National briefs: Head says VA needs $17.6 billion

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs needs $17.6 billion in additional funding over the next three years to eliminate long waiting times for veterans’ health care appointments, the embattled agency's acting chief said Wednesday.

Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee that the $17.6 billion request would only last through the 2017 fiscal year.

But to keep ahead of the rising population of veterans needing VA care, even more money will be needed in the future, Mr. Gibson said.

The VA has been rocked by scandal in the past three months over systematic cover-ups of months-long waiting times for medical appointments at its clinics and hospitals across the country. In Phoenix, doctors have alleged that some 40 veterans died as their names languished on secret waiting lists while officials misrepresented wait-time data to meet targets for bonus compensation.

Ex-POW grateful: lawyer

ATLANTA — U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl is grateful to President Barack Obama for the prisoner exchange that freed him from five years as a captive of the Taliban, his attorney said Wednesday.

Sgt. Bergdahl, who was cleared to return to a desk job this week after the Army said he had completed counseling and a reintegration process, has retained Eugene Fidell, a specialist in military law, to represent him.

In an interview with CNN, Mr. Fidell declined to discuss Sgt. Bergdahl's state of mind because his disappearance and capture in Afghanistan on June 30, 2009, is being investigated by the Army.

Gitmo inmates Uruguay-bound

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has secretly notified Congress that the military intends to transfer six low-level Guantanamo Bay detainees to Uruguay as early as next month, according to people with knowledge of the communication. All six have been approved for transfer for more than four years.

Mr. Hagel’s formal determination that the transfer would be in the national security interest of the United States breaks a bureaucratic paralysis over a deal that has been waiting for his approval since March, but that stalled amid the political uproar over a prisoner exchange deal that secured the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from insurgents in the Afghanistan war.

Calif. death row ‘unconstitutional’

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A federal judge ruled California's death penalty system unconstitutional Wednesday, saying the path to execution in the most populous U.S. state is so long and drawn-out that it amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

Ruling in the case of Ernest Dewayne Jones, who was condemned to death in 1995, Judge Cormac J. Carney of the U.S. Central District of California said that to take “nearly a generation” to decide on Jones’ appeals was unconstitutional.

As part of the ruling, which legal experts said was limited in scope to the Jones case, Judge Carney vacated his death penalty sentence.

Also in the world …

Texas actress Shannon Guess Richardson, 36, was sentenced to 18 years in a federal prison Wednesday on a biological weapons charge for mailing letters containing the toxic agent ricin to President Barack Obama, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and a gun control advocate. … The Senate on Wednesday confirmed Ronnie White to be a U.S. District Court judge in Missouri 15 years after his original nomination.

— Compiled from news services

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