Veterans news update for April 3

Veterans news update for April 3

Veterans news updateLawmakers slam VA inspector general (KOLO-Reno)
Politicians from both sides of the aisle are talking about the Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General, the office responsible for overseeing our VA system. The conversation is exposing more underlying issues at the VA. Lawmakers say now is the time for the Veterans Affairs Administration to step up — before it’s too late. “VA needs to do a better job,” said Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL). Miller is the Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. Inside his hearing room, he was asked about the so-called “culture of fear” at the Tomah VA. “I know there is a culture of fear around the Department of Veteran’s Affairs and that’s one thing Secretary McDonald is trying to change,” Miller said. “This culture of hospital directors setting up their own fiefdoms and then punishing people who don’t agree with them, or become whistle-blowers – you shouldn’t lead out of fear.” Miller wants better access to secret VA Inspector General reports. After putting pressure on the VA IG, he said the office finally started to release some of those reports on their website and to lawmakers. But things still aren’t completely transparent, and practices at the VA need to change. “It is amazing to me how hard it is to fire somebody in the federal work  system,” Miller said. When looking into the over-prescription of opiate drugs at the VA medical center in Tomah, Wisconsin, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) told me the VA Inspector General’s office misled her. “The IG closed the case, said that personnel and other policy changes were being made to address concerns, and also found that the allegations of wrongdoing or negligence were unsubstantiated,” said Baldwin. Baldwin’s Wisconsin colleague, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), wasn’t shy; he said there are more dangerous problems underneath the surface at VA hospitals across the country. “When you have an office of the IG that I do not believe has been fully transparent, has exhibited independence that I think an IG office should be exhibiting, my guess is there’s gonna be bigger problems,” Johnson said.

Pa. lawmakers visit Philadelphia VA, frustrated with delays in probe (Fox News)
Two Pennsylvania congressmen are expressing concern about delays in a government investigation into widespread mismanagement of disability claims at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ office in Philadelphia, saying the full findings are long overdue. Rep. Ryan Costello, a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, and Rep. Patrick Meehan, visited the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs regional office for about two hours on Thursday before a long-awaited inspector general report due out this month on its handling of claims. Costello and Meehan said they emerged somewhat frustrated by the lack of clear answers after meeting with VA officials. Meehan expressed worry that the upcoming inspector general’s report wouldn’t answer key questions they had as to who or what was to blame. Excerpts of the draft report show the VA’s acting inspector general, Richard Griffin, making 35 recommendations aimed at addressing whistleblower complaints of mishandled mail and manipulation of dates to make old claims look new as part of a department-wide bid to reduce persistent backlogs. But the draft excerpts also appear to leave it up to the VA to determine who or what was at fault. Last week, the VA announced it had launched such an internal review, with results expected by June. Meehan said: “The frustration is that we’re going to have to wait for another investigation to look at the substantive charges.” The inspector general has been reviewing complaints from numerous whistleblowers since last summer, recently describing the situation in Philadelphia compared with other VA facilities as “very bad.” His office initially planned to complete its review last year.

VA to relinquish control over construction of $1.73 billion Denver hospital (Stars & Stripes)
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will take over construction management at the new Denver veterans hospital amid an internal investigation into how the project ran $1 billion over budget, the Department of Veterans Affairs said Thursday. VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson said he hopes the hospital can open in 2017 and repeated his earlier estimate that another $830 million is needed to finish the work. Gibson spoke with reporters at the construction site in the Denver suburb of Aurora after meeting with contractors. The hospital is now expected to cost $1.73 billion. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., has said VA officials told Congress as recently as last year that the hospital would cost $630 million and open in May 2015. Gibson said the design was finalized too late and the contractor wasn’t brought into the process early enough. “I apologize to veterans, and I apologize to American taxpayers for the delay and the added cost,” he said. Veterans hospitals in New Orleans, Las Vegas and Orlando, Fla., have also encountered overruns and delays. The VA has been under intensifying pressure from Congress to explain what went wrong and fire those responsible. The House Committee on Veterans Affairs has scheduled a hearing about the Denver hospital for April 15 in Washington, D.C.

VA takes on construction critics, disputes assumptions (Modern Healthcare)
The embattled Veterans Affairs Department is firing back at critics of several of its recent construction projects. One of its projects is on budget, delays are not its fault, and a critical 2013 government report used preliminary projections that inaccurately inflate a project’s cost and construction time when compared to current estimates, the agency said. The VA has come under fire for cost overruns and delays in completing major hospital construction projects in Aurora, Colo., Las Vegas, New Orleans and Orlando, Fla. “The construction cost of the New Orleans replacement medical center is not over budget,” said Glenda Powell, spokeswoman for the VA’s Office of Acquisition, Logistics and Construction. “The increases in the estimates of cost represented in the April 2013 General Accountability Office report (PDF) were the differences from the initial published estimate—when very little planning for these two projects had occurred—to the final appropriation.” The GAO highlighted problems with the four projects in an April 2013 report and then followed that with another report provided as testimony at a Jan. 21 hearing held by the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. David Wise, director the GAO physical infrastructure team, testified that the New Orleans project’s cost had increased 66% to $1.035 billion from an initial estimate of $625 million. He also said its current estimated completion date of February 2016 represents a 14-month delay for the original estimated completion date of December 2014. “There was an initial $625 million in the hurricane supplemental appropriation in June 2006 to get the project moving,” Powell said. “At that time, the scope required, square footage and workload projections were unknown and the intent was always to finalize the budget request in subsequent appropriations through the VA prospectus submission.”

Atomic clean-up veterans asking for help 40 years later (WCSH-Portland)
When Americans join the military, there is an understanding that if they are harmed while serving their country, their country will take care of them. Some veterans in Maine who did unusual work on a remote Pacific island some four decades ago feel the government has turned its back on them. “I am a stage four cancer survivor. We deserve to be recognized and we need the medical assistance, you know? There are a lot of people who are now sick and battling for their lives,” said Jeff Dean. The Marshal Islands were used as nuclear testing grounds back in the late 1940s. In the 1960s, members of the Army were called in to clean up the waste. Maine veterans Dean and Laird helped clean up Enewetak Island for several months. Dean said he knew it was going to be a dirty job, but was happy to serve his county. Both men said the Army told them was no danger from exposure while cleaning up. Some soldiers were given radon badges to indicate if they were being exposed to any nuclear waste or radiation. They said, however, those badges did not detect the dust in the air they breathed all day. Many of the Army veterans who worked on the island have been diagnosed with cancer. Laird considered himself one of the lucky ones until seven years ago. It was then he was was diagnosed with kidney and bladder cancer at the same time. “My three friends who are very sick right now, they have been documented as exposure to radiation,” said Dean. However, the U.S. government hasn’t given officially recognition to the group that served as atomic veterans. “Now that we need help, it feels like they have turned their back on us and they just want it to go away,” said Dean. Under federal law, there is funding for veterans who were exposed to radiation, also known as “Atomic Vets.” Those who cleaned up on the island of Enewetak are not considered a part of that category and therefore are not able to get help with medical bills.

William & Mary students get lesson in VA case law (The Virginian Pilot)
Eight years ago, a sailor who served at sea during the Vietnam War filed a claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs: Exposure to loud gun blasts aboard his ship decades earlier had led to debilitating hearing loss, he argued. What happened next is familiar to thousands of veterans: The VA denied his claim for financial compensation, arguing the disability predated his service. The veteran appealed. The VA denied his appeal. The veteran appealed again. Finally, after years of back and forth – and stacks of paperwork – Clyde McKinney’s case landed at the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. Of the 1 million disability claims filed with the VA each year, about 4,500 are eventually heard by the niche appeals court based in Washington, D.C. It is often the final round of a veteran’s long fight for compensation. It’s not unusual for the court to decide claims more than 15 years after they were filed. A three-judge panel traveled to the College of William & Mary Law School on Wednesday to hear oral arguments in McKinney’s case, part of the court’s effort to raise awareness about veterans law among aspiring lawyers. McKinney, who lives in Texas, did not attend the two-hour hearing. Most veterans don’t, and for good reason: Arguments delved into the minutiae of veterans case law and dealt little with McKinney’s actual condition. What’s the difference between a defect and a disorder? What did Congress mean when it wrote those words into a law more than 70 years ago? How should the court interpret statute 3.322 or statute 3.385? The VA’s lawyers argued McKinney had a slight hearing problem when he enlisted in 1969 and, therefore, his now-severe hearing loss should be considered a pre-existing condition. “What we have here is a clear notation that the appellant’s hearing loss, his abnormal hearing, began prior to service,” said Ronen Morris, who argued on behalf of the VA. Judge Margaret Bartley pushed back, asking whether the hearing test administered when McKinney entered the Navy proved a pre-existing disability. “The doctor never interpreted anything; there was no notation of defective hearing here,” Bartley said. “If someone was to look back now, that is laying their interpretation over the top of a test result, and saying, ‘Voila, he actually had defective hearing.’ ”

WWII veteran sues VA over Legionnaire’s (Military Times)
A World War II veteran who says he contracted Legionnaire’s disease at a Pittsburgh Veterans Affairs hospital has filed a lawsuit against the federal department that runs the facility. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports John McCluskey and his wife, Joan, sued the Veterans Affairs Department on Thursday. They say the man was diagnosed after drinking water at the VA’s University Drive hospital in 2011 and 2012. The lawsuit says McCluskey joined the Army in 1944 and was a paratrooper in the Battle of the Bulge. Legionnaire’s disease is a severe form of pneumonia spread by bacteria commonly found in water supplies. An outbreak at Pittsburgh VA facilities killed at least six patients and sickened 22 from February 2011 to November 2012.