Veterans news update for April 20

Veterans news update for April 20

Veterans news updateLawsuit: Delay in getting VA medical records affecting crucial benefits (Stars & Stripes)
Seven disabled veterans have filed a lawsuit against the Department of Veterans, claiming they have been waiting for their medical records for 10 months to more than two years, potentially delaying crucial benefits. The suit was filed Monday by the National Veterans Legal Services Program on behalf of the veterans, who come from across the country. Filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the suit asks that the VA produce the plaintiffs’ records within 20 days. Bart Stichman, co-executive director of National Veterans Legal Services Program, said he believes that the problems is widespread and that many veterans get frustrated by the delays and give up, never getting their benefits. “There’s no good reason to me,” he said. “How hard is it to photocopy a file?” The plaintiffs need their files to apply for further compensation. Five believe they are eligible for Combat-Related Special Compensation, which is a monthly payment for military retirees with combat-related disabilities. Veterans need their medical records to file for disability benefits and to appeal benefits decisions. “This delay is preventing me from applying for benefits that would help me to live a better life,” plaintiff Juan Rodriguez said in a statement released through the Legal Services Program. The VA has been embroiled in a yearlong scandal that cost former secretary Eric Shinseki his job, and some lawmakers and veterans advocates are frustrated by the pace of change at the agency. Even now, VA whistleblowers say they continue to face retaliation and new controversies regularly pop up, including a recently released VA Inspector General’s investigation into the Philadelphia VA Medical Center that showed employees were keeping mail from veterans for years without a response, potentially delaying their benefits.

Vets, Senator lobby for study of descendants of vets exposed to toxins (New Haven Register)
Veterans’ exposure to toxic chemicals may harm their families’ health for generations, causing cancer, birth defects and other medical problems, according to U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal. He is co-sponsoring legislation to require that veterans be informed of their exposure to toxic substances and to establish a research center focusing on the illnesses of exposed veterans’ descendants. Blumenthal, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said that “the dimensions of the problem are unknown at this point” because no one has collected data on it. But, he added, “we know the toxic exposure is there. Science indicates it can cause genetic effects.” He cited brain and blood cancers as potential repercussions. He said the legislation stems from “concerns that were expressed very dramatically and vehemently by veterans themselves” about their own exposure and the potential effects on their offspring. “Veterans don’t know if they’ve been exposed,” he said. The proposed research center would collect data about the descendants’ medical conditions to determine any connection to the toxic exposure, the extent of the problem and to ensure appropriate treatment. Military members have been exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam, neurotoxins in the Gulf War, chemical weapons and toxins from burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, and other chemicals, such as those in tainted water at Camp Lejeune, the U. S. Marine Corps base in North Carolina. Melvin E. Hewston, legislative chairman of the Connecticut Veterans of Foreign Wars, said that studies done decades ago relating to Agent Orange found diabetes and kidney disease in descendants of people who were exposed. “It’s important that they keep watching this to find out how far down the line these things go,” he said.

Manager removed at Philly VA after IG audit slams facility (Stars & Stripes)A top manager at the Department of Veterans Affairs office in Philadelphia has been temporarily removed from his position to get “different eyes” on the deeply troubled facility, the department said Friday. Gary Hodge was head of the Pension Management Center — one of only three such centers in the country — until earlier this week when an inspector general audit found tens of thousands of unanswered inquiries and pieces of returned mail. Hodge was reassigned as an assistant director of the Pension and Fiduciary Service in the VA’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., according to a department spokeswoman. The Philadelphia audit detailed a variety of issues, including chronic inefficiency, mismanagement and unsafe working conditions. It has also rekindled a national scandal that began a year ago with revelations that the VA systematically manipulated patient records to disguise long wait times at hospitals and clinics. The department is “shifting leadership in the regional office by bringing in another leader from another Pension Management Center to see if having different eyes on the problem will bring new solutions,” VA spokeswoman Walinda West wrote in an email to Stars and Stripes. West said the move is “not a promotion, demotion or lateral move.” Hodge is on temporary assignment that will include ongoing VA projects, and he is slated to resume his duties as manager of the Philadelphia Pension Management Center on Aug. 17, West said. The IG found that the center was responsible for more than 31,000 veteran inquiries that had languished for an average of 312 days — the standard response time is supposed to be five days — and another 22,000 pieces of returned mail that were never processed.

Another try at curbing VA bonuses advances in House (Defense One)
A House subcommittee on Thursday approved legislation that would cap the number of Senior Executive Service members eligible for bonuses, and would give the VA secretary the power to strip pension benefits from department senior executives who are convicted of a crime that influenced their job performance. he 2015 Increasing the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability to Veterans Act (H.R. 473) contains several provisions aimed at giving the VA secretary more tools to hold misbehaving senior executives accountable, but some of the provisions worry senior executives and their advocates. “We are concerned that the forced distribution of ratings at the outstanding and exceeds fully successful level challenges an underpinning factor of the SES system that agencies make meaningful distinctions in performance,” said Senior Executives Association President Carol Bonosaro in an April 15 letter to Reps. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, and Mark Takano, D-Calif., the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity. “Senior executives face a high barrier of entry into the corps; therefore a normal distribution of performance should not be expected nor imposed.” The legislation, sponsored by House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., would allow no more than 30 percent of VA’s senior executives to receive top performance ratings and qualify for bonuses. It also would require senior executives to change jobs every five years to reinvigorate the idea of a mobile SES. Those job reassignments can happen on a rolling basis so that all VA senior executives aren’t switching jobs at the same time.

Troubled Philadelphia VA to get increased scrutiny (
In the end, the inspectors charged with finding truth amid the accusations at Philadelphia’s Veterans Affairs benefits office confirmed more than they disproved. Claims were wrongfully manipulated. Veterans’ inquiries were ignored. Some benefits were paid twice while others stalled because of neglect. But their report, released Wednesday after a 10-month probe, was perhaps as stunning for what it lacked: the names of those at fault, and any indication whether or how they might be held accountable. VA officials insist the office has fixed nearly all the problems and are expected to reinforce that point in a conference call with reporters Monday. But as veterans, legislators, and agency critics call for that accountability, it’s clear the scrutiny, and the fallout, won’t subside. “Without question, it is not over,” Rep. Jeff Miller (R., Fla.), chairman of the House Committee for Veterans Affairs, said Friday. This week, his committee will hold a hearing on the Philadelphia office. Miller, chairman since 2011, called the inspector general’s findings the most damning report he had seen on a VA benefits office. About 825,000 veterans in Pennsylvania, South Jersey, and Delaware rely on that office for benefits. It also houses one of the VA’s three pension management centers and oversees the distribution of $4.1 billion annually. The office came under investigation in June and – as a national scandal rocked the agency’s health and benefits branches – emerged as among the most scrutinized benefits offices in the country.

New VA scandals call into question agency’s ability to clean house (Fox News)
Nearly a year after a scandal rocked the Department of Veterans Affairs, revealing that the agency’s centers nationwide were manipulating records to hide dangerously long patient wait times, the bad news just keeps on coming — calling into question the agency’s promise to clean house. Ignored claims, manipulated records, cost overruns and even one facility infested with insects and rodents are among the latest issues uncovered by a blistering VA Inspector General’s report. The auditor’s probe found that more than 31,000 inquiries placed by veterans to the Philadelphia Regional VA office call center went ignored for more than 312 days, even though they were supposed to be answered in five. Perhaps even worse, claim dates were manipulated to hide delays, $2.2 million in improper payments were made because of duplicate records, 22,000 pieces of returned mail went ignored and some 16,600 documents involving patient records and dating back to 2011 were never scanned into the system. “This report is as bleak as it gets, full of systemic malfeasance and deliberate data manipulation,” charged Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, in a statement after the story broke April 15. “The Philadelphia VA Regional Office is in crisis, brought on by years of mismanagement and encouraged by VA’s longstanding refusal to hold employees accountable.” The report also found that more than 150 employees were forced to work in a dilapidated, leaky warehouse infested with insects and rodents.

Cost of VA’s Colorado hospital likely to top $2 billion (USA Today)
The pricetag for a financially troubled Department of Veterans Affairs medical complex outside Denver will likely surpass $2 billion, VA officials acknowledged on Saturday. VA administrators told Congress earlier this month that their best cost estimate for the complex is $1.73 billion — but that doesn’t include the cost of medical equipment like MRI machines, patient monitors or even beds for the veterans it will serve. Altogether, that “activation” cost is $340 million, pushing the total cost to $2.04 billion, VA officials said Saturday after giving reporters a tour of the half-built complex. VA officials said they always expected to spend that $340 million and have included the money in their operating budget, which is kept separate from the construction budget. Saturday appears to be the first time they have publicly acknowledged that additional cost, however. The contractor building the hospital complex just east of Denver agreed to build it for about $600 million in 2011, but quickly began warning that the project would cost significantly more. Work on the 31-acre site was temporarily halted shortly before Christmas after contractors said the VA dramatically underestimated the project’s true costs, and an independent arbiter agreed. Congressional hearings have revealed multiple attempts by lower-level VA employees to warn that the project’s costs were spiraling out of control, and elected officials have called for VA contracting reform. The project is now operating under an interim contract managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Private medical care for vets proposed during Colorado forum (The Denver Post)
A national veterans group is calling for radical reforms within the Department of Veterans Affairs — including a gradual transfer of medical care from the Veterans Health Administration to private doctors. The group, Concerned Veterans for America, brought its 100-page proposal, Fixing Veterans Health Care, along with a former Democratic congressman and an incumbent Republican to a meeting Friday at the University of Colorado Hospital campus in Aurora, Colo. The VA has been under fire after a series of high-profile missteps, from veterans who died waiting to see a doctor in Phoenix to an Aurora hospital costing five times the original estimate. Unlike some VA critics, Concerned Veterans for America does not favor abolishing the Veterans Health Administration. It says many veterans have been well cared for at VA facilities and should continue to enjoy that option. But the group also says extensive polling of veterans found deep dissatisfactions with the existing system. For example, 90 percent of veterans responded that the VA should be reformed. Eighty-six percent said eligible veterans should be able to choose a private doctor, and 77 percent said veterans should be given that choice even if out-of-pocket costs are a little higher. Jim Marshall, a co-chair of the group’s task force and former Democratic congressman from Georgia, told veterans that the VA has turned into “a monstrous bureaucracy that sucks up an awful lot of money,” employing 310,000 people while three-fourths of its vacancies are clinical positions. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, also advocated giving veterans more flexibility to seek medical care outside the VA. “I think it’s very important for the veterans to have a choice,” he said.

VA Long Beach hospital may have improperly disposed of patients’ personal information (ABC7-Los Angeles)
Documents containing the personal information of veterans seeking treatment at the Veterans Affairs Long Beach Hospital may have been improperly disposed, Veterans Affairs officials said. Army veteran and hospital patient Paulnhu Nguyen said he found a large stack of patient records containing personal information, such as social security numbers, date of births and full names, in a dumpster by the hospital after his appointment on Thursday. “When I threw the trash from my pocket in the dumpster, I took a look and observed files. It just didn’t look right,” Nguyen said. The 33-year-old said he flagged down a Veterans Affairs employee, who called the Veteran Affairs police to get the files and take a report. He hopes the issue is fully investigated and more oversight will be put in place. “I want whoever is the perpetrator… (to be) held accountable, not just slapped on the hand. I want them to actually sit there and say, ‘Okay, this is serious stuff and this shouldn’t be happening period,'” Nguyen said. Veterans Affairs officials said they were conducting an investigation to determine “the contents of the documents, the circumstances surrounding the disposal, and what mitigation efforts can be enacted to protect our Veterans’ personal information. Any breach of patient information is unacceptable and we will move aggressively to correct this issue,” according to a statement.

Military honors planned for Cesar Chavez (Navy Times)
Builder 2nd Class Marco Valdovinos has been to many a funeral. As the funeral guard district coordinator for Navy Operational Support Center Moreno Valley, California, where he oversees a team of 35 funeral honor guardsmen, he has rendered honors for veterans, active-duty service members and those killed in action — some 6,500 funerals in the past five years. But on April 23, he’ll take part in a ceremony that hits close to home. He’ll help render final military honors for Cesar Chavez, the legendary labor organizer, civil rights activist and Navy veteran. Not long ago, Valdovinos went to see the film “Cesar Chavez,” a biography directed by Diego Luna. It mentioned that Chavez spent two years in the Navy, from 1944 to 1946, hoping to learn skills that would help him later in his civilian life. At the time, however, Mexican-American sailors could only serve as deckhands and painters, and Chavez got out as quickly as he could, calling it “the worst two years of my life.” But the film got Valdovinos thinking: Did Chavez receive military honors during his funeral in 1993? After extensive research into military records and online, he decided to visit Chavez’ brother, Librado, in San Jose. “I went out there in uniform and knocked on the door and introduced myself, and I said, ‘Sir, I understand that your brother served in the Navy.’ ” A somewhat startled Librado acknowledged that Cesar did serve in the Navy, and that Librado had been at his funeral. “And I said, ‘Was there any military presence there at the funeral?’ ” “Nope, nothing at all,” Librado told him. “Well, if all goes well, I’d like to offer the rendering of final military honors due to your brother,” Valdovinos said.

Families outraged after veterans cemetery turns into movie set (WSB-Atlanta)
A group of veterans and their families contacted Channel 2 Action News to express their disapproval of a decision to allow a production company to shoot a movie scene at the Georgia National Cemetery in Canton, Ga. “The love of your life is put in the ground, and a Hollywood movie is allowed in here to make money off his death, off the other ones deaths? That is almost unforgivable.” said Vietnam War veteran widow Peggy Ray Simpson. Earlier this week, two sections of the cemetery were taken over by film crews shooting scenes from “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.” The film about Iraq War veterans returning home features actors Vin Diesel, Kristin Stewart and Steve Martin. Air Force veteran Frank Cotter, who has lung disease, said the congestion was so bad he was unable to park close enough to walk to his wife’s gravesite. “It was like a circus atmosphere at the gravesite,” he said. “This is hallowed ground. I don’t think they should be doing something like that. With all the problems the Veterans Administration is having, this is one more they don’t need.” The widow of a Korean War veteran said to see the cemetery turned into a movie set was heartbreaking. “This isn’t Las Vegas, or California. This is a veterans’ cemetery. It’s sacred to us,” Shirley Bryan said.