Veterans news update for Nov. 3

Veterans news update for Nov. 3

Veterans news updateMarine veteran home safe after release from Mexico (USA Today)
A U.S. Marine veteran who spent the past eight months in a Mexican jail is back in America and safely at home in Florida. Retired Marine sergeant Andrew Tahmooressi was released Friday after an order from a Mexican judge. Mexican authorities detained him earlier this year when he crossed into the country with loaded guns. After the judge’s decision, the 26-year-old man was taken across the U.S.-Mexico border to a San Diego airport. There, the Afghanistan veteran met his mother, Jill, Republican Rep. Ed Royce of California and former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, according to tweets from the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Also present were TV personality Montel Williams and Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz. Tahmooressi then boarded a private plane to Miami, according to the U-T San Diego newspaper and the local CBS affiliate. A family spokesman told reporters that Tahmooressi arrived at about 6 a.m. Saturday and was now resting with his family at their home in Weston, Fla., where he will soon begin receiving treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. In March, Tahmooressi crossed the U.S.-Mexico border with loaded guns. He has said he took a wrong turn on a freeway that took him to a Tijuana port of entry. The judge who ordered his release Friday said it was because of his mental state. He did not address the weapons charges.

Report says 60,000 veterans get triple benefits (Associated Press)
Nearly 60,000 veterans were triple dippers last year, drawing a total of $3.5 billion in military retirement pay plus veterans and Social Security disability benefits at the same time, congressional auditors report. It’s all legal. The average payment was about $59,000, but about 2,300 veterans, or 4 percent of the total, received concurrent payments of $100,000 or more, the Government Accountability Office said. The highest payment was to a veteran who received $208,757 in combined payments in 2013. Some lawmakers say the report shows the need for better coordination among government programs that are facing severe financial constraints. The Social Security Disability Insurance trust fund could run out of money in as soon as two years, government officials say. “We should fulfill our promises to the men and women who serve, but we need to streamline these duplicative programs,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who requested the study. Veterans groups disagree. They say the retirement money was earned for years of service in the military, while disability payments are compensation for service-related injuries and wounds.

Why the veterans vote could change America (Fox News)
Opinion: Did you know that in the 2010 midterm elections, only 57% of America’s veterans voted?  With so much at stake in America—and across the world—veterans left 9.3 million votes on the table. Not to mention the tens of millions of military family members—wives, husbands, mothers, and fathers—who also failed to execute their most basic civic task. When compared to the nation average for midterm voter participation (38%), the veterans’ participation number looks good.  But considering the sheer potential of the veterans population, and taken in the context of their shared understanding of the fragile nature of freedom—a 57% voter participation rate is unacceptable. In 2014, veterans have the opportunity to change this trend—and the stakes have never been higher.

Emails: VA secretary sought changes in Phoenix report (Army Times)
A top Department of Veterans Affairs official and a White House appointee successfully pressed for changes in an inspector general’s report on the Phoenix VA medical center. According to newly released documents, the report was amended to add a finding that there was no conclusive evidence that delays in care resulted in veteran deaths. In recent congressional testimony, acting VA Inspector General Richard Griffin adamantly denied that changes in the final report, which downplayed links between delayed care and up to 40 veteran deaths, had been “dictated” by VA headquarters. But e-mails released Friday by the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs show that Sloan Gibson, who had been acting VA secretary, personally corresponded with Griffin in early August, asking him to amend the report. Specifically, Gibson asked the inspector general to add findings about a Phoenix whistle-blower’s claim that up to 40 veterans died awaiting care. E-mails show White House deputy chief of staff Rob Nabors, appointed by President Barack Obama this summer to monitor the VA scandal, also urged the change. The e-mails also asked the OIG to share its planned “message” to the media about veterans’ deaths.

Lead investigator for VA still getting criticism over wait times report (Washington Post)
Richard J. Griffin is known by veterans groups as the one who uttered “that dirty little four-word phrase.” As the lead investigator looking into long wait times for veterans seeking health care, Griffin concluded he was “unable to conclusively assert” that delays at the Phoenix VA Health Care System had caused patients to die. That finding has turned Griffin, acting inspector general for the Department of Veterans Affairs, into a lightning rod at the center of the biggest scandal in VA’s history. He has become a target for the anger and frustration of veterans groups, VA medical staff and members of Congress who say his report, released in August, was a whitewash. Griffin’s report included a number of startling examples of mismanaged care. For instance, one patient had to wait six weeks after he was examined to be told he had terminal lung cancer, and another sought mental health services but committed suicide before he got an appointment. But because Griffin did not directly link wait times to any deaths, critics have been questioning his independence as a watchdog.

U.S. isn’t providing care, services earned by Guam’s veterans (
Editorial: Our veterans deserve to be honored and we, as a country, owe them our everlasting thanks and gratitude for their service to our nation. Shamefully, however, the federal government has failed to appropriately honor the courage and sacrifices of local veterans because it’s failed to provide an appropriate level of care, benefits and services. Guam has among the highest numbers of military veterans, per capita, among the states and territories. One in eight adults here have served in the armed forces. Yet the island ranked last in the country for per capita medical spending by the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2012, with an average of $822 for each former service member. Virginia had the next lowest rate with a much greater $1,275 per veteran, according to the Washington Post. There are estimated to be about 14,000 military veterans in Guam and the Micronesia region. Currently the VA Guam Community Based Outpatient Clinic in Agana Heights can’t meet the needs of our veterans. It’s too small and continues to lack adequate numbers of doctors and other staff to provide needed care and services. There have been proposals overs the years by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to expand the clinic, but no funding has been identified.

VA’s archaic archives give way to simpler computerized system (Washington Post)
Call it the demise of the old rubber thumb and the rise of the computerized keyword search. The Department of Veterans Affairs is trying to change the way veterans file disability and other claims in hopes of speeding up an antiquated, paper-bound process that seems like an image from a different era. As recently as 2012, VA employees would have to search through veterans’ files, which in some cases were up to 4 feet high and included everything from X-rays to eye exams to evidence of amputations. The new system introduces standardized electronic forms for veterans to fill out. The goal is to computerize a lengthy process that VA officials say led to long delays in handling claims and appeals. Allison Hickey, the VA’s undersecretary for benefits, said that the VA has scanned 1 billion images, or 8.1 million pounds of paperwork, enough to fill 28 massive C-5 Galaxy cargo planes. She said the backlog was in part due to the mounds of paper that claims adjudicators had to sort through to make their decisions. “Before we had raters sitting with little rubber fingertips going through the 18 inches of paper in a veteran’s record, searching for one word that indicates their injury in that record. They would spend a really long time trying to find that,” she said. She said that today, they can simply use a keyword search to find the word. And it’s done in seconds. The system is known as the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS), and the VA’s army of  29,000 claims that processors are able to see the electronic medical records.

Female veterans charge into public office (The Hill)
A record number of female veterans are running for Congress this year, as both parties make a play for the women’s vote. Only five female military veterans have ever served in Congress, including Reps. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard, and Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), an Army National Guard captain.  Both are expected to win reelection, and 11 other female military veterans are vying to join them. They include five Republicans, four Democrats, and one each from the Libertarian and Independent Green Party. “I think both parties see the value of women veteran candidates,” said Seth Lynn, founder of Veterans Campaign, a non-partisan organization that helps veterans run for office.

Victims of toxic chemicals fight for benefits from the VA (National Journal)
Veterans who were exposed to toxic contaminants during their service are increasingly becoming casualties in a war with the government—particularly the Veterans Affairs Department—which they say has a record of delaying and denying benefits promised to them by acts of Congress. The list of victims is growing, especially among former Marines who spent time at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina when the drinking water was tainted with carcinogens for decades from hazardous-waste dumping at one of the largest military bases in the country. At least two men who were assigned to Camp Lejeune when the water was contaminated died in the past year from breast cancer, which is extremely rare in males; another is dying of lung cancer his doctor says was caused by the base’s poisoned water; and another says he cannot afford treatment for liver cancer he believes stems from chemical exposure at Camp Lejeune. The tragedies are occurring despite a law signed by President Obama in 2012 providing VA health care for Marines and family members who lived at Camp Lejeune for three or more months between 1957 and 1987 and have since incurred any of 15 specific diseases, including breast, liver, and lung cancer. Not a single veteran or family member has yet received the full coverage guaranteed by the law because the VA spent two years drafting regulations for how it will be provided. The new rules were finally issued in September and went into effect this week.

Texas Congressman pushes VA to recruit volunteer doctors (Houston Chronicle)
U.S. Rep. John Culberson is looking for a few free doctors. Nearly three months after President Barack Obama signed a $16.3 billion bill to reform the nation’s troubled veterans hospitals, the Houston Republican is prodding the Department of Veterans Affairs to recruit physicians to volunteer their services without pay at VA facilities that face doctor shortages and long waits. Veterans groups are skeptical about the wide availability of “pro bono” doctors. Some note that the VA already has the legal authority to use volunteer doctors, but has made little use of it. Culberson, chairman of an influential Appropriations Committee panel that oversees veterans affairs, blames “bureaucratic red tape.” He’s drafting legislation that would clear administrative hurdles that he says are blocking volunteer doctors. “I’ve heard from doctors around Houston that they’re interested in helping out at the VA,” he said. “They should be able to volunteer their services just like how a lawyer would volunteer pro bono legal work. … The VA should let these doctors help out.”

Senators squabble over the pace of reform at the VA (Stars & Stripes)
New VA Secretary Bob McDonald promised to have his scandal-plagued agency on the road to recovery by Veterans Day, but there is growing frustration among Senate Republicans over a perceived lack of progress as the date approaches. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., the ranking lawmaker on the Veterans Affairs Committee, on Tuesday joined with fellow senators John McCain and Jeff Flake to criticize the secretary for “ongoing failures” such as keeping disgraced Phoenix VA director Sharon Helman and other executives linked to wrongdoing on the payroll. Then McDonald got a bump of support from a powerful ally on Capitol Hill — Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the committee and architect of a $16.3-billion VA overhaul effort. The political dust-up comes as McDonald is nearly two months into an effort to repair the nation’s veteran health care system after the VA was found to have manipulated records to mask long and potentially dangerous patient wait times at clinics and hospitals across the country.

Marine battles VA amid failing health (Marietta Daily Journal)
James Wilson of Kennesaw, who served as a corporal in the Marines from 1993-97, said everybody in the military said the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department medical centers were not to be trusted. “We always heard bad stories from the VA,” Wilson said. “Stuff about amputating the wrong leg and don’t ever go down there.” Wilson said he never expected to become one of those stories, but after fighting the VA for five years and not receiving any benefits, he said he’s almost ready to quit. “Everyone knew, but in my circles of friends, you knew the VA was just ridiculous. It’s a waste of money,” Wilson said. Wilson, who served in Qatar and Japan in the 1990s, said he was exposed to toxins that caused lumps to appear all over his body. The quarter-sized lumps, which are swollen lymph nodes, are painful and restrict his movement. Wilson’s memory is fading. He can’t remember his children’s awards ceremonies, the milk his wife asked him to pick up after work or directions to places he’s been many times before. Wilson, a warehouse manager at Smyrna-based Supply Direct, said he can’t figure out what his ailments mean, and doctors at the Atlanta VA Medical Center haven’t been able to either.

Leigh Bradley nominated as VA general counsel (ExecutiveGov)
Leigh Bradley, director of the standards of conduct office within the office of the general counsel at the Defense Department, has been nominated as the Department of Veterans Affairs‘ general counsel. Bradley served on active duty as a judge advocate at the U.S. Air Force between 1982 and 1986 before she joined the DoD General Counsel’s office, the White House said Saturday. She was a senior attorney at the DoD office of the deputy general counsel for personnel and health policy from 1987 to 1994. Bradley was VA’s general counsel from 1998 to 2001 after she served as the principal deputy general counsel of the U.S. Navy. She also served as a partner at Holland & Knight LLP, with focus on federal procurement law matters, before she held the chief risk officer role at the American Red Cross.