Veterans news update for April 21

Veterans news update for April 21

Veterans news updateNo punishment in Philadelphia VA report for now (Military Times)
Employees involved in processing mistakes and manipulation at the embattled Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Regional Office won’t know whether they’ll face punishment for another two months, if at all. That’s despite a scathing report released by the VA inspector general’s office last week which found misplaced mail, lackluster customer service and poor leadership. Officials identified an “immediate need to improve the operation and management” of the operation. But the report did not name individuals to be disciplined for the failures, and VA Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey told reporters Monday that an internal review looking at possible reprimand or retraining won’t be complete until the end of June. “If we see things that require accountability actions, if we find any intent to do things that show a lack of integrity, then I’m not afraid to take appropriate accountability action,” she said. Hickey said VA leaders wanted to begin that work earlier, but were asked by the inspector general’s office not to move ahead with it until their review of the Philadelphia system’s problems was complete. That investigation took almost a full year. Officials confirmed that the head of the Philadelphia office’s Pension Management Center has been temporarily reassigned, but Hickey insisted the move is not “a promotion, or a demotion.” She said the change is unrelated to the internal review or critical report, but instead designed to help migrate pension cases into the department’s new digital systems.

VA official defends ‘flawed’ orders on falsifying dates on claims (The Washington Times)
A top Veterans Affairs official said Monday that the Philadelphia VA office was the only one in the nation to “misinterpret” a memo from headquarters in 2013 that resulted in employees falsifying the dates on veterans’ benefit claims to make it appear the VA was handling claims in a timely fashion. Allison Hickey, VA undersecretary for benefits, told reporters that she rescinded the order more than one year after it was issued out of concern “it could be misapplied that way” in other VA offices. She was responding to a scathing inspector general’s report that found workers in the Philadelphia office falsified dates on disability claims that were sometimes more than a year old, lost mail, doctored performance reviews and overpaid certain benefits. She said the foul-up with the memo, known internally as “Fast Letter 13-10,” was limited to Philadelphia, one of the largest VA offices in the nation, serving more than 825,000 veterans and their families in three states. Ms. Hickey said the phony dates on claims didn’t have an appreciable impact on the overall claims backlog in the VA, affecting only about 3 percent of claims nationwide. The IG report said the guidance from VA headquarters was flawed “by design” and that it rendered “unreliable” the agency’s reports about cutting into its claims backlog. Ms. Hickey also placed some blame on Congress for the VA’s shortcomings, saying she has asked lawmakers since last year for the money to hire as many as 2,200 more employees.

Fired aide accuses Wisconsin senator of cover-up in vets’ care case (USA Today)
Former aide Marquette Baylor is accusing Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., of making false statements to “cover up” actions taken by her chief of staff and to “protect her political career.” Baylor had been Baldwin’s top aide in Milwaukee until she was fired in January following a USA TODAY report that revealed the senator had a report raising concerns about opiate prescriptions at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Tomah, Wis., for four months last year but didn’t act on it despite repeated pleas from a whistleblower. The day after her office received the report last August, 35-year-old Marine Corps veteran Jason Simcakoski died from “mixed drug toxicity” as an inpatient at Tomah. In the complaint to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Baylor says she told Baldwin’s chief of staff, Bill Murat, about the report, and when she didn’t get approval to take action last fall, she prepared memos to Baldwin herself. “These memorandums were either ignored by the Senator or were withheld from her by Murat,” Baylor wrote. “Senator Baldwin and her staff have disparaged the truth in order to cover up Murat’s actions and to protect her political career,” she wrote. “Had Murat, as the Chief of Staff, allowed me and other individuals to properly perform our roles, the issues surrounding the Tomah VA Medical Center would have been identified and addressed long ago. … Her actions to cover up Murat’s willful misconduct are unbecoming of a United States Senator. She has acted unethically.” After an internal review of her office’s handing of the report last month, Baldwin fined Murat, demoted her state director and reassigned a veterans’ outreach staffer.

Oakland VA whistleblower to appear at House hearing this week (San Jose Mercury News)
For the longest time, Rustyann Brown felt like no one would listen as she tried to raise the alarm about how the Oakland VA regional benefits office was failing Northern California veterans. Not anymore. On Wednesday, Brown will have the attention of top lawmakers. She is scheduled to appear on Capitol Hill before a House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs hearing that will examine troubling allegations that the Oakland and Philadelphia regional offices have mismanaged benefit claims from vets. “I’m going to lay it all out for them,” said Brown, a former Oakland Veterans Affairs employee who told her story to this newspaper in March. “Then it will be up to the government to take that ball and run with it. After what I’ve seen the last few years, I have my doubts that anything will get fixed. But this is all an average person can do.” Brown has been the most visible of five whistleblowers who alleged that more than 13,000 claims from veterans and surviving spouses were stuffed away in a file cabinet at the Oakland office. Brown was part of a team tasked to review those claims, and she was appalled to discover some dated back to the mid-1990s, and many of those vets had died waiting for help from the VA. When she found some of those claims piled on a file cart months later, still unprocessed, Brown and other employees went to Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Oroville. What exactly happened to those claims remains a point of contention. A February report from the VA Office of Inspector General found that Oakland managers conceded that 13,184 claims were improperly stored in the file cabinet. But investigators couldn’t verify that count due to “poor record keeping practices.” Allison Hickey, the VA undersecretary for benefits, later told a congressional subcommittee that the cabinet only held duplicate copies of processed claims and that no veteran ever was shortchanged. The House committee is expected to probe those conflicting explanations. Oakland Director Julianna Boor also is scheduled to be in Washington, D.C.

House chairman rules out military healthcare reform this year (The Hill)
The House Armed Services Committee likely will not include changes to the military’s healthcare system in the 2016 defense policy bill being crafted this week, according to Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas).  “I’ve always said healthcare’s the most complicated issue that any of us deal with, and so you really want to understand the consequences of what you do with healthcare,” he recently told The Hill. A congressionally appointed commission proposed 15 recommendations earlier this year to reform the military pay and benefits system, which Pentagon leaders say is too expensive and unsustainable.  The commission recommended allowing troops to continue receiving care at military treatment facilities, but moving family members, reservists and some retirees onto commercial insurance plans, with allowances to offset the costs.

LA discovers wrinkle in plan to house homeless veterans by 2016 (KPCC-Public Radio)
As cities across the country rush to house all homeless veterans by the end of this year to meet a goal set by the Obama administration, officials in Los Angeles said veterans who have a less-than-honorable discharge from the military have fallen through the cracks. Carlos VanNatter, director of the Section 8 program at the Housing Authority of Los Angeles, said they don’t typically qualify for federal funds dedicated to ending veteran homelessness — and that’s a big problem. “We will never get to housing all homeless veterans within the city unless we work through and with this segment of the population,” he said. There are about 6,000 homeless veterans in Los Angeles. To help, the City of Los Angeles is setting aside 500 of its own Section 8 vouchers – meant to subsidize housing for the general low-income population – for these veterans. Officials have recently begun taking applications from veterans who didn’t receive honorable discharges for those slots. It’s a particularly big deal because Section 8 vouchers are hard to get in L.A. The city has a wait list of 8,000 people. In L.A. county, 43,000 applicants are waiting. The city’s set-aside plan has attracted the attention of the U.S. department of Housing and Urban Development, which is asking Congress to fund similar programs in other cities across the country in the coming fiscal year. Gregory Scott, president of New Directions, a service provider for formerly homeless veterans that runs four properties, said 500 vouchers may not be enough. Veterans with a less-than-honorable discharge are often ignored, but people may be misconstruing what happened. “We had a female veteran who … was in the Air Force and the reason she got out is because she was raped by an officer,” he said. Because she left the service before her time was up, he said she didn’t get an honorable discharge and is ineligible for most federal benefits for vets. “Other veterans may have had a fight while in the service, or a drug or alcohol problem,” he said. “But they served.” Housing, he said, is the first step for a lot of these veterans before they can deal with their substance abuse and mental health problems.

Law that gives veterans free tuition in Texas may be in jeopardy (KVUE-Austin)
Kent Patteson has crammed a lot of life experience into his 26 years. “I’ve gone to ACC (Austin Community College), worked in the oil fields, run telecommunications,” Patteson said. Now he is cramming for a career at Texas State University. “Before I was a Texas State student I was a Marine from 2007 to 2011,” Patteson said. And that service entitles him to free tuition under the Hazelwood Act. In 2009, state lawmakers extended the Hazelwood Act to select spouses and children of military veterans. The change cost Texas State University alone an additional $2.9 million in its first full year. State figures show public universities missed out on $140 million in tuition last year due to the Hazelwood Act. But the state only reimbursed schools for about 12 percent. “The Hazelwood Act is a sacred promise to our veterans that we will invest in their education and their future,” Jude Prather, Hays County veteran services officer. Prather met with lawmakers this session to encourage them to fully fund the program. “Without future funding from the state, the sustainability of this popular benefit and the sacred promise to our veterans could remain in doubt,” Prather said.

Study: E-cigarette use makes veterans less likely to quit smoking (PRWeb)
E-cigarette manufacturers entice smokers with claims of assistance in quitting smoking, and many smokers use this product in an attempt to break free from tobacco. However, a study by clinicians at the South Texas Veterans Health Care System shows using e-cigarettes to quit smoking leads to poorer quit outcomes. The effectiveness of e-cigarettes as a tool to quit tobacco has been unclear. Clinicians who assist veterans in quitting tobacco at the South Texas Veterans Health Care System wanted to explore the relationship between use of e-cigarettes and abstinence from tobacco in a group of veterans referred for treatment. Michele Clements-Thompson and Luis Richter surveyed 120 veterans referred for tobacco dependence treatment about their use of treatment options, including behavioral counseling and use of e-cigarettes. For those who had used e-cigarettes, their opinion of whether they felt e-cigarettes helped with reducing or quitting smoking was elicited. Attendance at behavioral counseling visits and quit status as well as weeks abstinent from smoking were also gathered. Results indicate that use of e-cigarettes led to poorer outcomes. Veterans who use e-cigarettes are over five times less likely to have quit smoking than those who do not use e-cigarettes. Although a significant proportion of veterans who use e-cigarettes (40 percent) believe that e-cigarettes are helping them to quit or at least helping them reduce their tobacco intake, this perception does not match reality. Counter to current popular belief or suggestions by recent advertisements, e-cigarettes may actually interfere with smokers’ quit efforts. Additionally, veterans who did report quitting regular cigarettes while using e-cigarettes were much less likely to have quit for extended periods of time compared with veterans who did not use e-cigarettes (2.5 weeks versus 10.4 weeks).