Veterans news update for Jan. 2

Veterans news update for Jan. 2

Veterans news updateVeteran’s chemical burns expanded knowledge of military doctors, but his care faltered (The New York Times)
Daniel Mould’s sense of abandonment was profound. An Air Force staff sergeant wounded in a chemical weapon accident in 2004, he willingly helped the military study his wounds. From his bed in a Philadelphia burn ward, as blisters from sulfur-mustard agent erupted on his skin, he signed a waiver allowing doctors to gather his body fluids to experiment with new laboratory methods for confirming chemical exposure. Over the next 18 months, as the military gave him attentive care and doctors prepared peer-reviewed journal articles about his case, another branch of the service, the Army, concluded that it needed to be exhaustive in tracking troops exposed to chemical warfare agents: Citing Sergeant Mould’s burns, it called for monitoring victims for life. The case seemed a welcome example of the military’s working closely with a patient to improve understanding of a rare battlefield risk and to develop practices to learn from patients’ medical experiences. Then came the shift. When Sergeant Mould accepted medical retirement in 2006, he was suffering a cascade of health problems, but he said he had been assured of long-term monitoring. Instead, he said, “the Air Force never contacted me again. I’ve never been tracked.”

2015 goal for VA claims backlog appears out of reach (Military Times)
The Veterans Affairs Department boasted another dramatic drop in its backlog of benefits claims in 2014, but will need an extra boost in coming months to meet its goal of zeroing out the payout delays by the end of 2015. The backlog — the number of first-time VA benefits claims unresolved for more than four months — sits at around 245,000 cases, according to departmental data. That’s down more than 160,000 cases in 2014 and more than 250,000 cases since the start of 2013. But despite that solid progress, VA workers are still not on pace to fully eliminate the backlog by the end of next year, a goal long promised by department officials. “I think they can get close, but I don’t think they can get to zero,” said Jackie Maffucci, research director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “Just looking at the numbers, it’s doubtful.” After two years of intense focus from lawmakers and critics, attention on the claims backlog has waned since early 2014. Worries about the thousands of veterans waiting for disability payouts were overtaken by worries about lengthy care delays at VA medical centers and data manipulation by department officials.

Veterans respond to a media outlet’s scathing military critique (U.S. News & World Report)
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are technically over, but a brief glimpse at reports coming out of those regions shows conflict there is nowhere near an armistice. So perhaps now, more than ever, a critique of the modern military is timely. These current conditions conditions may have inspired the Monday article in The Atlantic by James Fallows, the Ivy League scholar turned draft dodger who became the youngest presidential speechwriter in history under former President Jimmy Carter. Fallows’ lengthy and wide-ranging article tried to take on the major facets of the modern military, a force juxtaposed against the romanticized histories of the men and women who fought the Nazis, undermined by civil unrest against the Vietnam War, and now magnified by a world connected by the internet, social media and a 24/7 news cycle. Fallows harps on how modern military shortfalls have been made worse by the fact that fewer Americans now serve in uniform – down from roughly 10 percent at the end of the Second World War to less than 1 percent today – and the perhaps inevitable disengagement that follows. “Now, the American military is exotic territory to most of the American public,” he writes. “Citizens notice when crime is going up, or school quality is going down, or the water is unsafe to drink, or when other public functions are not working as they should. Not enough citizens are made to notice when things go wrong, or right, with the military … The country thinks too rarely, and too highly, of the 1 percent under fire in our name.” Many veterans, posting to popular military blogs and sites, seem to agree with with Fallows on this point.

Officials acknowledge $50 million deficit at Young VA, say it’s not a concern (Tampa Bay Times)
Supervisors at the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center were told recently to keep quiet about performance bonuses owed to employees retiring after Sept. 30, and to not pay them unless retirees specifically asked for their money. And doctors were told a few days earlier that a routine review of salaries to ensure their pay is competitive with the private sector was being suspended because the hospital had a major budget shortfall. Internal documents obtained by the Tampa Bay Times indicate the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital, the nation’s fourth busiest with an annual budget of $660 million, was running a deficit close to $50 million and some costs were being trimmed to close the gap. But regional VA officials deny any cuts at the Young VA, located near Seminole, and said the hospital was having no financial difficulties. Internal emails noting cuts were based on misunderstandings by supervisors, VA officials said, and were sent out in error. Officials said they have since been rescinded. Joleen Clark, the VA regional director overseeing hospitals in Florida, did not deny in an interview Wednesday that the Young VA was projecting a deficit close to $50 million in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. But Clark said projected deficits and surpluses are common early in the fiscal year and do not reflect a hospital’s underlying finances. Budgets, she said, are easily adjusted without cuts to services and all VA hospitals in the region, including the Young VA, would easily make budget by the close of the fiscal year Sept. 30.

VA botched case against former Phoenix VA director (The Washington Times)
The VA blundered its first public act of accountability in this year’s wait list scandal, with department investigators and attorneys failing to make a case stick against the Phoenix clinic director who oversaw the cooked books and secret lists that left veterans struggling for care. Sharon Helman, the director, was fired from the Department of Veterans Affairs, but only because she improperly took thousands of dollars in gifts. A personnel appeals judge last week rejected the VA’s claim that she should also have been dismissed for overseeing the wait lists. Ms. Helman’s case is just one that the VA is handling in the wake of the wait list scandal, and so far its investigators have had about 20 percent of their decisions weakened or overturned on appeal, according to the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. Now top lawmakers on Capitol Hill and independent analysts are questioning how VA investigators failed to make the wait list scandal stick to Ms. Helman, who became its central figure. Cheri Cannon, a lawyer at Tully Rinckey PLLC, said VA investigators interviewed witnesses without putting them under oath, and VA attorneys erred in charging Ms. Helman with being directly connected to the wait lists. They should have charged her with mismanagement or not knowing what her employees were doing, Ms. Cannon said. “The agency blew this, in my view; the agency charged her wrong,” she said. “That being said, they charged her with this other stuff [ethics violations for gifts]. They knew they had a weak case going in. Otherwise, why do it?”

Consultant fired over gifts to ex-boss of Phoenix VA (
A health-care industry consultant and lobbyist who provided gifts worth thousands of dollars to former Phoenix VA hospital Director Sharon Helman has been fired by his Washington, D.C., firm for ethical violations, according to the company’s chief executive. Julie Susman, president of Jefferson Consulting Group, said this week in an interview and a letter that her firm did not pay for or authorize the gifts provided to Helman by Dennis “Max” Lewis, Jefferson’s vice president. “Our understanding is that any such gifts from Mr. Lewis to Ms. Helman were intended to be personal in nature based on their preexisting relationship,” Susman wrote. “Nonetheless, they violated Jefferson’s longstanding ethics policy, which prohibits such gifts. After learning of this matter and collecting our evidence, Jefferson terminated Mr. Lewis’ employment.” Helman was fired last month by the Department of Veterans Affairs, and that action was upheld Dec. 22 by the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board. In a written ruling, Chief Administrative Judge Stephen Mish found Helman improperly accepted a Disney vacation, concert tickets and other perks from Lewis, a former VA administrator who joined Jefferson Consulting Group after leaving government service.

VA facing new Congressional crackdown after Colorado hospital problems (Fox News)
A congressional battle is brewing over the Department of Veterans Affairs’ admitted mismanagement of construction projects across the country — including an over-budget, billion-dollar hospital in Colorado that was, briefly, abandoned by the contractor. “VA construction managers couldn’t lead starving troops to a chow hall,” Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman said in a recent statement. Coffman, an Army and Marine Corps combat veteran, plans to introduce legislation stripping the VA of its authority to manage construction projects, and putting the Army Corps of Engineers in charge instead. The Republican congressman’s district includes the location of the troubled VA hospital project in Aurora, Colo. — the latest black eye for the agency following the scandal over secret waiting lists. The VA’s original design in 2005 was estimated to cost $328 million. By 2008, design changes led Congress to authorize $568 million for the project. By 2010, Congress increased the authorization to $800 million. With most of that money already spent, the hospital is still only half-finished, leaving area veterans frustrated and angry.

Kansas veteran worries exposure to hazardous fumes cause of health problems (Kansas Health Institute News)
Four months ago, U.S. Army veteran Brandon Garrison played in an all-day softball tournament, a fundraiser for the Wounded Warrior Project. “The tournament was on a Saturday,” Garrison said. “The next day I woke up and I couldn’t walk.” Garrison, a 28-year-old from Leavenworth, experienced debilitating muscle pain for several days and was hospitalized at a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs facility. He left with a cane that he was still using last month. After multiple wartime deployments to Afghanistan as an infantryman and a supply specialist, Garrison has health conditions that are explainable: traumatic brain injury from the concussive blasts of explosives and post-traumatic stress disorder from the strain of combat. But he also has conditions that are harder to explain: nerve twitches, muscle weakness, fibromyalgia, chronic prostatitis, low testosterone. In researching those symptoms in U.S. soldiers, he came across websites like Burn Pits 360, where other veterans discussed the potential hazards associated with the massive open air burn pits used to dispose of waste at U.S. military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. Garrison used those pits in his supply role. He remembered some of the things that were thrown into them: feces, human remains, the carcasses of diseased animals, batteries, spent ammunition casings, medical waste. “We were taking used vehicle parts that had transmission fluid, hydraulic fluid, things like that and throwing them in these burn pits,” he said. “My job was to turn this stuff in. If it’s unserviceable, we disposed of it. Tires. Paint, I’m sure. Any one of those things, if you burn it stateside, you can get written up for it because it’s a hazard. I was making multiple trips to these burn pits a day. Multiple.”

Lawsuit claims VA sexual harassment cover-up (The Denver Post)
A Department of Veterans Affairs employee claims she was sexually harassed by an official who had been bounced from location to location because of prior similar allegations. The lawsuit says that after the employee claimed sexual harassment VA officials retaliated against her by filing false claims against her and forcing her to work in proximity to the offending supervisor, Loren Pierce. The lawsuit, filed Monday, names Robert A. McDonald, secretary of the federal Department of Veterans Affairs, as a defendant. The lawsuit filed by attorney Kate Beckman seeks lost wages, compensatory and punitive damages. It says that many women had complained against Pierce in 2006 at the Lakewood Veterans Service Center. Because of the complaints, Pierce was transferred to an office in Albuquerque. When women complained about the same type of behavior in New Mexico, he was sent back to Denver in late 2011.