Veterans news update for Feb. 11

Veterans news update for Feb. 11

Veterans news updateVA chipping away at backlog, but observers remain skeptical of goals (Houston Chronicle)
Abraham Madha’s heart attack while on active duty in 2011 forced his retirement from the Air Force two years later. He left the service – where his last job included helping manage logistics for the nation’s nuclear program – with a 10 percent disability rating, resulting in a minimal amount of benefit payments. That didn’t sit well with Madha, so he appealed the decision with the Air Force and filed a claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs Regional Office in Houston seeking a higher rating. Two years later, he’s still waiting for a final decision from the VA. “It’s Dante’s ninth level of hell,” said Madha, describing the agency’s request after request for additional paperwork. Madha, a 58-year-old west Houston resident, is among hundreds of thousands of veterans around the country waiting for the VA to act on their claims. The agency has promised to erase its inventory of 235,700 backlogged claims – meaning they are 125 days old or more – by the end of the year. The beleaguered agency made headlines when its claims backlog skyrocketed to more than 600,000 in 2013, from an influx of claims by veterans returning from the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and aging veterans. The spike in the latter group came after the VA made it easier for veterans from the Vietnam War to apply for claims for medical issues stemming from exposure to Agent Orange. Congressional leaders and veterans’ advocates, however, say they have doubts and questions about the agency’s ability to deal with its backlog. “The VA saying it’s going to work all claims within 125 days and 98 percent accuracy, with the current system, is science fiction,” said Jim Richman, Director of Claims Representation & Counseling for the Texas Veterans Commission, the largest veteran’s advocacy group in Texas. “It’s absolutely unattainable,” he said.

More VA scandal: Some facilities accused of ‘scrubbing’ appointments (FierceHealthcare)
Six months after Robert McDonald became the new Secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA), the embattled agency has made progress, but still has much work remaining, according to U.S. News & World Report. One reform since McDonald took office has been the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, which allowed veterans to seek care at private providers rather than endure long wait times. However, according to the article, some veterans groups have objected to this solution, arguing the VHA provides care veterans cannot get elsewhere. A November report found that despite the VA announcing it slashed wait times nearly 18 percent, more than 600,000 veterans face wait times of a month or longer. Nor is the fallout from the initial scandal entirely over, according to the Daily Caller, which reports that VA staff “scrub” patients, or convince them to cancel scheduled appointments. “The person who answers the phone might not even be the person’s physician, but they’ll just pull up the person’s record and tell them they don’t need the appointment,” John P. Beavers, former nurse practitioner at Michigan’s Battle Creek VA Medical Center, told the Daily Caller. “But they won’t take them off the schedule until the day or next day. That makes it look like the patient canceled.”

VA mortgage lender fined for deceptive practices (Military Times)
A federal regulator has taken action against NewDay Financial, a nonbank mortgage lender specializing in VA loans, alleging that the company engaged in deceptive advertising and paid kickbacks to an unnamed veterans organization for customer referrals. NewDay, headquartered in Fulton, Maryland, will pay a $2 million penalty, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which said NewDay had revenues of more than $100 million in 2013. “NewDay profited from the trust that veterans place in their veteran service organization,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray, in announcing the action. “Veterans, and any consumers getting a mortgage, deserve honest information about lender endorsements.” The CFPB declined to identify the veterans’ organization involved. “As a general matter, the CFPB does not name third parties who have not been the subject of enforcement action,” said bureau spokesman Sam Gilford.

Veterans courts soaring in demand as volunteers seek to help military defendants (
Michelle Thomason has seen 150 veterans approach her courtroom within the past year, but none with a more powerful story than the drug addict who faced a life or death situation. The veteran, a soldier once stationed in Afghanistan, was shopping narcotics, buying pills on the black market and creating toxic drug cocktails, Thomason said. “He came into the program in April and May, had some failures and had to start and stop rehab,” Thomason, a district judge in Baldwin County, Alabama, for the past nine years, said. “The last residential program (the veteran entered into) absolutely worked. He’s been clean and sober since September.” It’s one success story that Thomason, the founder of Baldwin County’s veterans’ court, likes to tell and embraces as the fledgling program approaches its first anniversary. Since she started the alternative court, which holds weekly sessions every Tuesday inside Baldwin County’s satellite courthouse in Foley, 35 military veteran defendants have remained in the program and a half-dozen are expected to graduate in May. The court allows veterans charged with a crime to complete a program of treatment and counseling in exchange for dismissing the charges. “It’s very intensive,” Thomason said. “Anyone can walk into a courtroom, plead guilty to a charge, get probation and walk. These people are here to get back into a productive part of society.”

‘American Sniper’ trial raises questions about veterans, PTSD, firearms (Los Angeles Times)
Joe Washam recently went hunting at a south Texas ranch with fellow veterans, including some suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Washam, a former Army sergeant who developed PTSD after he was wounded in Iraq, noticed one man’s hands shake. At lunch, Washam watched the soldier, who was also coping with PTSD, sit uneasily with the restaurant door at his back. “He was clearly shaken up,” Washam said. “He was like, ‘I’m OK, I’m just going to keep looking over my shoulder.'” Yet by hunt’s end, the man was elated: He had shot his first deer. Some veterans with PTSD and other trauma related to military service said hunting and shooting help them recover, but doctors are divided on the issue. The practice has drawn national scrutiny after a troubled veteran taken to a firing range was charged with shooting “American Sniper” author Chris Kyle, 38, and another man on Feb. 2, 2013. That veteran, Eddie Ray Routh, 27, is scheduled for trial here Wednesday in the killing of the former Navy SEAL and his friend Chad Littlefield, 35, at the Rough Creek Lodge and Resort shooting range Kyle helped design in Glen Rose, about 75 miles southwest of Dallas. Routh’s attorneys have said they plan to pursue an insanity defense, presumably based on his time as a Marine serving in Iraq and Haiti.

Senator defends herself against attack on her military record (The Daily Caller)
Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst was forced to defend herself from accusations made in a recent Huffington Post article that she is overstating her “combat veteran” status for political purposes. “I am very proud of my service and by law I am defined as a combat veteran,” Ernst, a Republican, said on Monday in response to the Huffington Post article. “I have never once claimed that I have a Combat Action Badge. I have never claimed that I have a Purple Heart. What I have claimed is that I have served in a combat zone.” Ernst served in the Iowa National Guard’s 1168th Transportation Company in Kuwait and southern Iraq from February 2003 to April 2004. Though her unit did not come under fire or drive upon an improvised explosive device, Ernst’s service in a designated combat theatre qualifies her — by federal law — for combat veteran distinction.

Judge orders reinstatement of fired Oklahoma veterans center employees (KGOU-NPR)
The Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs has been ordered to reinstate seven employees who were fired from the Norman Veterans Center for accepting money left to them in a resident’s will. The Norman Transcript first reported that Judge Annita. M Bridges ordered the employees’ reinstatement with back pay after an Oklahoman Merit Protection Commission hearing. The judge cited in her Feb.5 ruling that the employees had received approval from their supervisor before they accepted money that veteran Bill Mack Marshall willed to them in August 2010. Mack was a Korean War veteran who had lived at the Norman state-run nursing home for veterans. Each of the seven employees had worked for the center for more than a decade. The amount of the bequests they received ranged from $1,000 to $6,000.

Judge dismisses family’s suit against VA over Army veteran’s tumor (Associated Press)
A Michigan family suing the government over the untimely diagnosis of an Army veteran’s fatal brain tumor has been defeated by the clock. U.S. District Judge Paul Borman ruled in favor of the government and dismissed a lawsuit, saying Jeffrey Spillers’ estate missed a two-year deadline by a few months. Spillers “knew enough regarding his care, or lack thereof, to put him on inquiry notice of a possible legal claim,” Borman said Monday. Spillers, 42, was a decorated combat veteran who served in Iraq in the early 1990s during Operation Desert Storm. In 2008, he went to a Pontiac clinic run by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, complaining of headaches, seizures, facial droop and fatigue. An MRI was recommended but not performed, despite many follow-up visits to other VA sites. Finally, in August 2009, as Spillers’ health deteriorated, a test revealed the brain tumor. The Fenton man, who had a 12-year-old son, died four months later. A timely diagnosis would not have prevented Spillers’ death but would have reduced his pain and suffering, said Dr. Jay Kaner, who looked at his medical records. The VA offered a financial settlement that was rejected, clearing the way for a lawsuit. But the government then fought the case by arguing that Slippers’ estate couldn’t sue because it had failed to file the earlier claim against the VA within two years — a crucial point.

House subcommittee assails VA over West L.A. campus leases (Los Angeles Times)
A congressional subcommittee on Tuesday ripped into the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for issuing commercial leases on its sprawling West Los Angeles campus while thousands of homeless veterans slept in the streets. “It’s an atrocity,” said Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.). “The vets are sleeping outside in the cold, while the VA has to correct many, many years of wrongs.” The hearing of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight & Investigations focused on a scathing report in September from the Government Accountability Office, which found that the VA had failed to collect rent from commercial leaseholders at its 387-acre West Los Angeles campus. At least one leaseholder is being investigated criminally, officials said. A federal judge in 2013 struck down the leases, saying they had nothing to do with medical care for veterans. Subcommittee members were particularly irate that the illegal leaseholders had not been evicted immediately. Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) questioned why a nonprofit had its $250,000 rent waived for financial hardship, in violation of VA policy. Committee members also were critical of a botanical garden that was allowed to sublease property to an exotic bird sanctuary and a food pantry, another policy violation. “Homeless veterans and a bird sanctuary on the same ground,” Coffman said. “I don’t get it.” Rep. Dan Benishek (R-Mich.) said a hospital laundry was allowed to stay without paying rent at all. “Seems like people in L.A. would collect the damn rent,” Benishek said.

Denver VA director knew about secret list (KUSA-Denver)
The head of Denver’s VA Medical Center says she’s known for years about the sleep lab’s unauthorized patient list, which only became public last month when a whistleblower spoke out to KUSA. Director Lynette Roff, who also supervises outpatient clinics in eastern Colorado, has repeatedly denied KUSA’s requests for interviews. She did tell her side of the story at a staff meeting on January 30, and KUSA has obtained a recording. That meeting occurred less than 24 hours after the investigation broke. The KUSA report included an interview with whistleblower Tommy Belinski. “I hope for the truth,” Belinski said. He showed KUSA the sleep lab’s secret patient waiting list from 2012, and he gave us emails proving he was instructed to transfer those names onto the VA’s official waiting list, known as the EWL. Belinski said the sleep lab list was “extremely concerning because it’s not tracked.” In her employee meeting, Roff admitted her hospital, at one point, failed to properly calculate delays in care for veterans. Roff says when she discovered the problem in 2011, she sent a memo to her bosses. “I said we’ve been reporting our wait times in selected areas wrong,” Roff said. “We know that it’s wrong. We are in the process of correcting it, and our wait times for veterans will go up, and I want you to be aware of it.” During the meeting, Roff also explained the unauthorized waiting list that cropped up in the sleep lab in 2012 would not have been a secret. “We pretty much knew where the patients were waiting because we had spreadsheets and we were recording it, but because of our fragmented system… it was a very fragmented process,” Roff said.

Albuquerque man must pay nearly $180,000 restitution at VA (Albuquerque Journal)
An Albuquerque man has been ordered to pay nearly $180,000 in restitution for the theft of government funds. Prosecutors say 57-year-old Scott Till was sentenced Tuesday to two years of probation in the case. Till pleaded guilty last October to taking money in November 2011 from the Department of Veterans Affairs that he wasn’t entitled to receive. Prosecutors say Till isn’t a veteran. They say he kept open a bank account into which the Department of Veterans Affairs was depositing money and he maintained sole access to the funds.