered $6 billion each year while veterans waited in illegal lines has renewed Congresswoman Martha Roby’s mission to reform the agency.

“While Secretary McDonald was falsely accusing House Republicans of cutting funding for VA healthcare, his department was responsible for billions in waste, fraud and abuse,” Rep. Roby said.

“While President Obama was threatening to veto our appropriations bill over $1.4 billion in funding, the VA was blowing through four times that annually in misspent funds.”

The report, published by the Washington Post, describes a culture of “lawlessness and chaos” at the VA. Perhaps most notably, “purchase cards” intended for purchases under $3,000 were used to buy billions of dollars of medical supplies without going through the federally-mandated contract process.

“I have been told by senior VA officials in no uncertain terms that problems at systems like the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System are ‘not about money.’ Today’s report further demonstrates that the rhetoric from the White House and Secretary McDonald was absurd, insulting and shameless.

“They need to spend less time on political posturing and more time correcting the ongoing mismanagement of VA health care systems that is preventing our veterans from receiving timely, quality care.”

Over the last year Roby has been one of the U.S. House’s most outspoken members on the VA scandal, particularly after it came to light that a whistleblower at the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System (CAVHCS) was met with silence and punishment.

Roby has said she is preparing legislation that would empower the VA Secretary to take over operations when a local VA is chronically underperforming.


39 mins ago

Record year for foreign investment sparks growth in Alabama

With major new growth projects moving forward across Alabama, foreign direct investment continues to play a vital role in the state’s economy, building on a record total of foreign investment approaching $4.2 billion last year.These FDI projects represent major job-creation engines for many Alabama communities.

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Last year, companies from 16 different countries launched projects with more than 7,500 new jobs. So far in 2019, FDI projects approaching $1 billion in value will bring another 3,300 jobs to the state, according to an Alabama Department of Commerce estimate.

In Enterprise, Tier 1 auto supplier Hwaseung Automotive Alabama (HSAA) in March announced plans to add 168 jobs to its Alabama operation through a $6 million expansion that represents Coffee County’s largest FDI project in four years.

HSAA, which launched its Alabama operation in 2003 with 20 employees, will have nearly 600 when the new hires are added, said Jonathan Tullos, executive director of the Wiregrass Economic Development Corp. Its last major expansion in Enterprise came in 2015.

HSAA, which produces weather-stripping and air conditioner hoses, serves Hyundai’s Montgomery assembly plant, along with Kia, Chrysler and General Motors. Its Alabama-made products are found in more than a dozen automobiles.

“Having a company like HSAA make an investment in Enterprise is a ringing endorsement of the quality of workforce and opportunities that exist in our area,” Tullos said.

“We have seen in the past that these investments can yield additional job-creation opportunities from other companies looking for a home.”

One example: Advanced Carrier Products, whose parent company is based in Germany, opened a manufacturing operation in Enterprise to supply metal inserts to HSAA.

FDI IMPACT

Similar stories have played out in a number of Alabama communities in recent years, particularly as growth in the state’s auto industry has intensified.

Select USA, a federal government program that facilitates foreign investment in the U.S., says the Alabama operations of foreign-owned companies employ 109,000 people in the state. Read a report.

Since 2013, FDI projects in Alabama have involved nearly $13 billion in new capital investment, generating almost 25,000 jobs, according to estimates from the Alabama Department of Commerce.

FDI typically accounts for 30 to 50 percent of new and expanding industry activity in the state each year, said Greg Canfield, secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce.

“Clearly, this is a huge priority for us as a state, and we’re fortunate to have a diverse base of industries, along with a highly-skilled workforce, to attract and retain these commitments from global manufacturers year after year,” Secretary Canfield said.

Not all FDI flowing into Alabama is tied to the auto industry.

In fact, foreign investment recorded in 2018 originated from a diverse slate of sources in a variety of industries.

Major FDI projects now under way include French planemaker Airbus’ $264 million, 432-job expansion of its Mobile manufacturing plant, and the $101 million, 150-job expansion of the Calhoun County plant operated by Austria-based Kronospan, a leading manufacturer of wood-based panel products.

Other big projects were Haier U.S. Appliance Solutions Inc., part of a China-based conglomerate and parent company of GE Appliance, which announced a $115 million, 255-job expansion of its Decatur refrigerator plant.

In Mobile, Swedish steelmaker SSAB is investing $100 million, adding 60 jobs and relocating its North American headquarters from suburban Chicago.

FDI HORSEPOWER

Alabama has seen significant increases in FDI in the automotive sector over the past 25 years, thanks to the growing operations of foreign automakers Mercedes-Benz, Honda and Hyundai, and their sprawling supplier networks.

Toyota has also played a major role. Earlier this year, Toyota announced a $288 million expansion at its Huntsville engine plant, where it will add two new production lines and 450 workers. The project will push the investment in the plant to $1.2 billion and its workforce for more than 1,800.

Meanwhile, just miles away, construction on the $1.6 billion Mazda Toyota Manufacturing USA joint venture auto assembly plant is well under way. After production begins in 2021, the facility will have up to 4,000 workers.

Already, suppliers have begun circling the plant, bringing $380 million in new investment and nearly 1,500 jobs. More announcements are expected in 2019.

For Alabama, 2018 was a banner year for automotive FDI.

In addition to the new Mazda Toyota factory, other major projects included Mercedes-Benz’s new $268 million, 325-job EV battery plant in Bibb County, along with a $495.5 million expansion at the automaker’s Tuscaloosa County campus.

Elsewhere in the auto industry, Hyundai constructed a $388 million facility for engine manufacturing operations in Montgomery, and Honda announced plans to spend $55 million to improve weld operations and add more than 50,000 square feet at its Talladega County factory.

According to Select USA data, Alabama has attracted 114 auto-related FDI projects.

TARGETING INVESTMENT

Like other areas of the state, Tullos said Enterprise and Coffee County are making moves to position their region for future investment opportunities by focusing on education and workforce development.

“Our workforce is anchored by one of the best K-12 school systems in the state of Alabama as well as the efforts of Enterprise State Community College President Matt Rodgers, who recently launched a mechatronics program to support companies like HSAA,” he said.

The mechatronics program, offered at the Alabama Aviation College in Ozark beginning this fall, will train workers for high-demand industrial automation careers that focus on electrical, mechanical and computer engineering.

There are similar programs in place to assist Mercedes and Toyota. In addition, Alabama has rolled out initiatives including Success Plus and Apprenticeship Alabama that are designed to fill the pipeline of skilled workers needed in the future.

(Courtesy of Made in Alabama)

1 hour ago

Urban Ministry tackles West End community needs

A visit to Urban Ministry proves to be equally eventful and heartwarming.

It’s lunchtime and the cafeteria is packed. The aroma of home-cooked meats and fresh vegetables billows through the air. Once inside the cafe, the tables are packed. Patrons are eating and communing just as they would at any other eatery.

Urban Ministry Executive Director Melodie Agnew walks around greeting customers with a welcoming smile.

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Agnew is equally comfortable greeting lunch guests and advocating for those served in this community.

Urban Ministry meeting community needs one soul at a time from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Ministering through healthy meals

There are several novelties about this spot called West End Cafe, or WE Cafe, which makes it unique among its restaurant neighbors.

For one, the produce doesn’t come from a local market. It is harvested just steps away in West End Garden, or WE garden, the community garden.

Those who abound financially, and even those who don’t, break bread together. Hearty soul food in a welcoming environment is the common thread regardless of person’s pay scale, and all are welcome.

WE cafe started as a soup kitchen, but now people come and pay as they can. So educators, volunteers and community and business leaders can sit at family-style tables where food is prepared fresh.

The garden fruits and vegetables are also sold at local markets. These include Pepper Place and twice-weekly at Princeton Hospital.

The WE Cafe is open each Wednesday from 11 a.m. – 1 p.m.

Meeting more than financial needs

Some customers also have a great need for suitable housing.

Not only does Urban Ministry provide assistance with rent, home repairs and maintenance like painting, Urban Ministries partners with the Salvation Army to provide energy assistance to elderly and disabled clients through Project Share.

Urban Ministry has the largest Project Share clientele in Birmingham.

[Related: Project Share meeting community needs]

Agnew says the new Energy Assistance Portal( EAP),created by Alabama Power, is an invaluable resource to the agency.  Agency leaders say EAP provides a user-friendly platform for intake workers to quickly access information needed to post real-time energy assistance pledges and payments.

This in turn gives more time for workers to serve clients.

Under a broad umbrella, their work covers financial needs, but in its simplest form, it’s all about providing a better quality of life for adults who are in need, along with their children.

A record number of children enrolled in summer school. Staff had to prepare for 90 schoolchildren this year at Urban Ministry – including meals, activities and accommodations for each student.

And Agnew says it doesn’t stop there.

“In addition to our students, families of these students also come with various needs. Urban Ministries works to help support those needs of families with the help of our church and corporate partners.”

Empowering those they serve 

For Agnew, serving as executive director holds a two-fold meaning. She can look out her office window, where she grew up in West End just steps from where she sits today. Not only does she serve this community: she and her family are a part of it.

Her great-grandfather and grandfather had businesses in the community. Her father and grandmother were educators in the community. She saw them providing opportunities for the community.

Agnew believes in not only providing programs and resources for neighbors, but investing in people by teaching them to be their own advocates and support. The work is great, but Agnew’s determination and vision are without end.

Prior to joining Urban Ministry, Agnew worked as executive director of the Norwood Resource Center,where she dedicated her time to supporting families and building vibrant neighborhoods.

Agnew says she wants to leave a legacy of service and strengthening her community, just as her family did.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

14 hours ago

Opposition research: When is the right time for a campaign to attack their opponents?

This time of year before an upcoming spring primary election, I get asked a lot, “When are we going to see some opposition research dropped from campaigns?”

Long-term strategy during a political campaign can be a fragile thing knowing when to start and complete certain tasks. It’s an easy decision to have a campaign web site early on. It’s easy to decide that raising money early on is crucial to getting the campaign off on a solid foundation. Hiring staff and consultants is done early and adding more throughout the campaign is an easy call to make. When to open a campaign office and getting volunteers is also an easy decision to make. However, timing is everything, especially when it comes to knowing when to drop a piece of opposition research on an opponent. If a campaign uses what they have too early and in the wrong way, they run the risk of it leaving the voters’ minds in advance of Election Day. If a campaign waits too long, voters can turn off any information because towards the end of a long campaign season, voters get tired of all the ads and revolt against any and all campaign happenings.

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As a veteran opposition research consultant, I have been involved in well over 100 political campaigns over a span of 28 years, and have seen about all there is to see regarding opposition research and there is no concrete answer as to when a campaign should drop a piece of oppo on an opponent. Every campaign is different and having people on the team that know from experience when oppo should be dropped helps, but still isn’t a guaranteed way to know when to release the information.

These are some of the factors that go into the decision of when to release opposition research:

  1. If your campaign is hanging on by a thread: If your candidate has damaging opposition research on any other candidate who is even or above them in the polls, releasing the information can turn a campaign around and give it life due to the attention they will get once the oppo is released to the public. Holding information “for later” many times is never used because your candidate doesn’t make it until Election Day. If you have it, use it.
  2. If you are being attacked by an opponent: The old saying, “Fight fire with fire,” applies here. It could be deemed school-yard antics, but if your candidate is getting ravaged by another campaign, one way to stop it or at least slow it down is to release your own opposition research on the candidate that is attacking you. Many think that this sort of behavior turns off voters, but in reality, it works.
  3. To raise money: Donors love to see a candidate who will fight and will reward them accordingly if they feel that they have something to say and can win. Releasing opposition research on opponents can make some donors think twice about who they will support especially if what you have on an opponent is quite damaging to their campaign. Remember that an overwhelming majority of possible donors don’t have access to the information that you do, so releasing it to the public makes sense in a financial standpoint.
  4. To bake it in: If your campaign has incredible opposition research especially on the perceived front-runner, that in your opinion can dramatically affect the outcome of the race, releasing it early in the campaign season and hammering it daily can serve to “bake it in,” the voters’ minds.
  5. To drive the last nail in a coffin of an opponent: If one of your main opponents’ campaign is losing steam, some consultants like to do all they can to knock them out of the race by piling on with opposition research. Other consultants like to stay out of it and allow the opponent to slowly descend in the polls and drop out when the money dries up. I have found that both are credible strategies, however, if you want to use a boxing analogy, when you have an opponent on the ropes, you go for the knock-out and don’t back off in order to give him time to catch his second breath.
  6. Being the last word: For years, consultants have believed that all opposition research should be released a few days before Election Day. Their thought process was that if they waited that deep into the campaign season to release information, their opponent wouldn’t have time to adequately answer the attacks. That thinking has become antiquated due to the 24-hour news cycle that we currently live. Candidates have the ability now to answer attacks via a number of social media platforms, by talk radio appearances, and doing their own TV ads that answer the attacks. Technology and social media has changed the world and certainly has had a dramatic effect on political campaigns as well.

One thing is for sure, opposition research is always going to be used as a strategy and campaigns who know how to gather it and when and how to use it correctly can mean the difference between winning and losing a campaign.

Brad Presnall is a veteran Alabama-based political opposition and vulnerability research consultant. He can be contacted at bpresnall@hotmail.com.

15 hours ago

Three siblings share cancer diagnosis caused by rare genetic mutation

At first glance, Kevin, Kiala and Keaira Perkins may seem like typical 17-, 14- and 11-year-old children, respectively. But, after getting to know them, you might be shocked to find out that all three have suffered from thyroid cancer.

The siblings, from Madison, Alabama, all suffer from a rare genetic condition called multiple endocrine neoplasia (MEN2A), a rare, hereditary condition occurring in roughly one in 35,000 people in the United States. It is caused by a mutation in the RET gene, which provides instruction for producing a protein that is involved in cell signaling and is needed for the normal development of several kinds of nerve cells.

“In December 2018, Kevin was tested for MEN2A by his pediatrician, and later received a call from UAB and Dr. Herb Chen,” said LaToya Wade, the mother of Kevin, Kiala and Keaira. “Dr. Chen said, ‘we need you here as soon as possible,’ and soon after we met with Dr. Chen, we scheduled surgery for Kevin.”

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Soon after Kevin’s surgery to remove his thyroid, Kiala and Keaira underwent the same testing. The result: Both tested positive for MEN2A.

People with MEN2A have one functioning RET gene and one that triggers cells to divide abnormally, causing tumors in the endocrine system and other tissues. MEN2A, identified in the children’s father and aunt by the aforementioned blood test, leads to medullary cancer of the thyroid, pheochromocytoma – tumors in the adrenal gland – and hyperparathyroidism, which causes excessive calcium in the blood and can lead to kidney damage. If one parent has MEN2A, the children have a 50 percent chance of inheriting the same mutation.

“Thyroid cancers, including medullary thyroid cancer, start out so small that you don’t notice them,” Chen said. “With genetic testing in patients with MEN2A, if the child tests positive, I can tell a parent there is a 100 percent chance their child will develop thyroid cancer.  Importantly, we can do surgery ahead of time to remove the thyroid before the cancer develops.”

Chen, chair of the UAB Department of Surgery, says cases like the Perkins’ are an example of how genetic testing can diagnose someone’s risk and eventual prevention of cancer by doing prophylactic surgery (an operation before the cancer develops in the organ).

To treat the Perkins family, Chen removed the thyroids of all three children in addition to Kiala’s parathyroid. They will have to take medications for the rest of their lives to make up the hormones their body loses after removing the thyroid glands.

It is a small sacrifice to prevent a larger problem.

“We were fortunate to treat the Perkins family while their cancers were very, very small,” Chen said.

Wade said finding out a loved one has cancer is always scary, let alone three of her children. However, she knew her family would be in the best of care with Chen and Nurse Practitioner Kelly Lovell.

“For me, this was a trying process,” Wade said. “When your kids have surgery, you never know what’s going to happen. I just didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t want to tell them I was nervous, so I had my moments alone, and I just kept praying. My mind was all over the place, but now they are doing well. They’re on top of their game.”

Chen agreed the siblings have a bright future ahead.

Kevin, a senior in high school, plans to study engineering in college, while Kiala and Keaira want to become an actress and a doctor, respectively.

Wade said she hopes her family’s story will help others seek genetic testing, so doctors can prevent more cases of thyroid cancer from developing.

Chen, who also serves as a senior scientist with the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB, echoed her wishes.

“We’re taking a cancer that could cause harm and completely removing it before it starts,” he said. “That’s why it is so important that people hear about this condition.”

If you would like to learn more about this rare genetic condition, the UAB Endocrine/Neuroendocrine Neoplasia Program of the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Department of Surgery in conjunction with AMENSupport Foundation will host a multiple endocrine neoplasia patient conference Saturday, Nov. 16.

For more information, visit the Department of Surgery’s website.

This story originally appeared on the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s UAB News website.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

17 hours ago

Alabama couple grow produce delivery service from the ground up

With summer in full swing, it’s the prime season for fresh fruits and vegetables. But who wants to get up at dawn on Saturday morning to make the trip to the local farmers market to buy produce?

That’s no longer necessary in the Birmingham area. In April, Will and Hayley DeShazo launched till, the city’s first-ever service that delivers produce fresh from the farm directly to your doorstep.

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The DeShazos said their idea for an online market grew out of “selfish motives.” While they were dating, they loved to cook together and eat locally grown, healthy foods, but getting to the market became a hassle.

“We love fresh produce, but we don’t necessarily love the challenges of getting fresh produce,” Will said. “We had been spending every Saturday for the past several years at the farmers market, but it was always difficult to work our schedules around it. In January, we were having brunch, and we looked at each other and said, ‘Why is buying local food so difficult?’”

Now married, Will and Hayley began their search for a better way.

The Cahaba Heights couple have a background in marketing. Will also had learned a lot about the use of local ingredients while working as a waiter’s assistant after college at Hot and Hot Fish Club, one of Birmingham’s most exclusive restaurants.

Till will shop Alabama farmers markets for you from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

With experience guiding them, the DeShazos began using Facebook and email to canvass people who enjoy eating healthy foods and to develop partnerships with local farmers. The response was overwhelming.

“We found that people not only wanted something like till in the Birmingham area, they needed it,” Hayley said. “There are stories of people who literally don’t have transportation to the farmers market, or who are disabled and can’t drive a vehicle to the market. There are people who work on Saturday mornings and can’t get to the market. We found everybody wants it, so we decided we’re doing it.”

Till offers a wide selection of produce, including fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs, along with meats and pantry items, such as breads and baked goods.

The selection of available products is ever-changing, depending on the season, Will said.

“We update our website regularly,” he said. “We don’t want people to think they can only eat local in June, July or August. That’s so not true. Some of the best fruits and vegetables are found in the wintertime.”

Customers can order online for $12 a month or $99 a year. The delivery service is currently available to 10 Birmingham-area ZIP codes.

Free pickup is also available at the DeShazos’ drive-through location next to Doodles Italian ice in Cahaba Heights.

Ordering produce is easy. Customers can order online anytime between Sunday and Wednesday. When they sign up for the service, customers will receive an insulated bag, which they will fill with ice packs and leave on their porch on delivery days. On Saturday mornings, the till team delivers the goods and notifies you when they have arrived.

“Till is a metaphor for all of the options that the food industry in America gives us,” Hayley noted, explaining the premise behind the business’s colorful name. “We’ve been accustomed to getting the food we want, when we want it, without knowing where it comes from or what nutrients it has in it. Till is a metaphor for searching for all the options that are in the ground right beneath you, which is locally sourced food.”

Hayley added that spreading the word about the importance of eating nutritious food is a large part of the job.

“Teaching people to eat seasonally and change their lifestyle can be a challenge,” Hayley said. “We are used to having a wide variety of items available at the grocery store. But we have to realize that processed foods are lacking in nutrients and have been treated with pesticides that can cause health issues. But when you sacrifice these items and choose local produce, your life is changed.”

Realizing that thousands of Alabamians are going hungry every day, Will and Hayley are also giving back through their farm-to-door delivery service. They are donating a portion of the local produce to Grace Klein Community, a nonprofit that provides food to those in need. Customers can donate to Grace Klein directly through the till website.

The DeShazos said their favorite part of the business has been meeting their customers – many of whom have become friends.

“It’s fun starting at the grassroots level and getting to know our customers,” Will said. “We know that food is the one thing that connects everyone. Some of our best moments as families have been eating food around the table. Getting to know our customers while we’re still small is allowing us to create, pivot and tweak our service based upon our till members’ needs.”

Hayley said although Will is the entrepreneur in the family, she is thrilled that they took the plunge.

“I’ve never considered myself a risk-taker and probably would not have started the business without Will,” Hayley said. “But I’ve always been super-passionate about local produce and supporting Alabama farmers. Alabama is an amazing place, and you can grow amazing foods in Alabama because of our soil. I’m proud of the resources we have in our state, and I’m proud of our farmers and want to help people learn about the foods available to them.”

To learn more about till or sign up for the delivery service, click https://usetill.com. Along with ordering food, customers can check out the DeShazos’ recipe blog, which offers tasty ways to turn local produce into memorable dishes.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)