Veterans news update for Feb. 25

Veterans news update for Feb. 25

Veterans news updateWhistleblowers: Veterans cheated out of benefits (CBS News)
The Veterans Benefits Administration provides $95 billion of entitlements each year to veterans, including disability money, pensions to vets and their surviving spouses and death benefits — even American flags at veterans’ funerals. But a CBS News investigation has found widespread mismanagement of claims, resulting in veterans being denied the benefits they earned, and many even dying before they get an answer from the VA, reports CBS News correspondent Wyatt Andrews. The problems at the Veteran Benefits Administration have been uncovered in the wake of last summer’s scandal at a Phoenix VA hospital, that rocked the Department of Veterans Affairs. Dorrie Stafford said a letter, obtained by CBS News, shows how badly the VA claims system is broken. It’s dated July 29, 2014, and thanks Dorrie’s husband Wayne — an Army veteran — for the disability claim he filed in July of 2004. The decade-long delay is just one problem; the other is that Wayne died in an accident seven years ago, without hearing a word from the VA. “It upsets me,” Dorrie said. “Why would you suddenly, after all these years, send a letter to a dead man?” Five whistleblowers at the Oakland, California, Veterans Benefits office told CBS News that Stafford’s claim is one of more than 13,000 informal claims filed between 1996 and 2009 that ended up stashed in a file cabinet and ignored until 2012. Informal claims are letters from veterans expressing a desire to apply for benefits, and by law, the VA must respond with an application.

Veterans express anger, frustration with VA chief’s special forces claim (The Washington Post)
Veterans took to Facebook to voice their frustration with Robert McDonald, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, who lied about his military record in a conversation with a man he thought was a homeless veteran. The exchange was caught on camera and aired on national television. The new secretary, hired to clean up the embattled agency, claimed he was in the elite Special Forces, when McDonald is in fact a West Point grad who served with the 82nd Airborne Division during the late 1970s. He has issued an apology for the misstatement. The American Legion planned to meet with McDonald on the issue later today. Ahead of the meeting, American Legion Commander Michael Helm said in a statement that “a lie is a lie” even if McDonald did complete Ranger training. “I can’t believe people do this,” Helm said. “What a disappointment from the leader of a department whose number one issue right now is the restoration of trust.” “He should be held to a higher standard,” Helm added. “The secretary has apologized, as he certainly should. We hope that he can restore the trust that he lost.” Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of the Iraq Afghanistan Veterans of America, said that McDonald called him personally to apologize. And the group accepted the apology.

VA Secretary McDonald: ‘I will do better’ (Military Times)
For the second time in 24 hours, Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald issued a mea culpa for telling a homeless veteran in Los Angeles last month he had been in Special Forces when he had not. Addressing reporters in front of VA headquarters building on Tuesday, McDonald said he had no intention of stepping down for the mistake, saying he made the error in an effort to connect with the veteran, not to embellish his record. “In my 61 years, integrity has been the foundation of my character. … It is a part of who I am and I will do better to not make a mistake like I made in L.A. again,” McDonald said. During an overnight count of homeless veterans in Los Angeles last month, McDonald spoke with a veteran who said he had been in Army Special Forces, telling him he’d also been in Special Forces.

The VA secretary should know the importance of not lying about one’s service (The Los Angeles Times)
Editorial: “Really? The secretary of Veterans Affairs? Surely there is no one who should better understand how offensive it is to lie about one’s military service than the secretary of Veterans Affairs. Yet that’s exactly what Robert McDonald did the night he participated in the Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count in January. While chatting with a homeless man on skid row who said he had served in the elite special forces, McDonald responded, “Special forces? What years? I was in special forces.” In fact, McDonald, who graduated from West Point and did serve in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, was never a member of special forces. This week, he apologized, telling the Huffington Post, which first reported his false claim, that he “reacted spontaneously.” The White House described his claim as a “misstatement” and said McDonald “never intended to misrepresent his military service.” Of course it’s hard to know for sure what a person “intended,” but the fact remains that McDonald did — clearly and unequivocally — misrepresent his military service. You might even say he lied about it.”

White House should clear up veterans’ red-tape mess (Newsday)
Editorial: “President Barack Obama, like most elected officials, relishes having his photo taken with military veterans and regularly pays homage to their service. Now Obama, or somebody at the White House, should pick up the phone, get Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro on the line, and do something real for 30 formerly homeless veterans and their families on Long Island. The federal assistance the veterans need for apartments in North Amityville has been denied in the sort of mindless process-over-people decision that gives government bureaucracies a bad name. Obama should see to it that the decision is reversed. The veterans lived in cars and shelters until last fall, when they moved into Liberty Village, a 60-unit complex of housing for veterans. Concern for Independent Living, the nonprofit that operates the apartments, relied on HUD’s assistance to keep rents low and enable it to use other funding for support services, such as physical rehabilitation and mental health counseling. But HUD denied $250,000 a year in rental assistance in August. The organization reapplied and, in a leap of faith, allowed the veterans to move in beginning in September. The second application was initially approved in October — then denied last week. The reason? The 30 veterans were technically no longer homeless once they moved in, so the apartments no longer qualified for rental assistance.”

VA employee reforms, good or not, could be road map for other agencies (The Washington Post)
Civil service reform is a hardy perennial that doesn’t die, but also doesn’t bloom. Good-government groups call for changes in reports that are read, discussed and shelved. President Obama’s repeated proposals for a Commission of Federal Public Service Reform have been ignored by Congress. He first made that call in 2011, then in each budget request since, although the White House has put no energy behind it. Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) doesn’t need a commission or another report. He chairs a congressional committee. He is using that powerful perch to remake the civil service at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) one step at a time. It is an effort that has implications, some better than others, for the federal workforce generally. Miller said he hopes his colleagues use his legislation “as a template to look into other agencies within the federal government.” Miller deserves big props for shaking up a department that had grown lazy and corrupt, even as many veterans praised their health care. He conducted the committee’s probe in a calm, thorough, bipartisan fashion. In other hands, it might have been a screaming, partisan witch hunt. Yet for the many positives Miller has produced, the parts of his approach affecting the department’s employees, particularly its senior executives, show why federal employee leaders are wary of what passes for civil service reform.

PTSD stigma a growing issue for veterans looking for jobs (KENS-San Antonio)
They serve our country but a military psychiatric expert says a growing stigma about veterans is keeping them from getting jobs. KENS 5 talked to a former Army psychiatrist who started to notice that more and more human resource people had a fear of hiring veterans. “The fear of PTSD gets in the way of employers,” said Dr. Harry Croft. “They are scared to death to hire veterans.” Croft has evaluated countless veterans and advised many human resource specialists. He said that in the past four years human resource departments have questioned him about hiring vets. Croft said media coverage of alleged PTSD tragedies such as the trial of Eddie Ray Routh, a former Marine accused of killing ‘American Sniper’ Chris Kyle, has increased that stigma. “The fear is that are they going to be difficult in the workplace,” said Croft. “And at the worst they are going to be dangerous. That keeps a lot of veterans that are well qualified from jobs from getting a job.” But not all companies are fearful. Local employer Express Lube said they hire veterans for many reasons. “They made a sacrifice to serve our country,” said Bo Durkpo, a spokesman for Express Lube. “We feel veterans have the characteristics of a good employee.”

Troubled ex-Marine sentenced to life in ‘American Sniper’ murder case (The Los Angeles Times)
After a nine-day trial and about 2 1/2 hours of deliberation, a Texas jury convicted a troubled veteran of capital murder late Tuesday in the slaying of “American Sniper” author Chris Kyle and another man. State District Judge Jason Cashon immediately sentenced Eddie Ray Routh, 27, to life without possibility of parole in the fatal shootings of Kyle, 38, and friend Chad Littlefield, 35, during the trio’s trip to an outdoor shooting range on Feb. 2, 2013. Routh, a former Marine repeatedly hospitalized and treated for mental illness, confessed to the shootings but pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.  He did not appear to react as the judge read the verdict. Prosecutors did not seek the death penalty. Routh’s trial drew attention to thorny questions surrounding post-traumatic stress. Kyle’s widow, Taya, had left the courtroom during closing arguments and did not return for the verdict, sentencing or victim impact statements, which came late Tuesday. In his impact statement, Don Littlefield addressed Routh, telling him about his son’s “quiet nature” and calling him “a good listener” who “gave you his time because he felt you needed it.” “The state of Texas has decided to spare your life, which is more than you were willing to give Chad,” he said, sobbing. Littlefield’s brother, Jerry Richardson, also spoke emotionally in his statement in court. “You took the lives of two heroes, men that tried to be a friend to you, and you became an American disgrace,” Richardson told Routh. “Your claims of PTSD have been an insult to every veteran who served with honor, disgracing a proud military with your cowardice.”

Why this American ‘Solder of Christ’ is fighting ISIS in Iraq (ABC News)
He is 28 years old. Detroit born and bred. An Army veteran. And now he is a self-described “Soldier of Christ” back in Iraq, fighting ISIS on the front lines. “People ask me, ‘Why you?’ I come back and I say, ‘Why not? Why just me? Where’s everyone else at?” said Brett, who requested that ABC News not use his last name to protect his family back home. “Jesus says, you know, ‘What you do unto the least of them, you do unto me,'” he added. “I take that very seriously.” Brett returned to Iraq six months ago. In 2006-07, he served in the infamous “Triangle of Death,” where he said he was badly wounded in an IED attack on his Humvee. He came here, he told ABC News, to defend the defenseless — to protect the Christians and others in this part of Iraq who have been terrorized by the ISIS onslaught: driven from their homes, massacred, their women and girls raped and sold into slavery. He is of Irish and Polish descent, raised Roman Catholic and now describes himself simply as a Christian. Brett fights alongside a small, local Christian militia — the Dweikh Nawsha. They are under the command of Kurdish peshmerga forces in this part of Iraq. From Brett’s forward position, in the deserted Christian village of Bakufa, about eight miles from the outskirts of the city of Mosul in northern Iraq, you can see the black flags of ISIS whipping against the sky in a stiff winter wind.

Wisconsin VA dubbed ‘Candy Land’ probed for pain pill overkill (NBC News)
A Wisconsin VA hospital nicknamed “Candy Land” by some for an alarming surge in pain-killer prescriptions is under investigation — six months after a Marine Corps veteran died of an overdose in the psychiatric ward. The amount of opiates doled out by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs Medical Center in Tomah nearly quadrupled over eight years, under the leadership of the chief of staff, Dr. David Houlihan, as the non-profit Center for Investigative Reporting first revealed. Prescriptions for just one of them, often-abused oxycodone, shot up ten-fold — from about 78,000 pills in 2005 to almost 712,000 in 2012, the center found. Meanwhile, some staffers complained they were pressured to refill prescriptions early and to keep giving powerful narcotics to patients who may not have been taking the doses themselves. “They’re breeding drug addicts,” Jason Bishop, an Air Force veteran who is a patient at the Tomah facility, told MSNBC’s Ronan Farrow, who reported this story in collaboration with NBC Investigations. The VA Inspector General completed a probe of 32 allegations related to over-prescribing in March 2014 but kept the findings under wraps for nearly a year — until the CIR brought them to light.

Kansas House gives initial OK to bill allowing preferential hiring of veterans (The Wichita Eagle)
Employers would be able to show preference to military veterans when hiring under a bill that gained initial approval in the Kansas House on Tuesday. House Bill 2154 passed easily by a voice vote. The bill is intended to improve the employment prospects of veterans. It would give private employers the right to adopt hiring policies that favor veterans over other candidates, provided the veterans meet all of a position’s requirements. “It gives employers maybe an opportunity to say, ‘Hey, veterans, we’re looking for you,’ ” said Rep. Adam Lusker, D-Fort Scott, who carried the bill on the House floor and previously served in the Naval Reserve. “It says Kansas appreciates you and we want you to move to Kansas. It gives a great opportunity for us to sell Kansas to our nation’s veterans.” The bill would protect employers from being sued under equal employment opportunity laws based on an exemption in the federal Civil Rights Act that gives states the power to allow employers to show preference to military veterans. Twelve states have such a policy on the books. While the unemployment rate is lower for all veterans than it is for the general population, younger veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have seen higher unemployment than non-veteran peers. Among veterans ages 18 to 24, the unemployment rate was 21.4 percent, more than 7 percentage points higher than nonveterans of the same age, according to a November report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics that looked at 2013 data.

Reports of veteran’s death have been greatly exaggerated by the VA (Fort Bragg Advocate-News)
“One of the times the Department of Veterans Affairs declared me dead was this past November,” Pacifican and Vietnam veteran David Hardcastle said. “In a letter I received on November 13, the VA announced my death. I was supposed to have dinner with a friend. I told her I hoped she didn’t mind being seen with a dead man.” Hardcastle phoned the VA and reported he was living. He was told they thought he was someone else and they apologized. The first week of December the veteran was rushed to the Veterans Health Center in Palo Alto. “I was really down,” Hardcastle said. “I have gastrointestinal cancer. It was first diagnosed in 2006 when my then wife, who is still very much my good friend, rushed me to the hospital where it was discovered I had a tumor the size of a baseball. It was removed.” When he arrived at the Palo Alto hospital this past December, he was in agony. This time his cancer recurrence landed him in the hospital’s hospice wing. “But I’ve turned a corner,” Hardcastle said. “The drugs seem to be working.” Hardcastle said his caregivers are cautiously optimistic that he may go home in a month. “At my worst point, when I was so drugged up with pain medication that I couldn’t think clearly, my ex-wife got a letter from the VA announcing my death,” Hardcastle said. “They also sent her my VA benefits and a check for my funeral. She called our son who had just seen me. But the letter freaked them out.” His ex-wife immediately rushed to the Palo Alto VA hospital. She discussed her “mail” with David’s social worker. She additionally talked to the Department of Veterans Affairs. She returned the uncashed checks. Their son also went to bat for David at the VA Hospital in Oakland. In a letter of resolution dated January 16, the VA advised the veteran that his benefits would resume by the first of February. The letter noted that “verification that you are living” was the contributing factor to their decision.

VA’s second in charge says $1 billion hospital on track to open in 2016 (
A $1 billion Veterans Affairs hospital under construction in New Orleans is on track to begin receiving patients in 2016 and will eventually return the city’s status as a Gulf Coast hub of veteran health care, officials said Tuesday (Feb. 24) during a visit from the VA’s second in command, Sloan Gibson. The hospital project has been dogged in recent reports by the Government Accountability Office, which said construction was running two-thirds over its original budget of $625 million and 14 months behind its original 2014 completion date. Gibson, though, brushed aside those reports. “I try my best not to live in the past, but I want to, where I can, help mitigate a misperception,” he said. He said the GAO reports were based on preliminary plans for the hospital, drawn up shortly after Hurricane Katrina damaged the old facility. The budget for those early plans was based on assumptions that didn’t pan out as the project was fleshed out, he said. For example, the original plan was for the VA hospital to share facilities with University Hospital, but that idea was scrapped. Clark/McCarthy Construction is operating on a fixed-priced contract that will see the hospital completed in 2016 within the new amount appropriated for the project, Gibson said.

VA’s 2016 IT budget focuses on health care delivery, veterans (Fedscoop)
The Department of Veterans Affairs plans to use more than half of its proposed information technology budget for fiscal year 2016 to build out a tech infrastructure that supports customized health care tools for veterans, including mobile and telehealth technologies, advanced electronic health records, and a new commercial scheduling system. In a briefing with reporters Tuesday, VA Chief Information Officer Stephen Warren released a summary of the department’s $4.1 billion IT budget, of which approximately 55 percent would be earmarked for customized medical programs, 20 percent for adding new features and functionality every 90 days to the Veterans Benefits Management System, and 19 percent for maintaining the department’s enterprise IT services that support 152 hospitals, 56 regional benefits offices and 821 outpatient clinics around the country. “It’s reinforcing and refreshing our infrastructure,” Warren said, describing the largest of the three major thrusts of the budget proposal. “The second [area] is providing and refining tools that enable delivery of health care and benefits — mission delivery. How do we bring in new capability, how do we respond to legislative changes, how do we respond to changes in practice as well as how do we enable new capabilities?” Transforming VBMS into a paperless system remains one of the agency’s top priorities. VA is now beginning to direct about $20 million toward moving the appeals process to a paperless system for veterans as well as providing new and enhanced IT tools to the VA workforce responsible for processing benefits claims.

More turnover at the top of Reno VA benefits office (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
The Department of Veterans Affairs is turning over leadership again at the top of its embattled regional benefits office in Reno. VA officials confirmed that Kathy Malin, appointed acting director in Reno in June, will be returning to her post as director of the Boise office at the end of the week. Malin had been holding down positions in both offices but will be returning full time to Idaho “to reunite with her family and her team at the Boise regional office,” the agency said in a statement. Malin will be replaced by Terri Beer, who serves as head of the VA regional office in Des Moines, Iowa. The VA said Beer runs “one of the Veterans Benefits Administration’s highest-performing regional offices,” but also will be in Reno only on a temporary basis. The turnover comes as the VA seeks stability in Reno, which has been criticized as one of the poorer-performing benefit-handling outposts, although the agency says there has been improvement. The office handles disability applications from veterans in Nevada and parts of California. The VA still is seeking a full-time director to replace Ed Russell, who has been on administrative leave since the summer.