Veterans news update for Jan. 23

Veterans news update for Jan. 23

Veterans news updateVeterans advocates: Stop the ‘hamster wheel’ disability appeals process (Stars & Stripes)
The effort to clear a massive backlog of veteran disability claims is hurting efforts to address a similar backlog in appeals of denied claims, say advocates demanding reforms to an onerous “hamster wheel” system that leaves veterans languishing for years. A congressional subcommittee hearing Thursday focused on the appeals process, noting that the Department of Veterans Affairs has about 350,000 pending appeals of denied service-connected disability claims. “I am aware that the [VA] chose to prioritize certain initial claims in recent years, but I must say that when veterans in my district share that they waited six, eight, 10 years to resolve a meritorious appeal of a service-connected disability claim, I just find that alarming and unacceptable,” Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-La., said. Veterans wait an average 3½ years to get an initial decision and often years longer for the VA to finalize that decision. There are almost 510,000 original disability claims pending, with more than 240,000 deemed “backlogged” — meaning the veteran has been awaiting a decision for at least 125 days. When veterans’ disability claims are denied, they face another lengthy process involving multi-step appeals in which their cases often ping-pong between national and regional offices for years. VA officials have said they are aggressively working to clear the appeals backlog, but they are hamstrung in part by a complex system they are legally required to uphold. “VA recognizes that under the framework established by current law, veterans are waiting too long for final resolution of appeals,” Laura Eskenazi, vice chairwoman of the VA Board of Veterans’ Appeals, said in written testimony submitted to a House subcommittee. “VA cannot fully transform the appeals process without stakeholder support and legislative reform.”

VA faces ‘sharp decline’ in Americans’ views of agency (The Wall Street Journal)
The Department of Veterans Affairs’ favorability ratings have slipped considerably following a year of turmoil, resignations and wrongdoing at the agency, according to a Pew Research Center survey released Thursday. The survey shows 52% of Americans polled have a favorable view of the VA as compared with 68% in October 2013, a drop of 16 percentage points. Among those in the 50-64 age group, only 44% have a favorable view. “A 16-point decline in a year is fairly large for any federal agency,” said Alec Tyson, a senior researcher for Pew, who noted that favorability ratings by both Republican and Democrat respondents fell in tandem. “We see a bipartisan decline in views which is notable. That’s not always the case that views of Republicans and Democrats shift in concert,” he said. As the number of those holding a favorable view of the department fell, the number of people expressing an unfavorable view of the department jumped to 38% from 25% over the same time frame. “Secretary [Robert] McDonald takes the results and findings seriously,” said a spokeswoman for the VA. “While the department still has a long way to go, VA has made important progress in recent months to rebuild trust, improve work-force culture and accountability, and expand veterans’ access to quality care and benefits.”

Sweeping Veterans Affairs bill targets senior executives (Federal Times)
Senior executives at the Veterans Affairs Department could have their pensions docked and their bonuses cut under legislation introduced Jan. 22. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, introduced the Increasing VA Accountability to Veterans Act of 2015, which would allow the agency to reduce a senior executive service employee’s pension if they are convicted of a crime during their tenure. The legislation would also place a 14-day limit on the amount of time SES members could spend on paid administrative leave. Also, only 30 percent of senior executives could receive top performance ratings and qualify for bonuses in any given year. The legislation would also require all SES employees to change jobs within the department at least once every five years. The VA has come under fire from veteran groups and lawmakers for not doing enough to punish VA employees who manipulated wait lists and scheduling systems to boost performance numbers. Initial investigations showed systemic wait list and medical care issues and forced the resignation of then-secretary Eric Shinseki. Miller said that despite earlier legislation strengthening the VA’s ability to fire senior executives, the agency has not held the appropriate people accountable or used its enhanced firing authority effectively.

Democratic senator wants hearing on ‘Candy Land’ VA hospital (The Hill)
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) is urging the Senate to hold a hearing on whether pain opiates are being prescribed like candy to patients at a Veterans Affairs facility in her state. A recent report by the Center for Investigative Reporting found patients had nicknamed the Tomah VA Medical Center in Wisconsin “Candy Land” because of the number of pain medications it gave out. “I am writing to request that you hold a hearing to address the failure of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to stop improper opioid prescribing practices and associated abuse of administrative authority at the Tomah VA Medical Center,” Baldwin wrote in a letter to Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) and ranking member Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) Baldwin also suggested the hospital’s problems were part of a broader trend. “Therefore, I request that the hearing also examine the problem of overmedication across the VA network, particularly the use of opioids for mental health treatment,” Baldwin asked.

Opinion: VA’s Aid & Attendance anything but (Los Angeles Daily News)
It’s been three years since 84-year-old Frank Fassnacht applied for Aid & Attendance benefits from the government, which help wartime veterans pay for in-home care, nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. Fassnacht’s still waiting for the Veterans Administration to make up its mind whether he deserves them or not. If he had waited that long to make up his own mind in accepting Uncle Sam’s “invitation” to go fight a war in Korea 65 years ago, he would have missed the whole thing. But he didn’t. He went. He left his family in Burbank at 19, caught a Greyhound bus to Fort Ord in Monterey and began his basic training — the first leg of three years he gave to his country. Now, at 84, he’s living at the Motion Picture & Television Fund’s Wasserman campus in Woodland Hills after a 22-year career as a personal projectionist for the Walt Disney Co. Much of his monthly costs are subsidized by grants from MPTF donors because on his own small pension and Social Security check, Fassnacht could never afford the room, meals and activities offered there. Like many elderly wartime vets, he didn’t even know the Aid & Attendance benefit existed, but when he found out, his reaction was typical of our fighting men from that era. “There have to be a lot of WWII and Korean War guys who need it more than I do,” he said. “Give the money to them.” That’s not the point, his friends told him. The money — around $1,800 a month — is there for them, too. But you deserve it also. For 60 years, you’ve been living with the back pain from hauling around 90mm shells and taking that 30-foot fall onto hard dirt from a telephone pole while you were doing your duty as a lineman on Okinawa, they said. You need the help now, and you earned it. OK, Fassnacht finally said — he’d take the money. That was three years ago.

Veterans mental health bill quickly advances (Roll Call)
A veterans’ mental health bill is racing to become one of the early measures signed into law this year. After failing to gain approval in the Senate last year, the bill (HR 203) bolstering military and veterans mental health programs sped through the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and is headed toward quick Senate approval. The measure focuses on Pentagon and Veterans Affairs Department suicide prevention programs and seeks a third-party annual review of programs and promotes collaboration between the VA and non-profit mental health organizations to stem the epidemic of veteran suicides. The bill named for Clay Hunt, a Marine veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and committed suicide in 2011 at age 28, faltered in the waning hours of the last Congress when then-Sen. Tom Coburn objected to a unanimous consent request to pass the bill. Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, objected that the bill would cost too much money and would duplicate existing services. The Senate committee chairman noted on Wednesday that the bill explicitly prohibits the authorization of new funds to implement the programs.