PI Original Ashlee Rezin Friday March 15th, 2013, 6:19pm

Illinois Congressmen Push Bills On DOD Audit, Future Of U.S. Physicians & Fracking

Three bills in Congress received co-sponsorship from Illinois legislators this week ranging from a call to audit the Pentagon to an investigation of the environmental and health consequences of fracking. We take a closer look at the bills.

Three bills in Congress received co-sponsorship from Illinois legislators this week ranging from a call to audit the Pentagon to an investigation of the environmental and health consequences of fracking.

Auditing The Pentagon

U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D, IL-8) today signed on as a co-sponsor of the Audit the Pentagon Act of 2013, HR 559, a bill that would impose penalties on the Department of Defense for failure to submit to a financial audit.

Touting the bill as a way to increase liability in the Department of Defense and potentially prevent waste in revenue, Duckworth said in a statement that “Congress should act immediately and demand increased accountability by passing the Audit the Pentagon Act of 2013.” Originally sponsored by U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D, CA-13), the bill has received 15 bipartisan co-sponsors since it was first introduced February 6.

The Department of Defense (DOD) is the only federal agency that does not submit to a yearly audit. The Chief Financial Officer and Federal Financial Reform Act of 1990 requires the DOD to do so, but in the 23 years since the bill’s passage, the department has yet to produce auditable financial statements.

The National Defense Authorization Act for 2013 mandated the DOD produce audit-ready budget statements by September 2014. But to further motivate the department, the Audit the Pentagon Act imposes a 5 percent reduction in discretionary budgets as a penalty for federal agencies that do not submit to an audit.

“Under sequestration, programs that keep our military strong, the American people safe and help millions of working Americans make ends meet are facing severe cuts,” said Duckworth. “We need to make sure that every dollar the federal government spends is spent wisely and focused on investments in growing our economy.”

A $1.2 trillion package of spending cuts over the next decade kicked in March 1, slated to slash $85 billion from the budget this fiscal year. The DOD’s budget alone is scheduled to be cut by well some $42.7 billion, or 9.4 percent, over the next seven months.

“The sequester is the absolute wrong way to go for budget cuts,” said Ralph Martire, executive director for the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

Martire approximated “political clout within the Pentagon” and “certain claims, some of which may be legitimate, of secrecy” as reasons for the Department of Defense not previously submitting to an audit.

“This (audit) will create the kind of data that will allow legislators to say ‘we don’t want to cut this area but look at that area, there’s room to cut over there,’ so it could offer a better approach to determine which service areas can and should be cut,” he said. “Having information from the audit would be helpful because across the board cuts without any sense of prioritization or underlying rationale are the worst way to go for budget cuts if budget cuts are necessary.”

Addressing The Hospital Shortage

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock (R, IL-18) introduced the Training Tomorrow’s Doctors Today Act, yesterday with U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D, PA-13). The legislation attempts to address the U.S. physician shortage by increasing the number of residency slots in hospitals by creating 15,000 new Graduate Medical Education (GME) slots. As the first increase to hospitals’ residency slots since 1997, the bill would open up 3,000 new slots around the country each year for five years.

Funded primarily by Medicare, residency slots train medical school graduates in hospitals. Under the legislation, no more than 75 new slots can be slated for any one hospital.

“There are huge demands within the healthcare system today and we are trying to head off this crisis before it gets worse,” Schock said on a conference call today.

According to the congressman, the U.S. has 62,000 fewer doctors than what is needed in the healthcare system and the expectation is that by 2025 there will be a shortfall of 130,000 doctors.

He said the legislation received endorsements from many of the country’s teaching hospitals and medical schools, including the Springfield College of Medicine. The congressman added that the residency slots would be filled by “medical professionals that could go out and service needy constituents and people who need access to healthcare, and they would start earning income, paying taxes and living the American dream.”

But one expert said the total number of GME slots has not been the barrier to physician access, but the distribution and mix of physician workforce is the major contributor to America’s shortage.

“Areas with physician shortages have consistently included rural areas, and areas with high concentrations of persons with low-income and racial and ethnic minority,” said Dr. Mark Potter M.D. director of the Family Medicine Residency Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “The number of GME training slots is not the biggest driver of physician shortages, the mix of GME slots, in terms of specialty and the location of emphasis of training, is a much more important determinate of the physician workforce development.”

To battle a lack of primary care physicians in rural areas, Schock’s legislation focuses half of the additional 15,000 GME slots on primary care physician training.

“The majority of counties in our country do not have the adequate levels of primary care physicians,” he said. “It would take a far more substantial redirection of GME training than 50 percent of 15,000 slots to resolve the shortage in our country, it’s a step in the right direction, but barely keeps pace with the natural attrition of primary care physicians that is expected in the upcoming years.

Schock says the stand-alone bill would cost the Center for Medicare Medicaid and Services, which provides grants for residency slots, $2 billion over 10 years, which should be taken care of with the Medicare re-authorization process.

A Closer Look At Fracking

U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley (D, IL-5) has co-sponsored two bills, the Bringing Reductions to Energy’s Airborne Toxic Health Effect (BREATHE) Act and the Focused Reduction of Effluence and Stormwater runoff through Hydrofracking Environmental Regulation (FRESHER) Act, which would ensure hydraulic fracturing operators adhere to the restrictions of the 1990 Clean Air Act and the 1972 Clean Water Act.

Fracking releases Earth’s natural gas by an oil and gas drilling technique that injects a mix of water, sand, and chemicals into the ground to create cracks in deep rock layers. Supporters tout it as a job creator that supplies America with its own source of natural gas, but opponents question its environmental and health impacts.

Quigley sponsored both bills with U.S. Reps. Jared Polis (D, CO-2) and Matt Cartwright (D, PA-17).

The FRESHER Act would eliminate a Clean Water Act exemption for oil and gas companies that allows them to evade stormwater runoff permitting requirements. The legislation would also mandate further study for the effects of hydraulic fracturing on surface water.

The BREATHE Act would restrict air pollution from fracking by closing a loophole to the Clean Air Act’s aggregation provision and adding hydrogen sulfide to the Act’s list of hazardous air pollutants. Hydrogen sulfide is associated with nausea, vomiting, headaches and eye irritation.

“We must preserve our environment and uphold the tenants of the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act so that future generations can enjoy the same natural resources we have today,” said Quigley in a statement.

Fracking may be coming to Illinois relatively soon, though. The Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Regulatory Act, HB 2615, attempts to regulate fracking in Illinois by establishing a new permit program within the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), and requiring a permit be obtained before conducting high volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing activities.

Sponsored by State Rep. John Bradley (D-Marion), the bill was assigned to the House Revenue and Finance Committee on March 4, but voting on the bill, which was scheduled for today, was postponed. Gov. Pat Quinn endorsed the legislation during his budget address on March 6, touting fracking as a job creator and saying the bill has the “strongest environmental regulations in the nation.” Meanwhile, environmentalists and local activists are pushing back against the prospect of bringing the practice to Illinois.

According to Quigley, “the BREATHE Act and FRESHER Act will protect our land, air and water from the serious dangers of fracking by enforcing the laws already on the books that are intended to keep us safe and healthy.”

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