Veterans news update for April 24

Veterans news update for April 24

Veterans news updateTwo colleges probe reports that fraternity members spit on wounded veterans (Chronicle of Higher Education)
The University of Florida is investigating reports that members of a fraternity chapter spit on wounded veterans and stole American flags from them, The Gainesville Sun reports. Members of the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity chapter from the University of Florida and Emory University were holding their spring formal last weekend at the same resort, in Panama City Beach, where a group of wounded veterans was gathered for a retreat. Veterans have said students threw beer at them, spit at them, stole their American flags, and urinated on a flag. “These guys were getting out of control,” said Linda Cope, founder of the Warrior Beach Retreat. “I was just in tears. This was supposed to be a safe place.” In a letter to Ms. Cope, Florida’s president, W. Kent Fuchs, said that the behavior she described was “unacceptable” and that the college would investigate. The chapter’s president, Tyler Drescher, told the newspaper the chapter had no comment. The fraternity’s national organization said in a statement on Thursday that “there is no doubt” members of the chapters “engaged in ugly and unacceptable behavior.” It also apologized to veterans, and said both chapters had suspended activities. In an emailed statement on Thursday, Emory University said that it was “appalled” to learn of the acts of “disrespect and harassment” but that it had not yet found evidence that Emory students were involved.

Bill would make it easier to fire VA workers (Military Times)
Frustrated by a lack of firings in the wake of a series of Veterans Affairs scandals, the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee on Thursday offered new legislation that would make it easier for the VA secretary to dismiss any employee. “VA’s tradition of transferring problem workers, putting them on paid leave or simply allowing them to go virtually unpunished continues because current Civil Service rules make it extremely difficult to properly hold employees accountable,” Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said in a statement. “The department’s overwhelming lack of accountability … is precisely the type of situation that makes the average citizen lose faith in their government and causes quality health care professionals to think twice when considering to work at VA.” The measure goes far beyond legislation passed by Congress last summer to speed the firing of senior VA executives, and will face stiff opposition from federal labor unions that have criticized similar moves in the past as a violation of due-process rights. But Miller said the move is necessary because of VA’s “well documented history of not holding problem employees accountable.” VA officials have said only a small handful of workers have lost their jobs as a result of revelations last year concerning patient care delays and records manipulation at more than 100 facilities. But lawmakers have questioned whether anyone has been held accountable for those mistakes, noting that many of those dismissals were tied to other issues. Miller’s bill would give the VA secretary authority to fire any employee based on performance or misconduct, and set a strict 52-day process for all appeals. It would also extend new employees probationary periods from 12 months to 18, making it easier to dismiss them before they receive full Civil Service protections.

Bill calls for DoD to publish toxic exposure evidence (Stars & Stripes)
A new bill in Congress would require the Defense Department to declassify documents on troops who were exposed to toxic substances and shed new light how exposure affects children. Military records on incidents that exposed at least 100 servicemembers would be released under the bill, which has been introduced in the House and Senate. It would also create a national institute and advisory panel to study the health of troops’ descendants. The proposed law is early in the legislative process and had a first hearing before a House subcommittee Thursday. Similar proposals championed by veterans groups have failed, but if passed it could provide a wealth of new information on long-running health concerns that span from Agent Orange in Vietnam to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. “We believe this may be the most important bill for vets since the Agent Orange Act in 1991,” which extended benefits to those with conditions connected to the herbicide, said John Rowan, national president of Vietnam Veterans of America, which has backed the bill. The open records measure would require the DOD to provide enough information on toxic events to determine whether a servicemember was exposed, the potential severity and what health conditions might result. However, the bill, sponsored in the House by Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Mich., does include an exception that allows the defense secretary to block a declassification if it endangers United States security.

GAO: VA, other federal agencies, must address cybersecurity weaknesses (FierceHealthIT)
Much work remains at federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, to shore up systems against persistent cyberthreats, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). “Until agencies take actions to address these challenges–including the hundreds of recommendations made by GAO and inspectors general–their systems and information will be at increased risk of compromise from cyber-based attacks and other threats,” Gregory C. Wilshusen, director of information security issues for the GAO, said in testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Among the problems cited in the report: Just this month, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Office of Inspector General reported that two VA contractors had improperly accessed the VA network from foreign countries using personally owned equipment. The GAO criticized the VA in a November report, saying that while the agency had taken steps to address previously identified IT vulnerabilities, it has not done enough to prevent future problems. The VA “continues to face long-standing challenges in … implementing its information security program,” Wilshusen told a Veterans’ Affairs’ subcommittee a year ago.

$10 billion Veterans Choice program more underused than previously thought (Stars & Stripes)
A new program that was supposed to get patients off waiting lists at Veterans Affairs medical centers by letting them switch to private-sector doctors is proving to be an even bigger disappointment than initially thought. The Veterans Choice program launched on Nov. 5 with $10 billion in funding and the expectation that it would quickly relieve backlogs at VA hospitals and clinics. But after a hurried rollout that has led to confusion as to exactly who is eligible and what they need to do to coordinate treatment, officials now say only 37,648 medical appointments have been made through April 11. That figure represents only a tiny fraction of eligible patients. The Choice plan is supposed to be open to patients who live more than 40 miles from a VA hospital or clinic or who have been told they would have to wait more than 30 days for VA care. As of April 1, there were almost 432,000 appointments pending in the VA’s scheduling system involving a wait that long. VA leaders have previously acknowledged that few vets were successfully using the Choice program, but the new statistic came as a surprise — as of mid-March, officials were saying that more than 45,000 appointments had been completed and that participation had been rising. A VA spokeswoman said data analysts recently corrected that count to exclude duplicate appointments and “incomplete transactions.” The VA has already announced plans to loosen one important eligibility rule, and an analysis is underway to pinpoint why utilization has been low.

Outside construction expert joins probe of VA hospital cost (CBS-Denver)
The Veterans Affairs Department investigation into massive cost overruns at its Denver hospital finally has an outside construction expert – more than seven weeks after the department said it requested the help from the Navy, officials said Thursday. The Navy said it approved the VA’s request on Tuesday. The Associated Press had reported Tuesday that the VA asked for help in February, but the Navy hadn’t responded. Navy spokesman Don Rochon didn’t immediately provide an explanation for the delay but confirmed that the Navy received the request in February. The VA is investigating why the hospital under construction in suburban Aurora is expected to cost $1.73 billion, nearly triple the amount estimated a year earlier. Equipping the hospital and training the staff are expected to cost an additional $340 million, bringing the total to more than $2 billion. Members of Congress had sharply criticized the VA for not having an outside construction expert on its internal investigation board, saying the probe wouldn’t be thorough or credible without one. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., said the addition of the Navy expert was too little, too late. He repeated his call for an outside inquiry. “The VA’s half-hearted attempt at an investigation is an insult to veterans and taxpayers,” he said. Rep. Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican and chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said the panel will keep scrutinizing the VA. “It’s unfortunate that it often takes negative press coverage or congressional scrutiny just to get this administration to take VA’s problems seriously,” Miller said.

Senators want to close loophole exploited by for-profit colleges (The Consumerist)
Each year for-profit colleges receive billions of dollars in Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits by exploiting a loophole in the rules that govern how these institutions collect federal funds. Once again, a group of senators has set out to change the way in which these schools count student aid, this time by urging the Department of Education to take an aggressive stand. A group of 20 U.S. senators sent a letter to Dept. of Education secretary Arne Duncan asking him to assist in closing a loophole that allows for-profit colleges to count GI benefits as non-federal funding in their revenue breakdowns. “The negative effects of this loophole for students and taxpayers have been well documented in news articles and Congressional investigations and reports. It has led to aggressive marketing and recruitment of servicemembers and veterans,” the senators wrote. The current federal 90/10 rule – used to cap for-profit colleges’ federal funding – is a provision in the law that bars for-profit colleges and universities from deriving more than 90% of their revenue from the U.S. Department of Education’s federal student aid programs. The other 10% needs to come from sources other than the federal government. Currently, tuition assistance for servicemembers and MyCAA for their spouses are not included in the 90/10 calculation. In the letter, the senators express concern over the lack of protection servicemembers and veterans have when it comes to being targeted and exploited by some for-profit colleges because of their access to 9/11 GI Bill funding.