Veterans news update for May 29

Veterans news update for May 29

Veterans news updateVA boss pressured employees to attend psychic reading (USA Today)
A Department of Veterans Affairs already scandalized by health care delays, record manipulation and construction overruns got a bit more tarnished Thursday with release of an investigation showing that a boss pressured employees in Philadelphia to participate in psychic readings last year. “I’ll have munchies, wine/beer/vodka… (the psychic) will be doing private readings, they are $35,” Lucy Filipov, then acting director of benefits, wrote in an email to eight senior employees just before the session at Filipov’s home. “It will be a little bit of a girls night too,” Filipov wrote in a message to personal friends who were also invited. The benefits office is one largest payout centers within the Department of Veterans Affairs serving more than 900,000 veterans and disbursing $4 billion annually in compensation and pension benefits. It is also one of the most troubled. A VA inspector general audit released in April found the center rife with mismanagement and data manipulation potentially cheating tens of thousands of veterans out of timely and accurate payments. Agency leadership has since said the problems have been corrected. In the midst of that broader audit last year, investigators got wind of Filipov’s other-worldly session held on June 6, 2014. The clairvoyant is a woman married to another VA executive, Gary Hodge, who manages pension payouts at the Philadelphia office, according to a report detailing the incident. Investigators said they were uncertain whether his wife’s primary skill — she remains unnamed in the report — is predicting the future or communicating with the dead, since they said she does both. VA employees who showed up and left after cash payments to the psychic on Filipov’s kitchen table, later told auditors they were uncomfortable with the evening’s festivities. “Employees told us that they left Ms. Filipov’s home almost immediately after their readings due to the late hour and long drive home and that they were generally not enamored of the psychic experience,” the report says. The investigation concluded that by pressing subordinates to attend the readings Filipov misused her authority for the private gain of Hodge and his wife. Filipov, who remains listed on the VA website as assistant director of the Philadelphia center, told auditors in her defense: “You keep calling them subordinates … but they’re my friends.”

Trouble persists at Phoenix VA one year after wait times scandal (The Washington Times)
A year after the scandal over phony wait times at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs hospital exposed widespread problems in the agency nationwide, employees say troubles at the Arizona facility are still rampant, including whistleblower retaliation, neglect of suicidal veterans and suspected fraud in overtime pay. The top financial officer at the Phoenix VA has filed a lawsuit claiming that other administrators there orchestrated an unlawful search of her office and accused her of sexual misconduct after she blew the whistle about mismanagement. She said the stressful work atmosphere led her to overdose on painkillers. Internal VA emails obtained by The Washington Times indicate that top administrators in Phoenix were aware of potential fraud involving exorbitant overtime pay for a 75-year-old suicide prevention counselor who was billing the agency for as much as 55 hours of overtime per pay period, sometimes while he was supposedly working at separate locations at the same time. The questions of suspected fraud and unsafe patient care have attracted the attention of investigators on the staff of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican. The unresolved problems in Phoenix may have been summed up this month when Thomas Murphy, a veteran, killed himself May 10 in the parking lot of the Phoenix VA office. He had been seeking treatment for five months for pain in his right shoulder, but he left behind a one-page note saying the agency didn’t help him. “To date, I have heard nothing from the VA about this, except a letter saying their x-rays showed nothing,” Mr. Murphy wrote. “Thanks for nothing, VA.” The fresh doubts about veterans’ care in Phoenix emerged as congressional Republicans renewed their criticism Thursday of President Obama and new VA Secretary Robert McDonald for failing to improve benefits for veterans nationwide. “It has been a year since President Obama accepted the resignation of former Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki with the promise to ‘do right by our veterans across the board, as long as it takes.’ Today, the president is failing by his own measure,” said the office of House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican.

Rubio: New VA hospital a milestone, but agency needs more work (Orlando Sentinel)
Commentary by Sen. Marco Rubio: “This week, the doors opened at the long awaited Orlando Veterans Affairs Medical Center on the Lake Nona campus. This was a welcome occasion for veterans throughout Central Florida, who will now be cared for in this new state-of-the-art hospital. Although there is much to celebrate about this milestone, it also reminds us of the need for closer scrutiny of all that is going wrong at the VA. That includes all the problems encountered during the construction of this hospital, which finally opened three years later than originally promised and cost hundreds of millions of dollars over budget. This is not an isolated problem. Just last week, more problems emerged with the new Denver VA hospital project, which is already years overdue and had cost overruns of more than $1 billion. Questions need to be asked, and people need to be held accountable for what amounts to broken promises to our veterans that squander precious resources. In the coming days, I will formally request that the Government Accountability Office conduct a stem to stern review of what went wrong, as well as all that went right, with the Orlando project. It’s critically important that the VA learn from its mistakes and apply these lessons as it embarks on a major nationwide wave of constructing new medical facilities in accordance with last year’s VA reform legislation that I helped turn into law. Of course, the problems our veterans are encountering at the VA are much deeper than mismanaged construction projects. At its most rotten core, the VA today is plagued by employees and managers who feel they can get away with practically anything and still collect their paychecks.”

Senator sends ‘SWAT team’ to fix Hampton VA wait times (WAVY-Norfolk)
Sen. Mark Warner announced Thursday extraordinary measures to reduce hospital wait times for veterans here in Hampton Roads. And he told 10 On Your Side, his disgust with the agency is not limited to our area. “I was a businessman for 20 years, and when I had a business that wasn’t operating that well, we’d bring in a SWAT team to try to come up with improvements,” he said. Warner said it’s time for a crack-down team of Veterans Affairs experts to solve the problems at the Hampton VA Medical Center. Wait times for primary care have improved, but they’re still twice the national average. That puts Hampton in the bottom 5 percent, and big money hasn’t solved big problems, at least not yet. “I’ve been pretty frustrated with an additional $17 billion of additional money being poured into the VA, we’ve not seen better results, in terms of driving these wait times down in Hampton,” he told Warner’s letter to Secretary Robert McDonald on Thursday was his harshest message yet. It questions why McDonald hasn’t terminated or disciplined more senior executives, and said people must be held accountable. Warner wrote that terminations are a last resort, but absolutely essential, because the “VA is lacking results on many fronts.”

DoD drops Vets4Warriors, expands other counseling for troops (Military Times)
Military OneSource will offer peer support for troops and family members beginning this summer, expanding the military community’s options for confidential assistance. The move comes as DoD decided not to renew the contract for the Vets4Warriors program, which provided peer-to-peer support for veterans, service members and families since December 2011. Vets4Warriors has connected callers to people who have walked paths similar to theirs, as part of helping them find resources for support. Some New Jersey lawmakers have asked Defense Secretary Ash Carter to reconsider the decision on Vets4Warriors, operated by Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care through a call center with about 40 employees in Piscataway, N.J. “We are concerned that by integrating these efforts into the Defense Department’s Military OneSource program, the trust in the confidential assistance provided by an organization like Vets4Warriors will be lost,” wrote the lawmakers in a May 20 letter to Carter. “Decreasing the number of options available to our service members struggling with mental health concerns seems irresponsible and an unconscionable shirking of our responsibility to service members and their families.” The effort was led by Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-N.J., who signed the letter, as well as New Jersey Sens. Cory Booker and Robert Menendez and Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., also Democrats, and Reps. Frank LoBiondo and Tom MacArthur, Republicans. Defense officials contend they are not cutting services, but expanding them. “We are widening the network of care, not narrowing it,” said Rosemary Freitas Williams, deputy assistant secretary of defense for military community and family policy.

Marine asks for non-Muslim therapist, college kicks him out (Liberty News Now)
Jeremy Rawls, a Marine who went on two combat tours in Iraq, just got kicked out of Mississippi College—because he asked for a different therapist than the one he was assigned. Rawls suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which afflicts many veterans due to the atrocities they saw in war. When he received a counselor through the university, he was paired with a female therapist who wore traditional Muslim dress. Rawls requested a different counselor. “It’s not that I didn’t want to participate,” Rawls explained. “I didn’t want to traumatize her and it wasn’t a good environment to be talking about [my PTSD] with that specific person.” Rawls alleges that his requests to change counselors were completely ignored by the university, until one day they sent him a letter telling him that he was suspended from school until they could conduct a mental evaluation. They also labeled him a threat to campus safety, which Rawls found especially insulting and “extremely offensive.” After outcry, Mississippi College was forced to issue a formal statement backtracking Rawls’s suspension. They claim that his suspension was not because of his counselor switch request, but did not elaborate on why Rawls was suspended. Regardless, he’s now back on campus and free to take classes. Rawls, however, is taking his recent notoriety as a platform to warn other veterans about the misconceptions the public has about PTSD—and how, if they’re not careful, they could get caught in the increasingly rigid liberal education bureaucracy.  “If they’ll do this to me, and I’m one of the most outspoken veterans on campus, they’ll definitely do this to others,” Rawls explained. “They asked me what I wanted and I told them I want to be a normal student.”

Colorado veterans plan rally Sunday to get VA hospital finished (The Denver Post)
Colorado veterans plan to rally Sunday across from the construction site of the beleaguered hospital they want Congress to finish. Rally organizers say the completed Department of Veterans Affairs hospital campus will provide a million veterans in Colorado and five other states with advanced medical care. Congress has debated whether to complete the hospital since its price estimate leaped to $1.73 billion, more than $1 billion above its $604 million construction budget. Congressional leaders have also clashed with the VA over the sources of money to use for the project. Construction is continuing this month in Aurora with a reduced workforce and a short-term infusion of federal cash. United Veterans Committee of Colorado, a coalition of veterans’ groups, is organizing Sunday’s rally. Izzy Abbass, its vice president, said the entire Colorado congressional delegation has been invited. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Lakewood, has said he will attend. Abbass said veterans should not be blamed for the fiasco. “At the end of the day, who is shouldering the burden?” he asked. “It’s not Congress. It’s not the VA. It’s the veterans who go to the VA for services.” The Aurora medical center would replace a hospital built in Denver after World War II.

Student loan provider to repay $60M to military vets (The Hill)
The Department of Justice (DOJ) has secured $60 million in refunds for military veterans who were illegally charged too much interest on their student loans. The student loan service provider formerly known as Sallie Mae, which has since changed its name to Navient Corp., will begin issuing the refunds next month to 77,795 veterans who were overcharged for their educations. The refunds will range from checks of $10 to more than $100,000. The average veteran will receive about $770 back from Navient, the DOJ noted. This is the first time the federal government has sued a student loan company for charging military veterans too much interest. Navient agreed last year to settle DOJ charges that it violated the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act by not capping interest rates for certain loans to veterans at 6 percent. The company will begin sending the refunds out next month.

Man who stole veterans’ data at Tampa VA sent to prison (Tampa Tribune)
A man who was supposed to shred documents from a Tampa veterans hospital but instead used them to steal veterans’ personal information is headed to federal prison. Willie Streater, 25, of Tampa was sentenced to six years and nine months in federal prison for access device fraud and aggravated identity theft, said U.S. Attorney A. Lee Bentley. Streater was also ordered to pay more than $1 million in restitution to the IRS and $25,206, which is equal to his proceeds from his activities. Streater pleaded guilty on March 19. According to court documents, Streater worked at a shredding company that was contracted to shred documents at the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa. He stole documents intended for shredding that contained the personal identifying information of U.S. veterans and sold them to people who used the information to file fraudulent tax returns.

Israel begins honoring long-overlooked Jewish WWII veterans (The Denver Post)
As a proud patriot, Brooklyn-born Dan Nadel enlisted in the U.S. army right after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But there was another force driving him to battle — his Jewish faith. “What Hitler was doing to the Jews, I knew he had to be killed and stopped,” the 95-year-old decorated veteran said from his home in Jerusalem. “That was my motivation.” Nadel is among a dwindling population of Jewish war veterans who battled the Nazis — a group that until recently received little recognition in the Jewish state. Seventy years after the war ended, Israel is finally paying homage to the 1.5 million Jewish soldiers with a planned museum and research center. Nadel became an officer and landed on Normandy shortly after D-Day. He went on to earn five battle stars while leading combat engineer troops in the Battle of the Bulge and the liberation of France. Eventually, he helped free his fellow Jews from Nazi concentration camps. “You can’t imagine what it was like. The stench, people walking around just like skeletons, just bones and skin, that’s all,” he recalled. “It was terrible. Our general, Patton, when he went into the camps, he puked.” Stories of the death camps are well-known in Nadel’s adopted home of Israel, but the odysseys of Jewish soldiers are less well chronicled. In Israel, World War II history is predominantly focused on the Holocaust and its 6 million Jewish victims. When Jewish heroism from that era is invoked, it typically refers to the rebels who resisted the Nazis in the ghettos or volunteers from the Holy Land who later helped establish Israel. Earlier this month, both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin attended Israel’s official ceremony marking 70 years since Victory Day in Europe and acknowledged that the contributions of Jewish veterans have often been overlooked. They said financing would be found to complete the construction of the planned museum, which has been bogged down in a bureaucratic stalemate for more than a decade.

Students build home from ground up for wounded veteran (ABC News)
Jerral Hancock is about to replace the worst day of his life with the best one. The Army veteran, who was partially paralyzed, badly burned and lost his left arm when the tank he was driving through Iraq on his 21st birthday was attacked, will get a spacious, new home built from the ground up by a group of Southern California high school students. The students took up Hancock’s cause as part of an annual school project honoring veterans. After two years of raising hundreds of thousands of dollars from selling T-shirts and refrigerator magnets, soliciting donations from businesses and receiving unsolicited help from people that included actor Gary Sinise and local prison inmates, they’ll present the keys to Hancock on Friday, his 29th birthday. “I’m grateful, I’m very, very grateful,” the retired solider said by phone Thursday in a voice filled with emotion. After Lancaster High School history teacher Jamie Goodreau invited him to speak to her classes in 2013 and he opened up a bit, her 11th- grade students decided what their year-end project honoring veterans would be: They’d build Hancock a new home. Goodreau knew the task would be daunting, but she got behind it. So did pretty much the rest of Antelope Valley. The real estate agent waived her commission, big-box stores supplied building materials, and the architectural firm provided blueprints. Prison’s inmates held a fundraising art sale. When Sinise got wind of the effort, the “Forrest Gump” and “CSI: NY” star brought his Lt. Dan Band out for a benefit concert and got his charitable foundation involved.

Wounded warrior softball team inspires (USA Today)
In 2002, Mike Dreyer lost his right leg below the knee due to a construction accident. What he gained, eventually, was the chance to be part of something special. The former Manalapan (N.J.) High School baseball player is part of the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team, a group of military veterans who tour the country playing able-bodied opponents — dispensing huge doses of awe and inspiration along the way. “It’s been incredible, the concept of proving to America that we can still play the game we love, no matter what kind of injury we’re dealing with,” Dreyer said. “We try to tell everybody, surround yourself with positive people and never give up. Our motto is, ‘Life without limbs is limitless.’ ” Dreyer, an Air Force veteran who lives in Washington state and works in the prosthetics industry, returns to New Jersey this weekend with the Wounded Warrior team. They are playing a doubleheader and participating in a home run derby Saturday afternoon in Bound Brook. “You start out noticing that there are prosthetics everywhere you look,” said Steve Clarfield, a clinical psychologist from Marlboro who has written a book about the team. “But the next thing you see is a ballgame. Maybe in the middle innings you’ll forget that you’re even seeing people with prosthetics. You’re just watching great players.” The Wounded Warriors dive for balls, slide into bases and smash towering home runs. The first time he saw them, Clarfield couldn’t believe how hard and crisp they played. “I’ve been a clinician for 40 years, and I thought I’d seen pretty much everything,” he said. “I was just unprepared for not only the level of play, but the level of concern they have for one another, the level of teamwork, the level of interest in the fan base.”

Wall Street military veterans team up in a Night for Life (Fox Business)
War and conflict no longer dominate the daily front-page headlines in the United States. Many soldiers are home. Families are back together. And life has mostly returned to as much normalcy as allowed in a post-9/11 world. But as most Americans have regarded the global conflict as “over,” there are some in the nation who still silently fight their own wars …this time off the battlefield. According to a study led by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the United States Army, which was published in the February issue of Annals of Epidemiology,  deployed and non-deployed veterans had between a 41% and 61% higher risk of suicide compared to the general U.S. population. For context, the study explained before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, suicide rates among active duty and former military men and women were between 20% and 30% below the suicide rate of the general population. The U.S. Department of the Army said between 2005 and 2009, the height of the conflicts, rates among soldiers nearly doubled. That’s where a growing fleet of Wall Street’s working veterans comes in. On Wednesday night a group called Stop Soldier Suicide hosted an event to raise awareness of the trend among those who serve their country. The organization works to provide resources to bring the growing numbers down. Brian Kinsella, an Army veteran and current energy sector specialist in Goldman Sachs’ equity research department, co-founded the organization in 2010 after witnessing firsthand the devastating effects mental illness can have. “When I was 22 years old, a young lady in my platoon attempted to take her own life,” Kinsella said. “While her suicide was unsuccessful, it really lasted with me through my time interacting and leading soldiers in combat or in a non-deployed environment.” The Night for Life event aboard the Intrepid aircraft carrier in New York City was started seven years ago by Derek Wallis, who worked on the trading desk at Soros Fund Management for 13 years before landing a partner and head trader career at Marlowe LP. The event has grown from a one-time bartending gig in which Wallis donated all $300 in tips from the night to Wounded Warriors, to a must-attend event for Wall Street veterans.