Veterans advocates unhappy with Obama’s ‘disappointing’ State of the Union speech (International Business Times)
President Barack Obama said during his State of the Union speech on Tuesday that if you want to get the job done and done right, “hire a veteran.” But despite the president’s endorsement, veteran advocacy groups aren’t happy with what they heard in the speech. They are especially unhappy that last year’s Veterans Health Administration scandal and ongoing suicide epidemic among veterans did not feature more prominently. The outrage from veterans’ groups comes as a bill aimed at preventing veteran suicides passed unanimously in the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Wednesday after making it through the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee two weeks ago. The bill will now be sent to the full Senate for consideration. Despite progress on the bill in Washington, there are concerns among veterans groups about what they say is a general lack of interest in veterans from the Obama administration. “Unfortunately, given the president’s recent bypass, or should I say snub, of the Phoenix VA medical center, the lack of emphasis on veterans does not come as much of a surprise,” said Diane Zumatto, national legislative director of AMVETS, or American Veterans, referring to Obama’s Jan. 8 trip to Arizona, where his motorcade drove past the scandal-hit hospital without stopping. Paul Rieckhoff, chief executive of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said he was disappointed that Obama had “remained silent on critical veterans issues,” and placed his organization’s weight behind the pending suicide bill. “After the VA scandal and marking more than 13 years of combat, veterans were hoping for a proactive policy agenda from our President,” said Rieckhoff. “But we refuse to have our issues swept under the rug, and we will not rest until Congress passes and the President signs the Clay Hunt SAV Act, designed to combat the tragedy of 22 veterans dying by suicide every day.”
VA construction woes cost billions (The Military Times)
Mistakes and mismanagement have led to more than $1.5 billion in cost overruns and years of delays in recent major Veterans Affairs construction projects, and veterans groups say that’s only the start of the department’s problems. By their estimates, VA planners are up to $65 billion short in their construction goals for the next decade, and the management problems and rising demand for veterans medical services could cripple the department in years to come. VA officials on Wednesday told lawmakers they are working at finishing overdue projects and fixing the behind-the-scenes issues. But members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee characterized the problems as yet another example of mismanagement and disorganization at the department, which has been buffeted by scandals over the past year. “It is long past time for these projects, marred by bureaucratic ineptitude, to be complete,” said committee chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla. Officials from the Government Accountability Office said the Denver project is just one of four major construction projects with cost overruns in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The average delay on completion of those facilities is 35 months, if they proceed as planned from this point.
VA suicide bill heads to full Senate (The Hill)
The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Wednesday unanimously approved a bill aimed at strengthening efforts to prevent suicides among military veterans. The panel, in its first organizational meeting of the new Congress, voted 15-0 for the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, named after a Marine Corps veteran who took his life after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. The bill nearly became law in the last Congress, but final passage was blocked by then-Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). The reintroduced measure sailed through the House earlier this month and will now go to the full Senate for consideration. “When you have 8,000 veterans a year committing suicide — which is more veterans than have died in all of Iraq and all of Afghanistan since we’ve been fighting — then you have a serious problem and this is emergency legislation that we need to pass to help our veterans,” committee Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) said in a statement. The legislation calls for independent evaluations of suicide prevention programs in the Veterans Affairs and Defense departments. The review would determine which efforts are successful or should be eliminated.
Senate to conduct more on-the-ground oversight of VA (The Washington Times)
The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, now under Republican control, said Wednesday that it would make its mission to keep a closer eye on the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs, including holding hearings at Secretary Robert McDonald’s headquarters and traveling to Arizona to get a firsthand look at the office that denied veterans care by trapping them on secret waiting lists. Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, the new chairman of the committee, said getting beyond the grounds of the Capitol is critical to forcing the VA to be held accountable after the waiting list scandal and other reports of poor care and bureaucracy run amok. “Anybody can have a hearing with members of the VA sitting out there giving us testimony telling us what they want us to hear, but we’re going to go to the VA and have a lot of our meetings,” Mr. Isakson said Wednesday during his first committee meeting as chairman. Veterans advocates praised the new focus of the committee, saying the VA needs the oversight after the wait-time scandal, in which clinics throughout the country were manipulating data. “I really think it’s night and day from how we saw the committee run last year,” said Alex Nicholson, legislative director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “There’s no doubt [former Chairman] Bernie Sanders was very passionate about veterans issues and making sure the VA was defended and taken care of, but there was a noticeable lack of oversight and there was a lack of activity in the committee last year.” Mr. Isakson said the committee’s next meeting, scheduled for Feb. 3, would be in Mr. McDonald’s office at VA headquarters in Washington. At that meeting, each department head at the VA will tell the secretary and lawmakers how they corrected mistakes, what challenges they face and what resources they need to do their job better, Mr. Isakson said.
Key Republican gives Obama an F-minus for failing to address VA scandal (The Blaze)
House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said Wednesday that he’d give President Barack Obama a failing grade for ignoring the Department of Veterans Affairs’ ongoing struggles to give veterans healthcare. The VA health care scandal exploded last year, when it was found that top VA officials were keeping secret lists of veterans seeking health care, in a convoluted plot to make it look like care was being delivered quickly. In reality, thousands of veterans around the country were being denied care, and some claimed that veterans died while waiting for this care. But on Tuesday night, Obama indicated that the problem was largely over. “Already, we’ve made strides towards ensuring that every veteran has access to the highest quality care,” he said. “We’re slashing the backlog that had too many veterans waiting years to get the benefits they need.” Obama then quickly pivoted to a call on companies to hire veterans when they can. “He said the word ‘veteran,’ but he didn’t talk about the debacle that has occurred and been occurring for a number of years,” Miller said in an interview with NewsRadio 1620 in Florida. “He didn’t address the Veterans Affairs situation at all.” “He went for an applause line, obviously, for those that support the men and women who fight for our freedom and our constitutional rights,” Miller added. “I give him an F- for addressing that.” Miller agreed that Obama skirted the issue because “there’s so little to report” in terms of reforms at the VA. Miller has noted for the last several weeks that so far, only two senior VA officials have been fired, and neither have been fired for their role in the scandal.
Florida, veterans push for state oversight of VA health centers (Tampa Tribune)
The Department of Veterans Affairs has failed veterans and their families at VA medical centers by not living up to its own rules, the state of Florida and two veterans say in a lawsuit against the department. The state Agency for Health Care Administration on Tuesday filed a motion in U.S. District Court in Tampa arguing that its lawsuit against the VA should go forward. Florida is seeking to exercise oversight of VA health care in the state, saying in its motion this “could improve the quality of care offered by the VA Medical Centers, and perhaps even more importantly, it would provide a meaningful third party for which the veteran plaintiffs could turn to air grievances with the VA system.” A federal judge ruled earlier this month that Florida’s case will be thrown out unless the state can prove it is the proper party to bring such an action against the VA. The Tuesday motion is a response to the judge’s order. The dispute arose last summer when the VA refused to comply with an order by Gov. Rick Scott to have the Agency for Health Care Administration inspect Florida VA medical centers.
Former VA employee sentenced in benefits scam (Waco Tribune)
A former Waco Veterans Affairs Regional Office employee who concocted a fraudulent scheme that defrauded the federal government out of more than $650,000 was sentenced to almost four years in prison Wednesday. Kristin Galloway, 32, the pregnant mother of two small children, was sentenced to 46 months in federal prison, fined $1,000 and ordered to pay $154,400 in restitution. She pleaded guilty in October to theft of government property. Galloway, who worked at the Waco VA regional office for seven years, apologized to her family for bringing it stress, worry and shame and asked U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith Jr. for mercy. VA investigators discovered she used her employment at the VA to gain access to veterans’ files and information, backdating claims and setting up fake bank accounts so she could intercept any payments. Agent Rachel Malone of the Inspector General’s Office testified Wednesday at Galloway’s sentencing hearing that she and her family lived a lavish lifestyle in a $300,000 home. They took an overseas trip, spent $15,000 on furniture and another $12,000 during another shopping spree. She also had LASIK eye surgery, Malone said.
National Geographic explores ‘invisible war wounds’ (Military Times)
National Geographic in its February cover story takes readers through a visually striking, two-part reflection series about veterans coping with their own war beyond the battlefields. “Sometimes you find yourself saying, I wish … I would have lost a body part, so people will see — so they’ll get it,” says Army First Sgt. David Griego in “Revealing the Trauma of War.” The first part of the series — photography and audio by Lynn Johnson — follows veterans in an art therapy program at Walter Reed Medical Center who paint masks to help them cope with daily struggles. “I think this is what started me kind of opening up and talking about stuff and actually trying to get better,” says Staff Sgt. Perry Hopman of the painting therapy program. “The Invisible War on the Brain” then opens part II of the series with an inside look of how thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan service members suffer physically and emotionally from traumatic brain injuries.