Veterans news update for March 26

Veterans news update for March 26

Veterans news updateVA grossly underestimates paper claims as new forms policy begins (Stars & Stripes)
The Department of Veterans Affairs has underplayed how many veterans were using the informal disability claims process the department ended Tuesday, and some veterans advocates say the beleaguered department is trying to fix their much-maligned claims backlog at the expense of older and disabled veterans. On Tuesday, VA Director of Compensation Service Thomas Murphy told Stars and Stripes that informal, hand-written notes of intent to file disability claims accounted for a “low double digits” percentage of the overall claims VA receives. However, according to the numbers VA used to petition for the rule change disallowing informal claims, they likely accounted for roughly half of all claims VA received, according to a document in the Federal Registry. If the VA numbers in the Federal Registry are correct, hundreds of thousands of veterans have been filing informal claims and appeals each year, a group veterans advocates say will be hurt by the rule change. “VA is trying to deal with the backlog by making it harder for veterans to file new claims,” said Glenn Bergmann, partner at Bergmann & Moore, a national law firm that focuses on veterans’ appeals cases. Asked Wednesday about his comment, Murphy said the low double-digit percentage he mentioned before referred to veterans who used the informal process before the rule change. In the Federal Registry, however, the VA says the information they used to come up with the 50 percent statistic was based on data from April 2009 to April 2013. In their petition to make this rule change, found in the Federal Registry, VA mentions easing the backlog as one of the potential effects of the change. “However, many features of VA’s current claims process also contribute to the backlog, or at a minimum hamper VA’s ability to address the backlog … many submissions, including submissions requiring VA to take action, are not received in a standard format.” Under the informal system any benefits awarded would go back to the date that the VA received the note signaling an intent to file, even a scrap of paper. 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. For anyone who files with a handwritten note, the VA will reject it and mail a primer on the new process, though not the actual application paperwork. Veterans must now fill out standardized paperwork available online, from veterans service organizations, or at VA offices. They can also call an 800 number to register an intent to file a claim.

Bergdahl charged with desertion, faces Article 32 (Army Times)
The Army has charged Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, officials announced Wednesday. Bergdahl, who spent five years as a captive under the Taliban before he was freed in a May 31 prisoner swap, will face an Article 32 preliminary hearing, said Col. Daniel King, a spokesman for Army Forces Command. The decision by Gen. Mark Milley, commanding general of FORSCOM, comes after a review of the facts and findings from an extensive Army investigation to determine what, if any, actions should be taken against Bergdahl. Bergdahl, 28, disappeared from Combat Outpost Mest-Lalak in Paktika province, Afghanistan, on June 30, 2009. He has been accused of leaving his patrol base alone and intentionally before he was captured by Taliban insurgents. He spent five years as a captive under the Taliban before he was freed in a May 31 prisoner swap that also freed five Taliban leaders from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Bergdahl is now assigned to a desk job at U.S. Army North at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Texas. On Wednesday, he was handed a charge sheet outlining the charges against him, said Eugene Fidell, Bergdahl’s defense attorney, in a statement.

Veterans groups react to Bergdahl charges, discuss possible punishments (International Business Times)
A leading veterans advocacy group said U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl should be “punished accordingly” if found guilty of charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. The desertion charge carries a maximum sentence of five years, while the misbehavior charge carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. Bergdahl left a U.S. Army forward operating base in Afghanistan in 2009 after he developed concerns about America’s military actions in the Middle East. He was captured by the Taliban shortly thereafter and held prisoner by members of the Haqqani militant group until last May, when the U.S. government agreed to free five Taliban commanders held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba in exchange for his release. “From the beginning, the American Legion has expressed its strong concerns about negotiating deals with terrorists. While we do not believe in leaving any U.S. military personnel behind, we also don’t want to recklessly endanger Americans by creating incentives for future kidnappings and other terrorist acts,” said American Legion National Commander Michael D. Helm in a press release. “As a U.S. citizen and soldier, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is entitled to due process,” Helm said. “A judge or jury of his peers should decide his guilt or innocence. This is a process that the Taliban and other like-minded terrorist groups refuse to extend to anyone under their control. If Sgt. Bergdahl is found guilty, he must be punished accordingly.”

Top-paid doctor involved in Pittsburgh VA scandal (Asbury Park Press)
One of the highest paid federal employees in the country knew for more than a year about dangerous levels of Legionella bacteria in drinking water that later caused six patient deaths at a Veterans Affairs hospital, internal VA communications show. Ali Sonel, an interventional cardiologist and chief of staff at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System, made $392,770 in 2014, which is more than only four other federal employees in the country, according to federal data. Internal records obtained by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review showed that Sonel and other top officials at the Pittsburgh VA knew that the system used to curtail Legionella – a bacteria found naturally in water that can cause pneumonia – was operating below standards at the Oakland hospital in September 2011. The VA didn’t tell patients, non-medical staff or the public about the problem until November 2012, which prompted an investigation by the VA Office of Inspector General. An April 2013 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that a total of 21 patients had Legionnaire’s disease, sand that six had died because of it. The report said there was a failure to recognize cases of the disease “for an extended period of time,” and that the perception was the Legionella was well-controlled.

Military community mocks threat from Islamic State (Marine Corps Times)
U.S. troops and veterans are flooding social media with defiant messages in the wake of a new threat against military personnel from a self-proclaimed division of the Islamic State group. Thousands took to Facebook and Twitter following reports that an organization calling itself the Islamic State Hacking Division posted a kill list Friday night with names, photos and addresses of 100 U.S. troops. The group calls for sympathizers inside the U.S. to attack the personnel in their homes. They claim the troops listed were behind strikes on IS targets, and should be attacked in retaliation. But active-duty and former service members are not cowering in fear. Instead, many offered up their addresses, daring IS sympathizers to pay them a visit. “I have two residences, I hope they do not come to the empty one,” one Marine Corps Times reader wrote. “Where do I sign up to give them my info?” another asked. Others posted photos of themselves, some while holding pistols or other weapons. “Come at me,” one Army Times reader wrote, alongside a photo of himself holding a Glock pistol. “… You will encounter a Glock 22 .357, AR-15, M206 .38 Special, three years of wrist-breaking Aikido skills, and a K-bar in your throat.” Most of the troops on the list are pilots, including Marines, airmen and sailors. Defense Department officials reacted quickly, warning troops that while the threat remained unconfirmed, they should exercise caution in sharing personal data online.

Six senators urge VA to cover stateside Agent Orange exposure (
Six U.S. senators, including Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat representing Massachusetts, have sent a letter imploring the federal government to allow pilots and crews who flew Agent Orange-contaminated plans on stateside missions to qualify for benefits. The letter could push the four-year quest of a retired pilot from Belchertown closer to his goal of getting veterans falling ill from Agent Orange-related maladies — but who never served in Vietnam — covered for benefits like their peers who served there. Retired Air Force Col. Archer Battista said the delayed government response has been frustrating. In January, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies released a report stating that it is “plausible” domestic crews who worked on planes contaminated by Agent Orange could be falling ill as a result of that exposure. The planes had been used in to dump the toxic defoliant in Vietnam. Battista, 68, said he can’t speculate on why the government is not acting with greater speed on this issue, but the end result is a bad one. “The impact is that many within our group are sick — some are dying,” said Battista. The letter authored by U.S. Sens. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., was signed by Warren and Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, as well as Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Michael Bennett, D-Colo.  Battista praised Warren for signing on to the letter, saying “she has our undying thanks and respect.”

VA seeks new law to change Veterans Choice rules (Military Times)
The Veterans Affairs Department has asked for new legislation that would let it pay for private health care for veterans who live near a VA clinic but can’t get the treatment they need because it’s not offered at that location. VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson told the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Tuesday that vets are “frustrated” with the VA Choice program, particularly the requirement that measures eligibility by a veteran’s proximity to any VA health facility — even those that are not full-service medical centers. Gibson said many veterans are excluded from the program because of this provision in the law and few have applied for waivers to the rules. “Many veterans are frustrated with the Choice program,” Gibson said. “Such confusion leads to lower use of Choice.” The VA announced earlier Tuesday that it will change another aspect of the program, the definition of the 40-mile distance rule for veterans to access the Veterans Choice program. Instead of using an “as the crow flies” measure of 40 miles, VA will rely on actual driving distance from a VA medical facility as the qualifier to use the program. Some lawmakers expressed skepticism that VA needs formal legislation to make the change to accommodate veterans who live within the 40-mile distance but can’t get the care they need. But lawmakers pledged to make the fix. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate committee, said his staff would work with the staff of the committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., to draft legislation in the next two weeks. “The faster we act on that, the better off we are. I don’t think there’s any disagreement on the committee,” Isakson said.

National VA construction chief out over Colorado hospital (The Denver Post)
A top VA official announced his retirement from the agency Wednesday following news last week that the cost of a new veterans hospital in Aurora had jumped to $1.73 billion — more than five times its original estimate. In a statement, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs confirmed the departure of Glenn Haggstrom, who had been with the agency since 2008 and oversaw four major construction projects — including the Aurora facility — that each busted its budget by hundreds of millions of dollars. Federal lawmakers repeatedly have called for Haggstrom’s firing, and VA officials confirmed that his retirement came “in the midst of an investigation, initiated by VA, into delays and cost overruns associated with the design and construction of the medical center in Aurora.” “The situation regarding the construction of a replacement VA medical center in Aurora, Colorado, is unacceptable to veterans, taxpayers and department leadership,” wrote VA leaders in an unattributed statement. But the VA’s dissatisfaction with Haggstrom pales in comparison to how Congress saw his leadership. And lawmakers indicated that his retirement wouldn’t stop them from seeking further culpability for cost increases in Aurora and at other VA projects in Las Vegas, New Orleans and Orlando, Fla. “We’ve called for the VA to hold those responsible for the years of gross mismanagement of the new regional hospital accountable, and we are glad to see the VA finally doing so,” said U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., in a statement.

Philadelphia VA director got $288,000 ‘relocation’ bonus (The Washington Times)
The Department of Veterans Affairs confirmed Wednesday that it paid a senior manager $288,000 in “relocation payments” when it reassigned her from Washington last year to become director of the agency’s problem-riddled Philadelphia office. The chairman of the House Veterans Affairs committee called the payment to Philadelphia Director Diana Rubens “outrageous.” “The government shouldn’t be in the business of doling out hundreds of thousands in cash to extremely well-compensated executives just to move less than three hours down the road,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, Florida Republican, in a statement. “For VA to pay such an outrageous amount in relocation expenses at a time when the department is continually telling Congress and taxpayers it needs more money raises questions about VA’s commitment to fiscal responsibility, transparency and true reform.” A department spokesman told the Philadelphia Inquirer that federal regulations allow the payment of certain relocation expenses, including the costs of house-hunting, moving, terminating leases, and a per diem rate for meals and temporary housing. The revelation comes as the Philadelphia office awaits the official results of an investigation by the VA’s Office of Inspector General. The Washington Times reported Wednesday that the report will recommend 35 changes for fixing problems at the Philadelphia regional office, including unannounced checks of the mail room and refresher courses for supervisors on how to properly dispose of documents.

Frustrated vets pack VA town hall meeting in Chicago (The Chicago Tribune)
Veterans from across Northwest Indiana and Illinois packed a small conference room at the Adam Benjamin Jr. VA Outpatient Clinic on Wednesday to heap both complaints and praise on their health care provider. Nearly 50 veterans were on hand as Ann Brown, director of Chicago’s Jesse Brown VA Medical Center, handled questions alongside other staff and promised personal attention when a particularly thorny problem presented itself. Veterans expressed frustration with billing issues, delays in getting treatment, access to mental health services and communication, but some also think the VA is improving. Brown presented information on veterans benefits under the new CHOICE Act, which gives veterans cards to get treatment outside the VA if the wait for care exceeds 30 days or they live more than 40 miles away from any VA clinic or medical center. But there are limitations. For example, it would not assist veterans who live within 40 miles of the Crown Point clinic but require specialty care not available at the clinic. The legislation will invest more than $5 billion in staff at VA hospitals to help with persistent backlogs in patient care. The VA has endured withering criticism in recent years for falsifying information about patient wait times and problematic paperwork delays. Martha Gardner Tyler, who served in the Marine Corps, said she’s in a “Catch-22” billing situation with the VA. “I didn’t find out until the end of 2014 that I was not eligible for free co-pays,” Tyler said. “Then I got a bill for all of last year’s co-pays. I have a limited income and I’m disabled, so I’ve had to draw down from my IRA to pay for property taxes and medical bills. But the VA counts the IRA money as income, so I don’t qualify for the free co-pays. I get [the bill] a year later. I can’t run my life that way.”

Women vets assigned to VA more likely to have cervical, breast cancer screenings (
Female veterans assigned to designated women’s health providers at Veterans Affairs are more likely to be screened for cervical and breast cancer, according to a recently published study in Medical Care. “The reason for higher levels of screening rates among patient linked to [designated women’s health providers] could include greater emphasis on sex-specific and general prevention by those providers, ownership of performing the screening and/or consistent documentation of the breast and cervical cancer screening, patients choosing to see their specific providers more often, or organizational factors in the clinical setting,” Bevanne Bean-Mayberry, MD, MHS, VA Greater Los Angeles HSR&D Center for the Study of Healthcare Innovation, Implementation and Policy, and colleagues wrote. To assess the association of whether or not patients who were assigned to see designated women’s health providers (DWHPs) had higher rates of cervical and breast cancer screenings, researchers evaluated 37,128 women veterans aged 21 to 69 years. Cervical cytology was seen in 94.4% of women assigned to DWHPs, compared with only 91.9% of women assigned to non-DWHPs. Women assigned to DWHPs also had higher rates of mammograms, with 86.3% compared to 83.3% among patients seeing non-DWHPs. When adjusting for patient factors (age, race, ethnicity, mental health diagnoses, obesity and site) and provider factors (DWHP status, sex and panel size), patients designated to DWHPs were more likely to get screened for cervical cancer and breast cancer. “Ongoing work to evaluate the presence of DWHPs in various VA medical centers or community-based clinics may be warranted to understand processes for improving quality,” Bean-Mayberry and colleagues wrote.

Maine veteran seeks help 40 years after cleaning up nuclear test site (Bangor Daily News)
Jeffery Dean, the youngest of four brothers who grew up in rural Knox County in the 1970s, was a typical kid. He helped with haying at local farms, went lobstering in the summers and did well enough in high school to graduate but not well enough to go to college. Instead, he signed up for a stint in the U.S. Army. Two weeks after he graduated from high school, he was on a bus and gone. The young soldier — just 19 then and now a 58-year-old carpenter who sometimes forgets how to finish the sentences he started — couldn’t have imagined the lifelong journey he ended up taking thanks to his three-year-stint in the Army. Familiar with boats, he had signed up to be a watercraft operator and was stationed at Fort Story in Virginia Beach. But soon enough, he was transported to the other side of the world — to a tiny Pacific Ocean atoll with a hard-to-pronounce name. Enewetak Atoll — a chain of about 40 islets that surround a large lagoon — is part of the Marshall Islands, and to the naked eye, there wasn’t much there except for sandy white beaches and the gray reef sharks that haunted the waters around the coral reef. Although Dean couldn’t see it, there was something else in the atoll that he believes ended up haunting his whole life: radioactive contamination from the atomic and hydrogen bombs that the American military had tested on the atoll a few decades before. He and his fellow soldiers had just one mission to accomplish during their stint in the Pacific — to clean up and rehabilitate the atoll before it was returned to the people of the Marshall Islands. Many of the men who were part of the cleanup mission have connected serious health concerns that are plaguing them today with their work on the atoll 40 years ago. Some have formed a group called the Atomic Cleanup Vets with the goal of helping each other with information and moral support during challenging times. Another goal is to be recognized as “Atomic Veterans,” a category defined in legislation that designates veterans who participated in above-ground nuclear tests between 1945 and 1962, who were part of the U.S. military occupation in or around Hiroshima or Nagasaki before 1946, or who were among the prisoners of war held in or near Hiroshima or Nagasaki. This designation allows veterans who have developed one of several specific cancers or nonmalignant conditions to be eligible for compensation or free medical care through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. They do not have to prove their cancers were caused by radiation. A VA spokesperson from Washington, D.C., contacted on Monday did not immediately have any response to questions about why the veterans who served on Enewetak Atoll do not have the Atomic Veterans designation.