Veterans news update for May 12

Veterans news update for May 12

Veterans news updateAutomated system often unjustly boosts veterans’ disability benefits (The Wall Street Journal)
An effort by the Department of Veterans Affairs that aimed to speed the processing of disability-benefits applications also loosened controls that prevent veterans from exaggerating symptoms to receive more money, say current and former VA employees. A software system introduced in 2012 that automates veterans’ disability levels for compensation relies almost solely on a patient’s self-reported ailments, the employees say, even in the face of contradictory information. While the new system reduced paperwork and increased output, it limited the information that the VA’s employees who determine compensation eligibility and dollar amounts—called raters—can consider, according to these employees. The result, raters contend: a more inaccurate process that approves higher levels of disability than veterans’ military records, medical histories and other evidence might show—in some cases increasing payments to veterans by thousands of dollars a month. The process, they maintain, also ignores stated VA rules in which claims must be evaluated “in light of the [veteran’s] whole recorded history.” Senior VA officials counter that the software system still relies on raters’ expertise to determine the accuracy of claims. They say it is designed to facilitate, but not replace, that process. Raters “have every right to change [the symptoms] if there is other evidence in the file,” one official said. Increased disability levels—the degree to which a veteran is considered impaired from earning a normal living—is partly why costs in the VA benefits branch have surged 65% to nearly $65 billion in 2014, from the end of 2011. Approved veterans also are receiving compensation for more diagnosed problems: averaging 4.3 disabilities each in 2013, up from 3.9 in 2011. The VA expects to pay out nearly $72 billion in benefits in 2015, according to the agency.

VA: Announcement on benefits for C-123 veterans should come soon (MassLive.com)
The four-year battle for medical benefits waged by Westover Air Reserve veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange while flying C-123 planes after the Vietnam War could be over by the end of the month. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert A. McDonald said he plans to make an announcement within a few weeks about care for the crews who flew the twin-propeller driven C-123 Providers after many were used to spray the chemical over the Vietnam countryside to ruin crops and defoliate trees, a department spokeswoman said. “VA officials have engaged in a collaborative conversation with key stakeholders, including veterans’ service organizations and Congressional staff, to discuss existing legal authorities and the steps needed to authorize benefits for all Reserve personnel who had sustained contact with the contaminated aircraft and developed one of the covered Agent Orange presumptive conditions. We will continue to work with Congress on this important matter to provide our Veterans with the benefits they have earned and deserve,” a spokeswoman for the Department of Veterans Affairs said in writing. At least 11 of the 16 planes used at Westover Air Reserve Base between 1972 to 1982 at Westover are known to be former Agent Orange spray planes. Some of them were tested a decade after they were retired and results showed at least one used at Westover was “highly contaminated.” The C-123 planes were also sent to the Pittsburgh Air National Guard Base and Rickenbacker Air National Base in Ohio.

VA needs reforming, not reshuffling (National Review)
Commentary by Pete Hegseth: “It’s been over a year since the wait-time-manipulation scandal was exposed at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Yet a year after it was revealed that VA officials nationwide had falsified waiting-list times — and after more than $16 billion in new funding from Congress — veterans are waiting even longer for care. Worse, each day since then — and still today — explosive stories of blatant VA waste and rampant VA mismanagement have hit the headlines. These headlines provide glimpses of a reality that veterans across the country have known for far too long — VA is a broken, dysfunctional bureaucracy that all too often fails to provide timely, consistent, and quality health-care outcomes to veterans. Despite a growing budget of $165.6 billion (larger than the combined budgets of the Department of Transportation and the Office of Personnel Management) and an army of 323,000 staff (larger than the Marine Corps), it still takes months for most VA facilities to deliver both primary and specialty care to America’s veterans. But let’s lay aside the mountain of evidence that the VA is failing in its mission of service to veterans to venture a prediction: As the 2016 election season gains momentum, the VA bureaucracy’s steadfast defenders will attempt to paint supporters of reform as stealth agents seeking to “destroy” the VA. Okay, maybe that’s not really a prediction, as it’s already happening. Enthusiasts of the VA’s antiquated, bureaucratic approach to health care — residing primarily on the political left — are preparing a full-on assault against VA reform, particularly the effort to give veterans the real option to seek care from private-sector providers.”

Veterans stranded after using GI Bill at defunct for-profit college (CNN)
Iraq and Afghanistan veterans Ashton Harris and Devin Wilson were among the 16,000 students attending the for-profit Corinthian College when it abruptly closed on April 27. They paid for their education using their GI Bill benefits, which can cover three years of tuition. Now they worry they’ve wasted valuable benefits on a school that no longer exists. Harris and Wilson hope to transfer, but they don’t know how many of their credits will be accepted at another school. It’s difficult for any student to transfer credits, much less for someone who attended a defunct for-profit. “Let’s say other schools count it against us because our school closed down. Then everything I did doesn’t matter anymore,” said Harris, 28, who served nine years in the Army. Both vets attended the Corinthian-owned Heald College in Hawaii, and were about a year away from finishing their degrees. Both want the Department of Veterans Affairs to extend their benefits. But the VA told Wilson no. Harris is still waiting to hear back. “Unfortunately, there are no provisions in the law that would allow VA to restore entitlement that has been used attending one of the schools,” the department said on its website. It did not return requests for comment from CNNMoney. If Harris and Wilson had taken out federal loans to pay for school — instead of using GI Bill benefits — their situation would be different. The Department of Education allows anyone with federal loans to apply for loan forgiveness if they attend a school that closes, as long as their credits aren’t transferred to another school. But there’s no rule to help veterans using the GI Bill, Wilson said. Harris and Wilson hope the VA will show some leniency in the case of Corinthian. The for-profit network of colleges didn’t simply run out of money. It was forced to sell off or close all of its 100 or so campuses after it was sued by the U.S. government and several states for preying on low-income students with high-interest loans. It was fined $30 million in April for luring students with inflated job placement numbers.

VA Choice Program must work better for our veterans (The Hill)
Commentary: “When our men and women in uniform complete their military service, they fulfill their solemn vow and commitment to our nation. It is our duty to honor our commitment to them. Unfortunately, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) too often fails in fulfilling its pledge to provide quality medical care to our nation’s veterans.  Thousands of veterans are still struggling to access the care they were promised through the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014 (Choice Act). In the wake of the wait-list scandal last year that exposed systemic failures and mismanagement within the VA, Congress came together to pass the bipartisan Choice Act – legislation that promised to give veterans the choice to seek medical care outside of the VA. The Choice Act created the Veterans Choice Program which was supposed to allow veterans access to local health care if they cannot receive the care they need at a VA facility within 40 miles of their home, or their wait time for an appointment at a VA facility is more than 30 days. But the VA has taken a flawed approach to implementing this 40-mile rule. By choosing to take into account only the distance of a VA medical facility from a veteran’s home and not whether that facility can actually provide the services the veteran needs, the VA has left many of our most vulnerable veterans out of the program designed to help them. We have heard from numerous veterans in Kansas and Oklahoma who still face significant barriers to accessing health care services. Rural veterans are being forced to choose between traveling hours to a VA medical facility, paying out of pocket, or going without care altogether. Although the VA has taken steps to fix the way the distance between a veteran’s residence and the nearest VA medical facility is calculated – now measuring by driving distance rather than as-the-crow-flies – we must still address the VA’s misguided interpretation of the 40-mile rule when it comes to whether a VA facility offers the care a veteran needs. This limitation is nonsensical and is preventing veterans from receiving the care they deserve.”

Lawsuit blames Phoenix VA Medical Center for veteran’s suicide (Fox News)
A new lawsuit claims a cancer-stricken veteran killed himself after the Phoenix VA Medical Center erroneously told him he was about to die, the Arizona Republic reported Saturday. The $2.5 million lawsuit claims Gene Spencer, 67, shot himself to death in 2012, three days after being told his cancer had spread to his lungs and that he had just weeks to live. A day after the suicide the hospital called his wife and told her it had good news. The diagnosis was wrong and he was not about to die. Shirley Fobke told the paper she is still reeling over what happened to her husband. “It just wasn’t right,” she said. “He deserved better than what they did to him.” The Army drafted Spencer in 1968. He was discharged after two years in the medical corps. Officials at the Phoenix VA declined to comment except to offer condolences, the paper said. The VA system has come under fire for falsifying wait lists for veterans seeking medical care and for mismanagement. According to the Republic, Spencer was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2010, and doctors then said he had five to six years to live with proper treatment. Fobke filed her lawsuit in Phoenix Federal Court. She is seeking damages for wrongful death.

Veterans blast Pennsylvania mayor for lowering POW-MIA flag, raising Syria’s (Allentown Morning Call)
Angry veterans packed Whitehall Township, Pa.’s public meeting room Monday night to protest the removal of the POW-MIA flag from the pole in front of the municipal building during a Syrian-American independence celebration in April. The issue, the veterans contended during the Board of Commissioners meeting, is that Mayor Ed Hozza Jr. decided to take down the POW-MIA flag and replace it with the Syrian flag. They said that was not only a breach of flag etiquette but a violation of federal law and a slap in the face to the U.S. military. Hozza, however, said he was not aware that moving the flag temporarily was a violation of the law, that he and his family are active supporters of the U.S. armed forces, and that as mayor he represents all of Whitehall, including a sizable Syrian-American community. Tempers flared as veterans and military families took to the mic to express their anger at Hozza. A few sparks flew on the board as well, as President Linda Snyder accused Hozza of making the decision unilaterally, rather than asking the others on the board for their input. She challenged him to explain the comment she’d heard him make on WFMZ-TV that “we made the decision” to fly the Syrian flag. “Who is ‘we’?” she asked. When Hozza said he wanted to wait until everyone had a chance to speak before reading his statement, Snyder persisted, and the room erupted into chants of “Who is ‘we’?” When Hozza again said he wanted to wait until the end of the public comments to make his statement, Snyder polled the other commissioners, all of whom said they were not consulted. In his prepared statement, read at the end of the meeting, Hozza emphasized his long-standing support for veterans and active military personnel, and said he was unaware of the etiquette governing the removal of the POW-MIA flag at the time of the ceremony. Hozza went on to say that he took down the POW-MIA flag during the ceremony and flew the Syrian flag beneath the Stars and Stripes because there is only one flagpole at the municipal building, although the suggestion was made during the meeting to put up a second pole for instances like this one. “I apologize for that action, for not knowing what flag etiquette is at that time,” Hozza said. “The American flag remained at the place of honor during the event, which lasted about an hour. If commissioners and community so choose, we can have other flag-raising ceremonies elsewhere in the township.”

Sen. Patty Murray: Bill helps caregivers of our soldiers (The Spokesman-Review)
Commentary: “Seven months into her husband’s deployment to Afghanistan, Jessica Klein received the call every military spouse dreads. Her husband, Army Capt. Edward “Flip” Klein, had stepped on an IED. He lost both legs and his right arm. At that very moment, Jessica decided she would give up her career in mechanical engineering in Washington state, relocate to Walter Reed hospital outside Washington, D.C., and become her husband’s full-time caregiver. Jessica says she doesn’t regret her decision, but it’s clear that she has made tremendous sacrifices for her family and her country. Jessica’s husband now relies on her for everything from day-to-day support to concerns with the extreme costs of rehabilitation – financial, emotional and physical. Thankfully, the Kleins received strong support from charitable organizations, but all the incredible contributions from people and community groups can never take away the government’s responsibility to help our injured service members. That’s why I introduced the Military and Veteran Caregiver Services Improvement Act. It’s stories like the Kleins’, and the sacrifices of millions of veterans and their caregivers all across the country, that inspire me to keep fighting. Caregivers are doing some of the most important work for veterans in Spokane and across the country. We owe it to them to make sure they have the resources and support they need. My bill, which has the support of Democrats and Republicans, recognizes the sacrifices of our nation’s military caregivers and says to them: You don’t have to go it alone. It would expand the current military caregiver program to help more veterans, from all eras, and recognize a wider array of needs of the 5.5 million caregivers nationwide who may require help. It offers support such as child care, financial advice and legal counseling – things that help ease the burden for our military families as they figure out long-term solutions to life-changing injuries sustained during military service. My bill would also place greater emphasis on mental health and traumatic brain injury recovery, and improve access to the program by expanding who is eligible to become a caregiver.

Texas bill to cut veterans’ education benefits sparks furor (San Antonio Express-News)
The Texas Legislature is poised to restrict the number of veterans’ dependents who qualify for free tuition at state colleges, a change that supporters say will reduce heavy financial losses at the schools but that veterans groups slam as a betrayal. Critics said the cost projections, pegged at $169 million last year, are exaggerated and that most of the beneficiaries losing eligibility would be the children and spouses of enlistees, many of them veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. “It’s going to disproportionately impact the enlisted man who has the least financial resources,” said Jim Brennan, legislative director of the Texas Coalition of Veterans Organizations, which represents about 35 veterans groups with 600,000 Texas members. “The majority of enlisted people sign up for a four-year hitch, and then they leave the service.” Texas is home to 1.67 million veterans, a fraction of the 22 million nationwide. Roughly 155,000 of them live in Bexar County. The state reached out to help veterans well before the GI Bill was enacted in the wake of World War II. In the 1920s, the Legislature ordered state educational institutions to exempt honorably discharged Texans who had been nurses or in the armed forces from paying tuition. Benefits under the Hazelwood Act were extended in 1943 to children of troops who died or were killed in combat. The Legislature created a legacy program in 2009 under a bill sponsored by then-Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, waiving tuition and some fees at state colleges and universities for spouses and children.

Tampa VA nurses say staff shortage threatens veterans (WTSP-Tampa)
VA nurses are ready to rally. They are claiming a staffing shortage is putting patients in danger at the Tampa VA hospital. Nurses are demanding changes, and now the Department of Veterans Affairs is responding. The nurses insist there are more than 100 positions that haven’t been filled at the James A. Haley VA Hospital on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard in Tampa. 10 News is digging deeper into what’s being done locally and federally to improve care for those who have served our country. In a grievance filed by National Nurses United, nurses at James A. Haley say the current staffing shortage is impacting veterans’ care. On the eve of International Nurses Day, they’re demanding 100 nurses be hired right away. The hospital is now firing back and denying the claims. “Patient care is being compromised. With the size of Haley, there’s no reason why the budget doesn’t allow to take care of veterans,” says Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit Nurse Dennis Mclain. Mclain has worked in the VA for more than two decades and says the care at Haley is failing veterans, because there aren’t enough nurses to care for patients. “If they need basic nursing care, it takes longer and longer to do it,” says Mclain. Mclain says patients don’t always see the problems, like Amy Martin’s husband who’s in the ER. “Certain aspects aren’t that great, but overall he really likes it,” says Martin. The National Nurses United union is calling on the hospital to reduce the nurse-to-patient ratio and post it every shift for veterans to see. “The important thing is we get it right for the veterans,” says Rep. David Jolly. Jolly hears the nurses’ concerns and says with a recent 9 percent increase in federal funding, the VA needs to be held accountable to fix these problems. “The person I hold accountable every single day is at the top, the VA secretary, to make decisions to make sure Haley and Bay Pines are adequately staffed,” Jolly says.

NFL teams got tax money to salute veterans during games (St. Louis Business Journal)
More than a dozen National Football League teams, including the St. Louis Rams, accepted $5.4 million from the military for an advertising campaign honoring U.S. military members. That’s according to research performed by New Jersey Advance Media, which found the St. Louis Rams received $60,000 last season from the Army and Air National Guard. Other teams that received money include the Kansas City Chiefs, which took a total of $250,000 in 2011 from the Army and Air National Guard; the Atlanta Falcons, which took more than $1 million between 2011 and 2014; and the Baltimore Raves, which took more than $750,000 between 2011 and 2013. The Rams didn’t immediately return a request for comment. The NFL, according to a Tweet from Darren Rovell, a sports business reporter for ESPN, said, “The Armed Forces have long worked with sports teams and leagues on year-round advertising and marketing programs to reach important audiences. The Armed Forces also have advertising arrangements with television networks, online and print outlets. The on-field salutes, which have played a role in NFL games for decades and will continue in the future, are a visible way to thank the men and women who have served and continue to serve our country here and around the world.”

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