Veterans news update for March 24

Veterans news update for March 24

Veterans news updateVA filing, appeals system changes begin today; advocates voice concerns (Stars & Stripes)
Beginning Tuesday, veterans filing or appealing claims must use standardized forms, a controversial move that the VA says will streamline the process, but some advocates say it will cost tens of thousands of veterans their benefits. “This change is largely unnecessary and it’s been made solely for the convenience of the VA,” said Gerald Manard, Veterans of Foreign Wars National Veterans Service deputy director. Until now, veterans have been able to begin the claims or appeals process by submitting a letter or even a scrap of paper. That informal system preserved the initial date of their claim, meaning any benefits awarded would go back to the date that the VA received the note. Under the new system, benefits will still go back to the date of claim or appeal, but the clock starts only when a veteran files standardized VA paperwork. If the VA receives a handwritten note, department officials will send back a response informing the veteran of the proper paperwork and where to find it, though they will not send the paperwork itself. Replacing the informal claim is an “intent to file” form, for those who want to file a claim but still need to gather more information or documentation. VA officials have said the new process will reduce confusion and make it easier to file claims. Thomas Murphy, VA’s director of compensation service, said inaccurate information in informal claims often led to delays in compensation for veterans. “It was difficult to keep track of and veterans often had wrong dates of claim as a result,” he said. Veterans advocates, however, are incensed by the mandate, and officials with Disabled American Veterans and VFW say they are mulling legal action to stop the change. Older veterans, who may not own a computer, could be disproportionately affected, along with those suffering from brain injuries who may have difficulty navigating the formal site and keeping track of user names and passwords, Disabled American Veterans’ National Service Director Jim Marszalek said. “Those are the people we’re leaving behind, those most in need,” he said.

Vietnam Veterans: VA in ‘Delay, Deny’ mode with Agent Orange vets (WYSO-Public Radio)
The group Vietnam Veterans of America is criticizing the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs over its slow response to concerns from Air Force reservists who may have been exposed to Agent Orange in the 1970s. The organization has joined the chorus demanding answers for about 2,000 people who crewed C-123s, the clunky cargo planes that were used to spray Agent Orange, after those planes came back from the war. A study released by the VA in January confirmed previous findings that these vets could have been exposed to Agent Orange at dangerous levels while they were flying and maintaining the planes on bases in Ohio, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania from 1971-1982. The Air Force knew as early as the 1990s that the planes still had some Agent Orange residues on them. Agent Orange, a defoliant, contains dioxin, which can be very toxic if humans are exposed in high enough amounts or over sustained periods. But today, almost all of the C-123 vets who are sick with diseases that can be related to Agent Orange have had their VA claims denied. More than three weeks ago now, VA Secretary Robert McDonald told senators an announcement would be coming within the week on the issue, responding in part to WYSO’s NPR report about C-123 veterans. Now that announcement has been pushed back to an unknown date—which Barbara Carson says is disappointing. She’s appealed her claim for benefits after her husband, a former reservist, died of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. “They’ve denied this for years, and they can’t deny it anymore,” Carson says. “They’ve got to admit to it.” The Vietnam Veterans of America have now joined with the reservists and families calling for a more aggressive response from the VA, issuing a press release on Sunday that accused the VA of taking a “delay, deny, until they die” approach to these vets. In an email, a VA spokesperson said “in order to better inform and serve our Veterans, the Department is examining policy and legislative issues in order to proceed with its final proposal.”

VA Choice Program’s distance rule to be revised (Military Times)
After much debate over how the Veterans Affairs Department chose to define the 40-mile distance rule for veterans to access the new Veterans Choice health program, VA will announce today that it’s changing the definition. Rather than use an “as the crow flies” measure of 40 miles, VA will rely on driving distance from a VA medical facility as the qualifier to use Veterans Choice, a program that lets veterans see a civilian health care provider if they live in a remote area or can’t get an appointment at a VA facility. Under the VA Access, Choice and Accountability Act passed by Congress last year, veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility were supposed to have access to the Choice Card program. But VA’s strict, straight-line interpretation left some veterans with lengthy drives because of geographic obstacles or convoluted roadway routes. The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee has a hearing scheduled today on the 40-mile rule; earlier this month, 41 senators petitioned VA to relax its interpretation. House lawmakers also have pressed VA Secretary Robert McDonald for a change, sending him a letter on March 3 signed by 53 representatives. “When Congress passed the Veterans Choice program, we intended the program to be widely available to ensure that all veterans receive timely access to medical appointments,” said Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif. McDonald says VA decided to make the change after receiving “constructive feedback.” “We’ve determined that changing the distance calculation will help ensure more veterans have access to care when and where they want it,” McDonald said.

Opinion: Will VA take choice away from vets? (
Last summer, amid startling news reports of manipulation, mismanagement and possibly death caused by failures at the Department of Veterans Affairs, Congress came together and passed legislation to overhaul veterans’ access to health care. I was proud to sponsor the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014 (the Choice Act), and deliver good news to veterans: They would have a choice when it comes to accessing health care they deserve, and many would have the option of seeing their local physician. Now, the VA is trying to take the choice away. A mere six months after the Choice Act was signed into law, and only three months after veterans began to receive their Choice Cards, the President’s budget attempts to reallocate the law’s emergency funds that are solely meant to pay for veterans’ health care in their communities. The VA says these funds aren’t being used quickly enough because veterans aren’t interested in getting care from their local physicians. That could not be further from the truth. Thousands of veterans are struggling to access the care they were promised through the Choice Act because of the VA’s flawed implementation of the law and foolish interpretation of the 40-mile rule in the distance criteria. When Congress passed the Choice Act, the intent was that veterans be allowed to access local health care if they cannot receive the VA care they need within 40 miles of their home, or their wait time for an appointment is more than 30 days.

Mail often unanswered or destroyed by Philadelphia VA (The Washington Times)
Just as President Obama was hoping to put one Veterans Affairs scandal behind him, another is brewing in the agency’s Philadelphia office, where officials opened a formal probe Monday into accusations ranging from mismanagement to lost benefits claims. The union local representing workers in the Philadelphia VA office alerted employees over the weekend that high-level VA officials were to begin an “administrative investigation board” (AIB) probe to follow up on findings of a six-month-long inspector general’s investigation of the office. The internal probe will focus on Philadelphia’s veterans service center and its pension management center, said union local president Joe Malizia. “VA is starting to act on some of the [inspector general’s] recommendations,” Mr. Malizia told unionized employees in an email alert. “The AIB will be interviewing both bargaining unit employees and management officials. Since this AIB is a formal agency function, as employees, you are obligated to cooperate / participate. Unfortunately, failure to do so could lead to disciplinary action.” The VA’s acting inspector general, Richard J. Griffin, is expected to release his own findings on the Philadelphia VA office next month. But he told House lawmakers last week that problems are rampant in the Philadelphia regional office, one of the nation’s largest. “If you had a checklist of possible problem areas in different locations in [VA] regional offices, you could have checked just about every one of them that came to our attention in Philly as far as misplaced mail [and] unprocessed claims,” Mr. Griffin said. “There were issues in the veterans’ service center. They’ve got an insurance center up there, they’ve got two call centers — we had issues in all of those locations. It’s a major project to get it back on track where it needs to be. As far as how it might compare to other facilities? It’s very bad.”

How whistleblowers exposed critical lapses at VA department (Digital Journal)
Yet rather than moving toward transparency and correcting the ills that resulted in the deaths of many vets who languished on waiting lists, sometimes for months or years, the VA has lashed out at those who exposed its failings. A government watchdog group, Project on Government Oversight, revealed last year that more than 800 former and current VA employees and veterans experienced whistleblower backlash from the Veterans Administration. POGO says this they “have never received as many submissions on a single issue.” By the time whistleblower revelations blew up the Veterans Administration’s secret waiting lists, devastatingly long wait times and overprescribing programs, thousands of veterans had died and tens of thousands more had suffered devastating health consequences. The real concern is that whistleblowers pushing for change and better patient outcomes were placed on leave, terminated or transferred out of their roles. Who then has taken over the duties of these concerned caregivers? And are their replacements allowing the careless caregiving to thrive under their tenure?

Veterans unemployment drops to lowest rate since 2008 (The Washington Post)
The unemployment rate among military veterans has dropped to its lowest point since 2008 last year, as the U.S. government hit a high for hiring former troops, according to federal data. Recently released numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that 5.3 percent of veterans were jobless last year, representing a decrease of 1.3 percentage points compared to 2013 and the fourth consecutive year of improvement. Meanwhile, about 33 percent of all new hires for the federal government were former service members, according to a report from the Office of Personnel Management. President Obama signed an executive order in 2009 requiring federal agencies to focus on recruiting and hiring more former troops for work with the U.S. government. Veteran unemployment reached an Obama administration high in January 2011, when the non-seasonally adjusted jobless rate for that segment of the population reached nearly 10 percent. Since then, the rate has generally declined and stayed below the unemployment rate for the overall workforce. Despite the encouraging trend, younger veterans have struggled with joblessness. The BLS data show that unemployment for post-9/11 veterans last year was 7.2 percent, higher than the national average of 6.2 percent.

Laws to prevent abuse of GI Bill weren’t enforced, records show (The Los Angeles Times)
Helicopter flight training companies were able to collect tens of millions of dollars a year through a loophole in the latest GI Bill in part because officials didn’t enforce laws aimed at preventing abuse of veteran education benefits, according to interviews, court records and state and federal documents. The Times reported this month that some privately owned flight companies routinely collect more than $250,000 — and sometimes double that — to train a single veteran in a two-year program. It is the most expensive form of education paid for under the GI Bill. The companies avoid spending limits by working as contractors for public colleges or universities, which are not subject to caps under the GI Bill that took effect in 2009. The arrangement allows the companies to provide costly training in sophisticated helicopters. But records show that federal and state officials did not take advantage of safeguards that could have reined in GI Bill spending. The most important law would have forced the companies to either reduce prices or enroll fewer veterans. The controversy has now reached Congress, where on Tuesday the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs is scheduled to discuss a bill introduced last month that would close the loophole. It would cap annual payments for flight training conducted through public institutions at $20,235 for each veteran — the same limit now in place for degree programs at private colleges and universities. The primary tool the Department of Veterans Affairs has to control costs is a regulation requiring that veterans account for no more than 85% of students in programs funded by the GI Bill. The idea is that the price for veterans should be no greater than what other students are willing to pay. The VA says that at various times it has suspended new enrollments at eight flight programs that were not complying with the so-called 85-15 rule. But the agency has also allowed schools great leeway.

‘Candy Land’ VA effects ripple through Wisconsin (Center for Investigative Reporting)
On a clear August morning in 2009, Amish carpenter William Miller and his family climbed into their black horse-drawn buggy and headed to the nearest big-box store, a 16-mile journey from their Clark County farm to Marshfield that takes them two hours. They never made it. Less than a mile from their destination, the buggy was rear-ended by a 1997 Dodge Caravan. The van wasn’t moving fast, but as it passed by it suddenly swerved, knocking the carriage on its side. Miller and his son, John, were fine. But his wife, Elizabeth, who was cradling 6-week-old Ada Mae, was thrown from the carriage and landed on top of her daughter. Ada Mae stopped breathing. An autopsy would list the cause of death as “crush injury to the chest.” A year later, after the driver pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide, William Miller wrote to the sentencing judge. “Words like grief, helplessness, anxiety, fear and lonesomeness come to mind,” he wrote. “I would have scarcely thought it possible such a small infant could have left such a void. And the consequences and results have been far reaching and long lasting.” At first glance, the 2009 accident that killed Ada Mae would seem to have nothing to do with problems 60 miles away at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Tomah, which earned the nickname “Candy Land” for its skyrocketing rate of opiate prescriptions. Some veterans called its chief of staff, psychiatrist Dr. David Houlihan, the “Candy Man.” He was in charge for nearly a decade — and was one of the hospital’s top prescribers. But the man behind the wheel of the Dodge van that day was a Marine Corps veteran, and he was stoned on painkillers and tranquilizers from the Tomah VA. Brian Witkus was a known addict who “would fall or injure himself,” court records say, to get “more pills or a higher dose of medication.” His doctor, Witkus says, was Houlihan. Ada Mae’s death is one of dozens of tragedies that begin to hint at how the flood of narcotics from the VA scarred central Wisconsin.

Dempsey lauds LA’s vets initiatives but says jobs still a priority (Stars & Stripes)
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey on Monday praised efforts by the University of Southern California and local leaders to help veterans and military families, but said much remains to be done. Hosted by the USC Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Families, the event was billed as a “community matters” discussion with the U.S. military’s top officer. Dempsey shared the story of an Air Force parajumper who rescued 12 soldiers stranded on the side of a mountain in Afghanistan. The man told Dempsey he wasn’t thinking about the possible consequences, just that he needed to help his fellow servicemembers. “He put his life at risk … on behalf of 12 men he’d never met,” Dempsey said. And he did so “because it was part of his ethos, part of his character.” Thousands of veterans have served with a similar ethos, but now they need the help of communities and civilians, Dempsey said. While some need long-term help and support, there is also “a huge number who don’t need a handout, they just need a handshake,” he said. L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, a lieutenant in the Navy reserve, said communities must welcome veterans home “with more than a smile and a hug” — they need help with jobs, housing and access to services, he said. It’s not enough just to connect a veteran with a job, Garcetti said, particularly here, in the least affordable housing market in the country, where 40 percent of the homeless veterans in the country live.