Veterans news update for April 16

Veterans news update for April 16

Veterans news updateIG probe: Major VA benefits center rife with mismanagement (USA Today)
A Department of Veterans Affairs benefits office in Philadelphia that processes more than $4 billion in veteran pension payments each year has been rife with mismanagement and data manipulation that potentially cheats tens of thousands of former service members out of timely and accurate payments. An inspector general’s report released Wednesday called for immediate action to correct problems at the regional center complaining that not enough has been done since auditors first uncovered problems last year. Months or years of delay in processing compensation claims for veterans with service-related injuries or wounds are one of two system-wide scandals plaguing the VA in recent years. The other crisis involves veterans waiting too long for medical treatment and hospital staff manipulating appointment records to cover the delays. The VA’s inspector general launched an investigation into the Philadelphia benefits processing office last June after receiving more than 100 complaints about mismanagement. Auditors found extensive evidence of records being altered to misrepresent how long veterans were waiting to receive the money they earned. The VA issued a statement Wednesday saying a new director arrived at the center three weeks after the Inspector General investigation began last June and started correcting problems. “VA has already remedied a majority of the findings,” the statement says. The Inspector General found that in cases in which veterans appealed VA decisions about compensation, notices that were supposed to be processed in seven days were delayed an average of more than four months, the report said. Queries or claims from more than 30,000 veterans were simply ignored for an average of 10 months, even though responses are required under VA rules within five days. Even claims that were completed were left languishing, according to the report. Auditors found 68 boxes full of finished compensation cases simply waiting to be scanned into the VA’s electronic system. Nearly 100 boxes containing 22,000 pieces mail were left unattended, some of them dating back three to five years. Another 37 boxes and bins full of nearly 15,000 pieces of mail containing documents or source materials necessary to supplement veterans’ pending cases were found unattended, some of them five years old. Staffers complained of poor working conditions in a warehouse infested with mice and insects and containing few bathrooms.

VA memo ordered false health care claims to cover up backlog (The Washington Times)
Another veterans scandal hit the Obama administration Wednesday with the emergence of an internal Veterans Affairs memo that allowed bureaucrats to cook their books and assert they were answering diligently President Obama’s call to reduce the backlog of veterans’ benefits claims. The memo was known inside the VA as “Fast Letter 13-10,” and a government watchdog said Wednesday this “flawed” guidance from VA headquarters in Washington deliberately resulted in making the agency appear it was delivering services and benefits to veterans faster than it really was. The VA inspector general examined the impact of the memo, issued in May 2013, on the Philadelphia VA office — one of the largest in the nation, serving more than 825,000 veterans and their families in three states. Investigators found that VA managers, using “Fast Letter 13-10” as their justification, ordered workers to put the current date on benefits claims that were sometimes more than a year old, thereby “eliminating” part of the highly publicized backlog with the stroke of a pen or time stamp. The inspector general said it was just the sort of fiction that VA headquarters sought. “By design, the guidance contained in Fast Letter 13-10 was flawed, as it required [Philadelphia] staff to adjust the dates of claims for unadjudicated claims found in claims folder to reflect a current date,” the report said. “As such, the reliability of all performance measures related to [agency] timeliness measures for processing claims becomes unreliable.”

Philadelphia VA official promoted just hours after IG report released (Washington Examiner)
Hours after release of a devastating audit that found top-to-bottom problems with the administration of veterans’ pensions in the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs office — including records manipulation — the man most responsible for those failings was promoted to a high-paying job in the department’s Washington headquarters. “Effective Monday, April 20, 2015, I will begin a detail with P&F Service as an assistant director. I will be working on a number of projects with them. I will be working from Washington DC,” Gary Hodge, the office’s pension manager, wrote in an email to colleagues at 1:30p.m. on Wednesday. “P&F” stands for Pension and Fiduciary Service at VA Central Office and is a promotion, where his decision-making stands to impact veterans across the country. As a detail, however, the move is for an undetermined time period. Less than three hours prior, a 100-page report from the Veterans Affairs inspector general, stemming from surprise visits last year, found that the office “cooked the books” to understate the amount of time veterans waited for pensions, that managers repeatedly ordered subordinates to change the dates on backlogged complaints, failed to respond to 31,000 questions from veterans, and made millions of dollars in erroneous payments to other veterans, even after the veterans told the office that they shouldn’t be receiving them. The Philadelphia office has two divisions, the Veterans Service Center and the Pension Maintenance Center. The most severe wrongdoing occurred in the pension branch, which Hodge led. The 31,000 unanswered questions, data manipulation, and dozens of boxes of missing mail identified in the inspector general’s report were all directly under his supervision. Hodge is a GS-15, one of the highest ranks a career federal civil service employee can reach, and is paid $147,000. “He gets paid way too much to not understand that it’s not OK to change dates of claims,” one of his employees said. Hodge declined to comment, transferring a reporter to a spokesperson. That line remained on hold for over 15 minutes.

Obama on benefits for veterans: ‘We’ve got your back’ (The Washington Times)
A day after a scathing report about the administration’s continued failure at serving veterans, President Obama told a group of wounded warriors Thursday that he’ll do “everything in my power” to provide benefits to veterans. “We’ve got your back,” Mr. Obama told veterans at the White House. “As commander in chief, I’m going to keep doing everything in my power to make sure we serve you as well as you serve us.” The president and Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald greeted a contingent of veterans who are participating in the eighth annual Wounded Warrior Project’s Soldier Ride, a cycling event to raise awareness of veterans’ needs. The veterans started their ride by cycling laps around the driveway of the South Lawn at the White House, with Mr. Obama giving them high-fives as they rode past. The event comes a day after a report by the VA Inspector General showed that the agency’s Philadelphia office falsified dates on claims for veterans’ disability payments to make it appear they were being served faster than they actually were. Many of the claims were more than one year old without being acted upon. Mr. Obama told the veterans Thursday he is committed to “getting you the care and benefits that you deserve and have earned.” “You’re not alone,” Mr. Obama said. “We’ll be with you every step of the way.”

VA whistleblowers say they feel isolated, harassed (The Washington Post)
Some whistleblowers at the Department of Veterans Affairs say they were demoted, then moved into windowless storage rooms, or basements. Others found their medical backgrounds scrutinized, and even their mental health and personal lives investigated. Even after their cases were cleared, those who retaliate against them were rarely if ever punished, they say. This is the tortured life described by whistleblowers in the VA. The agency has the highest number of complaints of any agency in the federal government, double that of the Department of Defense, which has twice the number of employees, officials told the House Committee on Veterans Affairs during a contentious two-and-a-hour hearing on Monday. VA employees said that despite promises of change by VA Secretary Bob McDonald, sounding the alarm on problems turns whistleblowers into an enemy to be silenced and hidden. “Isolate. Then defame. Moving me to a storage bin makes me feel bad, but they are sending a message. They are trying to suppress whistleblowers’ willingness to try to make a better life for these veterans,” said an emotional Dr. Christian Head, who reported to Congress about patient wait time coverups at the VA’s Greater Los Angeles VA Health Care System. For his efforts, the locks were changed to his office, he was moved to a “tiny, dirty, poorly furnished closet-sized office” and at one point he was nearly turned away from an operating room while his patient was under anesthesia, he said. When he complained to his supervisors, he told lawmakers, one supervisor lashed out, “If you don’t like it, you’re a whistleblower, take it to Congress.”n He was one of three whistleblowers who spoke to the committee, sharing experiences of being ostracized and punished for sharing concerns about senior managers fudging data and veterans growing sicker and in some cases dying while waiting for care.

VA: Extra building may be needed at troubled $1.7 billion Colorado hospital (The Denver Post)
Even now — after years of cost overruns, legal battles and numerous design changes — the Department of Veterans Affairs continues to fiddle with the blueprint of a new VA medical campus being built in Aurora. At a tense hearing in Congress on Wednesday, it was revealed that VA officials informed federal lawmakers this week that the agency wants to add a new psychiatric residential rehabilitation treatment program to the troubled Colorado project. Further, one top lawmaker said he recently was told by the VA that the agency still would be short more than a half-million gross square feet to meet future demand for service in the Denver area — even after the Aurora facility’s price tag ballooned last month to $1.73 billion. “To simplify all of that for you, the Denver project has been discussed for 15 years, is a billion dollars over budget, several years behind schedule and — on the day it opens — will apparently be too small,” said U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, the Florida Republican who leads the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, in prepared remarks. Responding to questions from Congress, VA leaders wrote that an additional 550,000 gross square feet would be needed to handle future demand, including outpatient care, in the eastern Colorado health care market. “Based on latest space requirements, Denver has a need for additional space to provide care for anticipated workload over the next 10 years,” wrote agency officials. “This need is above the space that will be provided in the new medical center, assuming the existing medical center is completely disposed.”

VA employee says he was fired after warning of hospital cost (Stars & Stripes)
A whistleblower said he was fired by the Veterans Affairs Department after warning of cost overruns at the Denver VA hospital, prompting a rebuke Wednesday from members of Congress who questioned why higher-ranking executives haven’t been punished. VA contract specialist Adelino Gorospe warned department executives in 2011 that the hospital would cost more than official estimates, The Denver Post reported. Gorospe told the newspaper that he was fired in 2012 for allegedly disobeying a supervisor. At a hearing Wednesday in Washington, members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee asked why Gorospe was fired but Glenn Haggstrom, the VA’s top construction executive, retired last month with full benefits amid an internal investigation into the Denver project. “The VA seems to be punishing the whistleblowers, intimidating (them), and then highlighting and giving bonuses to the guys who are screwing up,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kansas. “Now where is the accountability in that?” Haggstrom didn’t immediately respond to a telephone message seeking further comment Wednesday. VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson told the committee the investigation of the Denver hospital would be expanded to include Gorospe’s firing. He said Haggstrom retired one day after investigators interviewed him under oath, and that he was legally entitled to do so.

Bill backs research on toxic exposure for military (Detroit News)
A new bill in Congress would direct the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to research the diagnosis and treatment of health conditions affecting children and grandchildren of veterans exposed to toxic contaminants during their military service. The Toxic Exposure Research Act, co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Mich., would also authorize the Department of Defense to declassify certain instances of exposure to members of the military. “We’re here today to find the answers that our military families deserve,” Benishek said at a Tuesday news conference. “As a doctor who served at the Iron Mountain VA and as a parent and a grandparent, I’m astounded by the fact that we don’t understand generational effects of toxics exposure.” The bill wouldn’t only address the chemical defoliant Agent Orange and pesticides the United States used in the Vietnam War but also nerve agents from the Gulf War, as well as chemical weapons and burn pits across Iraq and Afghanistan, among others. Veterans advocates are concerned that symptoms tied to exposure to toxic substances are misdiagnosed in the children and grandchildren of veterans. “The point is we don’t know” what kind of long-term or generational effects such exposure has on veterans and their descendants, Benishek said. “We will not allow current generations to wait decades, like happened with Agent Orange, until we find out what’s going on,” he said. The legislation has bipartisan backing with Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., co-sponsoring the House bill, and Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, introducing its counterpart in the Senate. The bill would create a national center within the VA health care system specifically devoted to medical research on toxics exposure.

Unfinished repairs at Veterans Affairs (The Wall Street Journal)
Opinion: “The crisis in confidence at the Department of Veterans Affairs—started last year after allegations by a whistleblower about veterans dying on secret waiting lists—was caused by systematic failures at every level: oversight that was too trusting; a decentralized management system; a culture of indifference toward politically appointed leadership; and a lack of proper resources, both human and fiscal. But in the wake of public outcry, much progress has been made. One of the biggest leaps was passage in August last year of the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act. The legislation allows veterans to see non-VA health-care providers if they live more than 40 miles from the nearest VA medical facility, or if they cannot be seen at a VA facility within 30 days. The Veterans Choice Program isn’t a solution for every challenge the VA faces, and positive changes haven’t come as fast or been as thorough as some might like. But one large step forward came in late March when the VA announced that it was changing how the 40-mile rule is calculated. … No exemption, however, has been announced for veterans who have a local VA that cannot serve their medical needs. For instance, a Vietnam veteran from Jackson, Tenn., currently seeks treatment for a neurological condition in Memphis, which requires him to travel, round-trip, 170 miles. He would prefer to visit a non-VA doctor closer to home through the Veterans Choice Program, but he is ineligible because he resides within 40 miles of a VA outpatient clinic—a clinic that does not have a neurologist on staff. It is absolutely unthinkable to expect any veteran to travel such distances for treatment, especially knowing that non-VA care is readily available much closer to home—if only the VA would deem him eligible.”

Senator: DOJ gun ban unfair to veterans (The Hill)
The Obama administration is unfairly blocking tens of thousands of military veterans from owning guns, a Republican senator is charging. The FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) is filled with military veterans who are essentially banned from owning guns, even though they may not be a danger to society, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) wrote this week in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder. The gun ban “effectively voids their Second Amendment rights,” Grassley said. At issue is whether these veterans are suffering from mental illnesses. According to a 2013 Senate report, the Department of Veteran Affairs is responsible for reporting more than 143,000 beneficiaries, including about 83,000 veterans, to the “mental defective” category of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Any federal agency can report people to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, but the VA’s recommendations account for about 99 percent of the people who are listed in the mental defective category. Being listed blocks veterans from purchasing guns. However, Grassley claims many of these veterans should not be precluded from owning guns. The VA recommends many military veterans who it deems “incompetent” and in need of financial assistance to manage their benefits be placed in the “mental defective” category of the national gun ban list.

637 veterans’ personal data released erroneously by Wisconsin state employee (
The Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs officials confirmed they are investigating an unauthorized disclosure of personally identifiable information by one of its employees. Officials said the employee “erroneously” gave the information to an unauthorized recipient. “WDVA took appropriate and timely action to notify affected veterans and their representatives,” the statement said. The department mailed notification letters to the affected veterans and informed veterans’ service organizations of the issue, officials said. “To help further safeguard the information of impacted veterans, we are offering them free credit monitoring for a year,” the statement said. Department officials said they became aware that one of its employees disclosed United States Department of Veterans Affairs disability claims information of 637 veterans. The information included some of the veterans’ Social Security numbers. “The email filter, which typically alerts the sender to this type of disclosure, did not block the sensitive data in this instance,” the statement said. WDVA is working to ensure proper protocols are followed in the future and sensitive information is safeguarded, according to the statement.

Watchdog: VA contractors breached security in China, India (NextGov)
The Department of Veterans Affairs allowed contractors to access the agency’s network using personally owned laptops while traveling abroad in China and India, according to a federal inspector. In one instance, a Chinese-born Teksystems contract employee worked on an unencrypted U.S.-bought computer that did not carry VA-sanctioned security software or settings. He then left the machine in China, VA Assistant Inspector General for Investigations James O’Neill said in a newly released redacted assessment. “VA information security employees at all levels failed to quickly respond to stop the practice and to conduct a forensic examination to determine if there was a risk to any VA data as a result of VA’s network being accessed internationally or to mitigate or alleviate any possible compromise to the system,” the 39-page blistering report on management’s mishandling of the incident states.  The unidentified subcontractor used his laptop daily, from Jan. 29 to Feb. 17, 2013, to visit websites and access email. He worked on files back at his home office, VA’s Austin Information Technology Center, through a local connection in his parents’ house or a wireless card purchased in China, according to the report.  The employee, who holds U.S. and Canadian citizenship, provides financial support to his family in China. He was able to log in to VA’s network through a Citrix remote access tool. Many of the names of contractors and federal employees involved in the breaches are blacked out in the report. However, the investigation singles out a few officials, including Chief Information Officer Stephen Warren and John Killian, director of VA’s Network Security Operations Center.

House panel approves $77 billion bill to fund military construction, benefits (The Hill)
Lawmakers on a House Appropriations subcommittee Wednesday advanced a $77 billion spending bill to fund military construction and maintenance projects and veterans’ benefits. Appropriators on another subcommittee advanced a 2016 spending bill to fund energy and water development. They both head next to the full committee. GOP leaders have scheduled floor votes on these bills before the House leaves for its next recess in early May. “This is a solid, bipartisan bill that’s focused on the needs of our service members, veterans and all their families. We’re $4.6 billion over the 2015 level, which is nearly 6 percent,” Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) said Wednesday. The markup on the $76.6 billion bill came just a day after the committee released the legislation, which is $1.2 billion below President Obama’s budget request. During the markup, Rep. Sanford Bishop, Jr. (D-Ga.) said he was “pleased” with several parts of the bill. “It maintains tough, but fair reporting requirements for the [Department of Veterans Affairs] electronic health records endeavor,” he said. “The bill continues to prioritize the elimination of the [veterans’] claims backlog.” “I think all of these are positive steps to making the VA function better,” said Bishop, who added, that the measure “does not contain any poisonous policy riders.” The bill provides $4.6 billion above the 2015 level and includes funding Congress already approved in advance appropriations last year for veterans. For military construction projects, the bill provides $7.7 billion, which is $904 million above the 2015 level and $755 million below Obama’s budget request. The funds cover construction and renovation projects on military bases around the world.

Funding in limbo, Texas legislature tackles vets tuition program (Austin American Statesman)
Higher education officials from across the state told a Texas House panel Wednesday that the Legislature not only needs to reform a program that waives tuition at public colleges and universities for military veterans and their families, but also pick up the fast-growing tab — something that’s not covered in either of the budget plans the House and Senate recently approved. Officials from universities, including Texas State in San Marcos and Texas A&M in College Station and Kingsville, testified neutrally Wednesday — neither in favor or against — on two bills that would tweak the so-called Hazlewood program in an effort to curb its expansion. The program, which dates back to 1923, has emerged as a big issue this legislative session, which began in January, after a federal judge struck down a provision of the Hazlewood Act the same month that says military veterans and their families may receive tuition benefits only if they enlisted while living in Texas. The ruling creates the possibility that more and more veterans who enlisted elsewhere could move here to claim free tuition after taking just a year to establish residency. The program already was growing rapidly after the Legislature voted unanimously in 2009 to expand it so military veterans could pass tuition benefits on to their children — a move one state lawmaker has likened to creating a monster as the amount of tuition and fees the state’s colleges and universities have waived since then has since grown nearly sevenfold. Leaders from those institutions have described the five-year-old move as an “unfunded mandate” as the state did not allocate any additional money to help them make up for all the lost revenue. In 2014, that amounted to $169 million while the state chipped in just $15 million. While House and Senate budget writers have vowed to address Hazlewood, neither chamber’s budget proposal includes any additional money for the program — at least not yet.

Florida vet dying of cancer can’t get pain meds from VA (WOKV-Jacksonville)
An Orange County veteran diagnosed with terminal colon cancer said he was given just months to live. But after serving for more than 30 years, he said the Veterans Association denied him pain medication that he needs to make it through the day. The problem is being blamed on a paperwork mistake. Leroy Brugonone said even though he’s fought in war, he had no way to prepare for the fight with the VA. “I’m just like a number, not a countryman. I’ve fought lots of battles. Not like this,” he said. Doctors told Brugonone no surgery or chemo will save his life. “I pray to God I can live one more day,” Brugonone said. He said the only thing he can do now is live comfortably. It takes several pain medicines to get him through the day. But now he says he can’t get them anymore. Brugonone said the VA told him last week that he was denied because he missed too many appointments. He said he missed them because he didn’t know when they were. The paperwork the VA mailed him for the appointments didn’t have the date and time filled in. He said when he tried to explain, he couldn’t get anyone to listen. “It’s my error. It’s my fault for not having a correct say on it. It’s my fault for not looking at it more closely. They are saying it’s not their fault,” Brugonone said.

North Dakota funds program for vets exposed to Agent Orange (The Washington Times)
The North Dakota Legislature will keep funding at $50,000 over the next two years for a program to help identify and provide services to Vietnam veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange. The bill originally asked for $100,000 in funding over the next two years. The House cut the sum to $50,000, while the Senate wanted $75,000. House and Senate negotiators settled on $50,000 and both chambers approved the funding Tuesday. Democratic Sen. Richard Marcellais says there are about 15,000 Vietnam veterans living in North Dakota, and many of them may have been exposed to the jungle defoliant.