Veterans news update for March 25

Veterans news update for March 25

Veterans news updatePhiladelphia VA office investigated over disability claims (ABC News)
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has launched an investigation into allegations of widespread mismanagement of disability claims at its Philadelphia office as it braces for a report from its inspector general. The high-level administrative investigation board review began this week at the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Regional Office, aimed at determining whether problems represent isolated or broader issues, according to an email from Philadelphia director Diana Rubens to agency staff on Tuesday and obtained by The Associated Press. The internal review is expected to be completed by June, the department said when asked to comment on Tuesday. It comes as the VA’s acting inspector general plans to release a report early next month on its months-long investigation into the Philadelphia regional office, where numerous whistleblowers have complained of routine mishandling and manipulation of dates to make old claims look new amid a rapidly growing backlog. In a draft of the report, the IG makes 35 recommendations including having a leadership review so officials and employees are held accountable and fully comply with agency practices, according to excerpts. A spokeswoman for acting Inspector General Richard Griffin said the IG’s office was aware Veterans Affairs had initiated the probe in response to the issues raised by Griffin in his coming report on the Philadelphia office. In testimony before House lawmakers last week, Griffin made clear that he believed the problems at the Philadelphia office were widespread, with his office’s checklist of potential problem areas becoming longer each time investigators visited. Since the IG began its review last June following whistleblower complaints, other VA facilities have been found to have similar problems, but Griffin suggested the issues in Philadelphia were particularly stark.

VA makes it easier for veterans to get care outside the system (The Wall Street Journal)
The Department of Veterans Affairs on Tuesday changed its interpretation of a law after months of criticism from Congress and veterans groups, making it easier for veterans to get health care outside of the VA system. Under a federal law passed in 2014 known as the Veterans Choice Act, veterans forced to wait longer than 30 days for an appointment, or who have to travel more than 40 miles to a VA facility, are eligible to get appointments outside of the VA system. As soon as the program was implemented, it drew criticism from lawmakers and veterans advocacy groups who said the VA’s interpretation of the law was different than that which lawmakers intended. Specifically, the VA said they would measure the 40-mile distance to a VA facility as a straight line on a map rather than actual driving distance. Many of the veterans affected by the rule live in rural areas and might not have straight-roads or highways that lead to the nearest VA facility. The new rule allows veterans to plug directions into a commercial product such as Google Maps to calculate actual driving distance. “This is a common-sense adjustment to a rule that has the potential to significantly impact the success of the Veterans Choice Program,” Senators Johnny Isakson (R., Ga.) and Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.) said in a joint statement. Yet the new rule doesn’t go far enough for some advocates. Under the rule, veterans are eligible for outside care if they live 40 miles from any VA facility. The VA doesn’t take into account the capabilities of that facility. For example, if a veteran requires specialized care available only at major facilities, but lives within 40 miles of a basic clinic, that veteran isn’t eligible for outside appointments and still may have to drive hours to get necessary care.

VA’s claims backlog shrinks in Michigan (Detroit News)
The U.S. Veterans Benefit Administration has reduced the backlog of disability claims from Michigan veterans by 69 percent since 2012, while few vets are using a new opportunity to use private care instead of VA facilities, officials say. The number of backlogged claims — those pending for more than 125 days — stood at 3,988 at the end of February, down from 12,908 in 2012, said Rodney Cline, a data analyst and spokesman for the Detroit Regional Office of Veterans Benefit Administration. He attributed the change to increased staffing and the agency’s switch to electronic claims processing in late 2011, allowing it to expedite the timeline for evaluating and closing claims. The average time for processing a Michigan claim was 186 days at the end of February — down from 323 days in 2012, Cline said. The Detroit Regional Office received 21,983 claims last year and processed nearly 27,500, averaging 2,300 claims a month, he said. Nationally, the VA has a backlog of more than 209,200 disability claims that it has promised to eliminate by year’s end.

Veterans groups clash over proposed changes to military benefits (
Veterans’ advocacy groups are clashing with each other over proposed changes to military retirement, health care and other benefits. The Military Coalition, an umbrella group of almost three dozen military, veterans and uniformed services organizations, couldn’t reach an accord on the recommendations of the congressionally mandated Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission. While most of the coalition came together in finding common positions to the sweeping proposals, “we couldn’t get consensus,” Mike Hayden, co-chair of the group who also serves as director of government relations for the Military Officers Association of America, told reporters on Tuesday.  The organizations have distinct ideas on how the proposals would help or hurt the various demographics of the armed forces they represent. The differences will be on display Wednesday, when Hayden and officials from several other groups testify before the House Armed Services Committee’s Military Personnel Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nevada. “It’ll make for a very interesting dialogue as we go forward,” Hayden said. For example, MOAA, the largest officers’ association, is cool to the idea of offering troops a 401(k)-like retirement plan. While Hayden said the proposal warrants “further analysis and study,” he also warned that reducing the value of the existing plan “provides a greater incentive to leave rather than stay,” according to his prepared testimony.

Veterans’ paid helicopter flight training should be rolled back, advocates say (Los Angeles Times)
Veterans groups told a congressional committee Tuesday they supported a proposal that would essentially eliminate government-paid helicopter flight training for former service members because it is wastefully expensive. Christopher Neiweem, a legislative associate for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, testified that the legislation was necessary “to protect VA benefits from abuse.” A representative of Veterans of Foreign Wars also spoke in favor of the proposal. The Times reported this month that a loophole in the latest GI Bill had allowed flight companies to charge high fees to train veterans entirely at government expense. In some cases, the companies collect more than $500,000 for a single student. The companies avoid spending caps by working as contractors for public colleges and universities, where degree programs are not subject to GI Bill limits. Without that affiliation, annual payments for one veteran would be capped at $11,563. The new legislation would limit annual payments for flight degree programs to $20,235 — the same cap now in place for programs of all types at private colleges and universities. Helicopter flight training companies say passage of the proposed legislation would kill their businesses. “We’d be done,” Sean Reid, the owner of Utah-based Upper Limit Aviation, said in an interview about the proposal this month. “I can’t think of a single company that wouldn’t be put out of business.” Upper Limit trains about 230 veterans through contracts with two public schools in Utah. Based on 2014 prices, flight fees for one student can top $550,000 — higher than anywhere else in the country.

Senate passes veterans amendments (The Hill)
The Senate passed two amendments to the Republican budget Tuesday aimed at helping veterans. Senators passed by voice vote an amendment by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) that would create a deficit neutral fund to bolster the Veterans Affairs Department (VA), allow for the VA to hire additional mental health care workers and ensure veterans get timely access to care. They also passed an amendment from Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) by voice vote. Her measure creates a deficit-neutral fund to bolster the Veterans Choice Card program, which was part of the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act passed last year. The deficit neutral reserve funds, essentially a placeholder, would give lawmakers more flexibility in figuring out how to pay for the extra spending as they work through the appropriations process later this year.  Speaking before the vote, the New Hampshire Republican said that the “program has yet to be implemented in the way this body intended.” Ayotte said her amendment would “ensure that veterans don’t have to wait in line, that they can exercise private care options when they want to.”

Central Alabama VA hospital wait times improve, still 5th-worst (Montgomery Advertiser)
Recently released data from the Department of Veterans Affairs shows the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care Services has improved its wait times for patients scheduling appointments, but it still severely trails most other systems around the country. According to data released on March 19, CAVHCS is now able to schedule 85.5 percent of patients within 30 days of their desired or medically required appointment dates. That number is up from 84 percent in February and from a low of 72 percent in November. However, that percentage makes it the fifth-worst in the country and falls well short of the 94 percent national average. “The numbers are disappointing to say the least,” said Todd Stacy, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Martha Roby, R-Montgomery. “The wait times are still unacceptably long. What I hope we are at least seeing is accurate data. Before all this was exposed, much of the patient wait-time data was manipulated to artificially show success.”

Bipartisan VA benefits bill for same-sex couples set for introduction (The Washington Blade)
Legislation intended to ensure same-sex couples across the country are eligible for veterans benefits — even in non-marriage equality states — is set for reintroduction in the U.S. House on Wednesday. Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) is slated to introduce the bill, the Veteran Spouses Equal Treatment Act, in the aftermath of a speech she delivered Tuesday on the House floor on the measure. “Our men and women in uniform do not serve in defense of a particular state, but of the United States,” Titus said. “All veterans should have access to all federal benefits, regardless of where they live, just as they do when they are in the military.” In her speech, Titus invoked the memory of President Lincoln, who during his second inaugural address pledged the country would care for veterans that served in the American Civil War. “When President Lincoln laid out his vision of caring for veterans, he said we should support those ‘who shall have borne the battle,’” Titus said. “He didn’t say anything about discriminating against some because of who they love.” The legislation has bipartisan support. Five Democrats are original co-sponsors as well as five Republicans.

Coffman drafting legislation for completion of Colorado VA hospital (Colorado Public Radio)
Congressman Mike Coffman says he will introduce legislation to ensure that a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Aurora is completed. A draft of the legislation is not yet available, but Coffman says it could call for an investigation amid rising construction costs. It could also seek to bar the VA from further construction. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is poised to take over the hospital’s construction, but roughly $1 billion is needed to complete the hospital, according to the Corps of Engineers. That brings the entire price tag to $1.73 billion — more than five times the original estimate in 2004. The figure that has shocked many in Colorado’s congressional delegation, including Coffman, a Republican. The hospital is in Colorado’s 6th Congressional District, which is Coffman’s. Coffman is also chairman of the House subcommittee responsible for VA oversight. The hospital was supposed to be completed more than a year ago. Several buildings are partly complete, but it is unclear when the hospital will be finished. Coffman says an option is to seek funds to finish the hospital from Congress. “To ask for an extra $1 billion for a single hospital that… in terms of cost overruns, that shouldn’t even cost anything close to a billion dollars — I think that’s going to be challenging,” Coffman said. “We’ve got to be able to sell the Congress on, ‘This is never going to happen again.'”