Veterans news update for April 22

Veterans news update for April 22

Veterans news updateVA secretary calls House plan too small, harmful (Military Times)
VA Secretary Bob McDonald on Tuesday blasted a $1.4 billion shortfall in the House’s budget proposal for fiscal 2016 as “inadequate” to maintain his department’s reform and outreach efforts. “It will cause veterans to suffer,” he told members of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “It means fewer veterans will get care.” Last week, the House subcommittee that oversees the VA budget offered its first draft of the department’s fiscal 2016 spending blueprint, a $163.2 billion plan that they touted as another healthy increase. But the plan would trim veterans health care programs by $690 million and cut the department’s request for construction spending by half. McDonald called those plans “unacceptable” despite the other funding boosts in the plan. He said the health care cuts represent “the equivalent of over 70,000 fewer veterans receiving care,” while the construction cuts will stop four major medical center projects and six other cemetery expansion efforts. McDonald was on Capitol Hill to lobby not only for that extra fiscal 2016 money but also for permission to shift another $1 billion from emergency funds approved last summer to finish the controversial VA medical center construction project in Denver, which has seen its price tag balloon in recent years. Originally projected around $800 million, the overdue Denver project is now expected to cost closer to $1.7 billion and take another two years to complete. Congress needs to OK the funds transfer by mid-May or risk even higher costs.

Answers demanded after vets’ disability claims found in cabinet (San Francisco Chronicle)
One number will hang over a congressional hearing Wednesday looking into mismanagement at a U.S. Veterans Affairs regional office in Oakland: 13,184. That’s the number of compensation and disability claims that were found in 2012, wrongfully stashed in a filing cabinet — some dating to the mid-1990s and many unprocessed. But what the number represents remains the source of fierce debate. Employees who came forward about the claims say it’s the number of veterans whose much-needed benefits may have been delayed, or not paid altogether, because of what they described as organized negligence that continued even after the cabinet was emptied. Officials at the Oakland office say the number is a remnant of poor bookkeeping, a problem that has been fixed and one that caused minimal harm to veterans. But it’s because of that poor bookkeeping that three years after the claims were discovered — and one year after workers blew the whistle — nobody knows for certain if those 13,184 veterans received the help they were entitled to. As the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs prepares to examine the issue Wednesday in Washington, D.C., the VA can’t even produce a log of the claims, or a list of names. The documents at issue are informal claims — any form of communication indicating an intent to apply for VA benefits. Once the agency receives such a request, they must send the veteran a formal application. The date an informal request is received is then used to mark the effective date of the claim, with benefits paid retroactively to that date. Julianna Boor, the director of the Oakland regional office since May, said in an interview this week that there was “no real intent or malicious actions.” In what was a paper-heavy and unorganized environment, she said, workers used to put copies of informal claims in the cabinet as a way to keep track of the effective date of claim. “It was an old past practice that although well-intended wasn’t always appropriate,” Boor said.

Report: VA working with FBI to strip veterans, widows of gun rights (
A 2012 document reveals what the Daily Caller called a “shocking government program” where the Department of Veterans Affairs is disarming veterans by getting them placed on the FBI’s criminal background-check list, Patrick Howley reported Tuesday. The VA, he said, is sending personal medical and financial information directly to the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms so guns can be taken in home raids. But now, Howley said, veterans who have been deemed either mentally incompetent or financially incapable are telling their stories. The harassment they and their families receive from the government “starts when vets go to the VA to get medical help,” he added. The 2012 document, labaled, “MEMORANDUM OF UNDERSTANDING BETWEEN THE UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS AND THE FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION REGARDING THE NATIONAL INSTANT CRIMINAL BACKGROUND CHECK SYSTEM,” says the VA must give the FBI health information it will add to its criminal database. So much for privacy and confidentiality of personal patient information. According to the memo, the VA “will provide an encrypted compact disc exchanged via mail to the FBI no less than quarterly for, inter alia, inclusion in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).” The memo also says the NICS database is a list of “persons prohibited under federal law from receiving or possessing firearms.” Moreover, the memo says the VA will give the FBI a list of “individuals who have been rated by VA as being unable to manage their VA benefits” on a monthly basis. A CD containing that list is sent every month from Austin, Howley said. As of July 12, 2012, there were over 129,000 beneficiaries in the program.

Congressman seeks to ban secret VA health care reports (Air Force Times)
Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., is introducing legislation in the House Wednesday that would bar inspectors general in the federal government from keeping from the public the findings of their investigations. The bill is co-sponsored by every other House member from Wisconsin, a rare bipartisan feat in a typically polarized delegation that could help the bill’s chances for passage. Kind said he is angry the inspector general at the Veterans Affairs Department failed to release findings last year of an investigation into opiate prescriptions at the Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Wisconsin. The inspector completed the probe in March 2014 but did not release the findings or notify Kind, whose complaint triggered the investigation. Five months later, 35-year-old Marine Corps veteran Jason Simcakoski died from “mixed drug toxicity” as an inpatient at Tomah. “We could have taken much sooner action if we had a little bit more candidness about all this,” Kind said in an interview this week. USA TODAY reported last month that the VA inspector general had also withheld from the public the findings of 140 other investigations of veteran health care across the country since 2006. The inspector has since started releasing those reports. Of 23 from last year, six contain substantiated allegations and two involved veterans who were harmed or died.

Medical records of whistleblowers being used against them (Newsweek)
If you really need further evidence of why it’s dangerous to let government officials demand sensitive information from us, look no further than the ongoing scandal at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Once focused on the apparently lethal mistreatment of military veterans by a system created to provide them with (usually crappy) medical care, the story now also encompasses retaliation by officials against VA employees who raise concerns about such mistreatment. Perhaps most disturbing: “In several cases, the medical records of whistleblowers have been accessed and information in those records has apparently been used to attempt to discredit the whistleblowers,” commented Carolyn Lerner from the Office of Special Counsel at a congressional hearing on April 13. The hearing, held by the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation, was part of an ongoing saga that includes testimony from multiple participants, though Lerner’s presence was an understandable repeat performance, given the Office of Special Counsel’s role in protecting whistleblowers. Last September, Lerner told another congressional committee that her office “received over 80 new VA whistleblower retaliation cases related to patient health and safety just since June 1, 2014.” Among the VA cases Lerner’s office had addressed at that point, it “for the first time obtained a stay on behalf of an employee who faced retaliation for refusing to obey an order that would have violated the law.” That employee had been ordered to enter classified information into an unsecured computer network, which you would think government agencies would be getting just a bit more sensitive about. Well…OK. That’s a vain hope. The flood (the VA is now the biggest source of these complaints and rated over 30 OSC attorneys by itself as of last July) of whistleblower retaliation cases from the VA has mostly involved punishments that you would expect from an arrogant, insular government agency against employees who go against the grain. But Lerner told the committee that many VA employees, who are often veterans themselves, find that their health records have been accessed by officials looking for fodder.

VA hospital still needs $340 million in equipment on top of $1.7 billion cost (CBS-Denver)
The Veterans Affairs Department expects to spend about $340 million to buy medical equipment and train staff for its new Denver hospital, on top of the estimated $1.73 billion to build the facility. The $340 million also includes patient beds and furniture, VA spokeswoman Elaine Buehler said. The facility boasts state-of-the-art treatment rooms and more than double the parking spaces of the current VA Hospital in Denver. Some believe the features like a 1.5 million gallon water tank, multiple generators and a towering concourse that connects most buildings in the hospital put the project well over budget. The additional equipment costs are known as activation expenses and are budgeted separately from construction costs and congress has already allocated some of the money, according to Buehler. The Denver hospital, under construction in suburban Aurora, has become a major embarrassment for the VA because of construction cost overruns, separate from the activation expenses.

Bulk of VA official’s $300K moving costs went to contractor (
More than two-thirds of the $301,000 spent to relocate a senior Veterans Affairs manager to Philadelphia last summer went to a government contractor that bought her Virginia home when it didn’t sell, according to agency officials. Diana Rubens, director of the Philadelphia VA benefits office, received about $80,000 of the expense payment, officials said. The reimbursement details, released in a letter from a VA official to the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, clarified one issue for which the Philadelphia VA Regional Office has drawn scrutiny — and may get more during a Capitol Hill hearing Wednesday. Still the explanation did little to satisfy the committee’s chairman, Rep. Jeff Miller (R., Fla.), who called the home-buying program a “scheme in which everyone but the taxpayer wins.” In a statement, Miller said the payment of “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.” Questions about Rubens’ reimbursement emerged earlier this month. A VA spokesman at the time called the moving expenses – first reported to be $288,000 – “appropriate” but declined to provide an itemized breakdown. Details of those costs, provided Monday in the letter from Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey to Miller, show the total relocation expense was actually $301,000. Rubens received less than a third of that. She was reimbursed $15,812 for “subsistence and temporary expenses,” $11,678 for shipment of goods, $11,768 for storage of goods, and $15,291 for a “relocation income tax allowance,” among other expenses.

Maine senator criticizes VA for slow action on Alzheimer’s care (MPBN News)
Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald was peppered with questions from members of the Senate Appropriations committee on why it takes so long for the VA to respond to problems in the agency. U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine says the VA has been reviewing rules that would allow respite care for veterans suffering from Alzheimer’s or other dementia since 2008. “I really think this is something that should be finalized and should not have taken six years and still be pending,” Collins said. “We agree and will get back to you,” McDonald replied. Collins also told McDonald the agency needs to speed up its payment process for claims from hospitals and other health care providers. She says the VA often takes so long to decide a claim that hospitals have lost their opportunity to bill a secondary insurer of a veteran such as Medicare or a private insurance company. “If the VA ultimately denies the claim, the hospital has missed the deadline for filing a claim for reimbursement to a secondary insurer such as Medicare,” she says. “So what happens is the health care provider ends up not getting paid at all.”

AP: No outside construction expert on VA probe (Colorado Springs Gazette)
The Veterans Affairs Department has no outside construction expert helping with its investigation into massive cost overruns at its new Denver hospital, according to congressional testimony and internal emails obtained by The Associated Press. The disclosure prompted new questions from Congress about how thoroughly the VA will investigate why the price tag ballooned from $630 million to $1.73 billion. “What value will this construction investigation have if the investigators don’t know about construction?” Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, asked in a written statement Tuesday. “The fact that the investigative panel VA created to get to the root of the Denver construction disaster doesn’t include a single construction expert is absolutely indefensible,” the Florida Republican added. Rep. Mike Coffman, a Colorado Republican, said he has no confidence in the VA’s ability to investigate itself. “The fact that they don’t have a single construction expert confirmed on their investigative board demonstrates a complete lack of commitment to accountability,” Coffman said in an email to the AP. The VA is committed to determining the facts and “holding individuals accountable when appropriate,” department spokesman Paul Sherbo said. Sherbo declined to reveal anything about the backgrounds of the three current members of the investigating panel, including whether they have construction expertise.

VA blocks vets on painkillers from using medical marijuana (LA Weekly)
War veterans of Los Angeles wait patiently to be given the freedom to toke up. A VA policy known as VISN-22 was modernized to let veterans use medical marijuana as well as opioids while getting care, a blessing to vets who suffer pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, anger issues and suicidal tendencies. The policy change came after California NORML, Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access and affiliated groups started getting calls from veterans who had been denied their pain medications. According to NORML, former acting VA chief Jeffrey Gering had issued a rule stating that if a veteran was using medicinal marijuana, that vet must be tapered off of his or her pain meds. That rule was tossed out, NORML says. But doctors are still clinging to the old Gering policy. Veteran Michael Sorensen complains that vets being treated at the Los Angeles VA “have to run around … trying not to get caught for medicinal marijuana use. We’ve been told by a couple staff members at the VA that if we smoke it, we lose our benefits!” The drug is a lifesaver for Sorensen. “Cannabis has gotten me off of 15 prescription drugs that I was taking twice a day,” he proudly says. National Veterans Foundation founder and president Floyd “Shad” Meshad, who served as a psychologist to soldiers during the Vietnam War, tells Rolling Paper, “I spoke to a representative at the [Los Angeles] VA, and the [liberalized] policy has not been put in place. It should be prescribed and available for veterans. But it’s like moving through quicksand. Resistance is from the ‘establishment.’ It’s just like gay marriage. If they haven’t been doing it for years, they aren’t going to allow it.”

Lawmakers: N.J. VA facilities have too few doctors, too long wait times (CBS-New York)
A bipartisan congressional delegation from New Jersey has urged the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to take immediate action on problems at two VA hospitals. As CBS2’s Christine Sloan reported, veterans who served their country said the VA medical center in East Orange is not serving them when it comes to appointments. U.S. Army veteran Rafael Alvarez said he has sometimes waited over a month for an appointment. He and other veterans claimed there are not enough doctors at the facility. “There may be some small delays with specialty doctors,” said U.S. Marine veteran Darrow Adams. Lawmakers led by U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) issued a letter to VA Secretary Robert A. McDonald demanding answers on what they called the “VA’s plan to alleviate this doctor shortage and eliminate lengthy wait times at all New Jersey facilities.” A VA representative said data showed vets are getting timely appointments. Some patients agreed. “I had a wonderful time,” said U.S. Army veteran and Newark resident Jerome Wise. The VA said it is also hiring more staff at all New Jersey facilities.

Why is De Blasio AWOL when it comes to NYC’s veterans? (New York Daily News)
Opinion: “I’m an Iraq veteran and 9/11 first responder. My first combat activation began 14 years ago just south of City Hall when our city was attacked. My brothers and sisters in arms were united on that fateful day. And we are united again now. We are united in our disappointment in Mayor de Blasio for his total lack of leadership on veteran’s issues. As our fellow New Yorkers in the military serve right now on the dangerous battleground in Afghanistan, and as thousands of them return home monthly, our city’s commander in chief is AWOL. That’s why veteran’s organizations of all generations and from across the city — including Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Vietnam Veterans of America, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, the NYC Veterans Alliance, NY Metro vets and members of the mayor’s own Veterans Advisory Board — united last week on the steps of City Hall. Joined by military families, gold star parents and former city Veterans Affairs Commissioner Terry Holliday, we stood united at City Hall representing over 200,000 veterans from across all five boroughs to ask for de Blasio’s help. We need it now. And we need it badly. We’ve got a hell of a fight on our hands. Nationwide, 22 veterans are dying from suicide every single day. We have an unacceptable level of unemployment and homelessness. The VA is still reeling from a total crisis last summer, with over 3,000 claims backlogged in New York and an average of 225 days just to complete a claim. Across the city, veterans are ridiculously waiting an average of more than 6 months to even receive the benefits we’ve earned. We fought Al-Qaeda after 9/11. We shouldn’t have to fight red tape now that we’re home. We need our mayor to fight for us. But de Blasio has yet to meet with his own city’s veteran leaders since taking office. Not once.”

Louisiana state legislators back ‘veteran-friendly’ campus designations (Baton Rouge Advocate)
A key Louisiana State House panel has endorsed legislation that would create a new designation for colleges that that implement extra support measures for student veterans. Under House Bill 485, colleges and universities will be able to apply annually to the state Board of Regents to receive the “Governor’s Veterans Friendly Campus Designation.” Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David LaCerte said the move would encourage schools to help veterans transition into their new roles as students. “It’s the right thing to do,” he told the House Education Committee on Tuesday. To earn the VETS Campus designation, schools would have to create special orientation and recruitment programs tailored to veterans, as well as workshops, policies and other support services. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is backing the proposal. Iowa and Tennessee each created veteran-friendly designation programs last year for colleges and universities. Rep. Henry Burns, a Haughton Republican who is sponsoring the bill, said seeing such a designation could be encouraging to veterans who are thinking about college. “That will cause some veterans to come forward,” he said. “I think this works as an encouragement out there.”