VA whistleblowers urge Obama to fire inspector general (USA Today)
A group of whistle-blowers from Veterans Affairs facilities across the country is calling for the replacement of interim VA Inspector General Richard Griffin, arguing in a letter to President Obama that the VA’s chief watchdog is “unable to fulfill the responsibilities and duties” of the job. Under federal law, the VA Office of Inspector General acts as an independent watchdog to investigate fraud, mismanagement and abuse at the agency. But the whistle-blowers’ group says Griffin and his chief deputy for health care investigations, Dr. John Daigh, have gone after whistle-blowers rather than the problems they uncover, failed to cooperate with lawmakers’ oversight and in some cases to conduct thorough investigations in a “horrifying pattern of whitewashing and deceit.” “Whistleblowers, VA employees, American taxpayers, and most importantly of all, our veterans, have lost confidence and trust in Mr. Griffin and the VA OIG,” says the letter, which is signed by group leaders Shea Wilkes from the Shreveport, La., VA and Germaine Clarno of the Hines, Ill., VA. “New leadership is needed to correct the epidemic of rampant corruption that is prevalent throughout the Department of Veterans Affairs. Our nation’s veterans have earned and deserve better. Mr. Griffin should be relieved of duty immediately.” The group, called VA Truth Tellers, consists of more than 40 whistle-blowers from VA medical facilities in more than a dozen states — including Arizona, Alabama, Delaware, and Wisconsin — that provide care to more than 650,000 veterans annually. Ryan Honl, a member of the group who blew the whistle last fall on the over-prescription of opiates to veterans at the VA Medical Center in Tomah, Wis., is seeking a meeting with Obama when the president travels to La Crosse, Wis., Thursday so he can personally deliver the letter.
VA will extend benefits to same-sex couples (Military Times)
Same-sex married couples will now be able to share veterans pensions, home loans, medical services and similar benefits previously unavailable to them, department officials announced Monday. On Friday, the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have the right to marry in all states and that those unions must be recognized. Gay rights advocates hoped the measure would drop the last obstacles in getting benefits through the Veterans Affairs Department for same-sex couples with military ties. Active-duty same-sex military couples received access to Defense Department benefits in 2013, when the high court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act. But even after that ruling, VA officials denied benefits for some same-sex couples in states where their marriages were not legally recognized, citing other federal restrictions. Now those barriers are gone. In a statement, VA officials said they are working quickly to provide instructions on extending benefits to all married couples, including same-sex spouses. In a statement, VA said the new ruling allows the department to “recognize the same-sex marriage of all veterans, where the veteran or the veteran’s spouse resided anywhere in the United States or its territories at the time of the marriage or at the time of application for benefits.” Officials also said that they will issue new guidance in coming weeks to clarify any potential points of confusion, in cases where same-sex couples may not be immediately eligible for the benefits.
University of Phoenix sidesteps Obama order on recruiting veterans (Reveal)
Hundreds of soldiers and their families spread lawn chairs and blankets across the grassy parade ground at Fort Campbell, which straddles the state line between Tennessee and Kentucky. They’re here to see Big Smo, the reality TV star who calls himself “The King of Hick Hop.” “Getting out living every day of my life,” the rotund country rapper bellows as he bounds around the stage, wearing a necklace made of beer can tabs. “Southern swag in my blood, so to hell with a wife.” The soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division rise to their feet and cheer. This is not just any concert. It’s a recruitment event for the University of Phoenix, the proprietary college that is far and away the largest recipient of taxpayer money under the post-9/11 GI Bill. That iconic program launched during World War II now pays college tuition for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. The stage is wrapped in a blue banner advertising the for-profit University of Phoenix. The school’s name and logo dominate a giant video board to the left of the stage, with a tagline claiming “30+ years of proud service to our military community.” The University of Phoenix paid the military $25,000 to sponsor last October’s concert, according to records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. That sponsorship allowed the institution to sidestep an executive order by President Barack Obama intended to prevent for-profit colleges from gaining preferential access to the military, including freely dispatching recruiters to bases. In signing the order at Fort Stewart in Georgia, Obama warned soldiers in April 2012 that such institutions are “trying to swindle and hoodwink you.” His action came after veterans groups wrote to the White House complaining of abusive, deceptive and aggressive recruiting tactics by for-profit colleges, which had been documented in congressional reports and law enforcement investigations.
Bill would force change in VA policy denying former troops benefits (Tacoma News Tribune)
Sen. Patty Murray on Monday visited Tacoma to announce a new bill that would force the Department of Veterans Affairs to help former troops regardless of whether they left the military with an honorable discharge. Murray met with groups in Tacoma that work with homeless veterans. She is pushing to protect vulnerable veterans from losing VA-funded assistance they’ve been receiving through local nonprofit organizations around the country. They’re at risk because a VA legal review last year concluded that veterans who spent fewer than 24 months in uniform or who received a less than honorable discharge may not be entitled to any government benefits connected to their military service. In most cases, those veterans are not eligible for VA benefits. That’s unacceptable to Murray and other advocates who worry about closing doors to former troops who were disciplined after experiencing traumatic events, such as combat or sexual assaults. “If you served our country, then we will serve you. No questions asked about length of service or how you left,” said Murray, a Democrat and former chairwoman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
Pentagon increases small business contracts to disabled veterans (Military.com)
The Defense Department finally met its goal last year for awarding contracts to small businesses run by disabled veterans, improving on what was admittedly an “atrocious” record. Steering contracts to disabled vets “was an area in which we have made a lot of progress, but I think we still have some ways to go, and that one is obviously of particular concern to the Department,” Frank Kendall, the Under Secretary of Defense for acquisition, said at a Pentagon briefing last Friday with Small Business Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet. The goal for DoD in Fiscal Year 2014 was to award 3 percent of its small business contracts to disabled vets, and the Department met the 3 percent goal out of a total of $54.3 billion in DoD contracts awarded to small businesses, said Andre J. Gudger, acting deputy Assistant Defense Secretary for manufacturing. Gudger recalled Kendall telling him four years ago at a veterans conference that the DoD’s record on awarding contracts to disabled vets was “atrocious” and the Department had to do better. Kendall was not satisfied with meeting the 3 percent goal, Gudger said. “He wants us to do even better than the 3 percent goal. He wants us to make a high number even higher,” Gudger said.
Purple Heart vet with PTSD denied bus ride over service dog (Military.com)
A United States veteran who served four combat tours and was awarded a Purple Heart was denied a ride on a New Jersey bus due to his service dog. Daniel Wright, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder after serving 11 years in the Marines and Army, says the driver of a New Jersey Transit bus slammed the door on him and pit bull Tank, his registered service dog, when they tried to board last week. “I was just trying to come home from school,” Wright, a retired staff sergeant, told “Fox & Friends” Monday. Wright said the driver told him “no dogs on the bus,” and said he was afraid of the dog and that Tank needed a muzzle before he could ride. Despite Wright showing Tank’s collar and vest, which say U.S. Army Service Dog, the driver slammed the door closed. He says a NJ Transit official called him to apologize for the mistreatment, and told him the offending bus driver will be disciplined. NJ Transit officials told WABC they are investigating Wright’s complaint and issued a statement that, in part, reads, “Service animals are permitted on board all of our modes: bus, rail, light rail, and Access Link, and we take our responsibility to comply with the Americans with Disabilities act very seriously.”
VA deputy: Accountability push is making a difference (Military Times)
The Veterans Affairs Department’s top deputy is confident that his months of accountability efforts are helping to clean up operations throughout the agency, even if firings have been fewer than what most outsiders have wanted. Sloan Gibson, who served as acting VA secretary for two months after Eric Shinseki resigned last summer, said he understands lawmakers’ frustrations with VA workers who retire or resign before administrative reviews are completed. But he also said he does not think that sends a bad message to other employees. “People see these investigations, and they’ll tell you these investigations are unpleasant,” he said. “They see how demoralizing this is, to go through the process and to be accused of wrongdoings, to have these kind of questions asked. This is not people getting away with whatever it is. “They’re gone either way, which allows us to move forward. I don’t think it really takes the edge off of accountability in the organization.” Gibson’s comments came in response to reporters’ questions about ongoing problems with construction of a new VA medical campus in Denver, a project now on course to be finished a year late and about $1 billion over initial cost estimates. Two administrators at the center of problems with the project retired in recent weeks as top VA officials moved to discipline them administratively. Gibson said that since no criminal action was found, the department has “no basis for taking any disciplinary action.” That pattern has repeated across the country at VA offices since last summer, when Congress finalized rules to speed up the firing process for problem employees.
After 514 days, ER at Topeka VA hospital to reopen (Topeka Capital-Journal)
The emergency room at Colmery-O’Neil VA Medical Center will reopen Tuesday morning, 514 days after staff shortages forced it to close. Jim Gleisberg, a spokesman for the VA Eastern Kansas Health Care System, announced in a news release Monday that the emergency room will reopen at 8 a.m. Tuesday. “It’s taken a long time but we are ready and our staff, I think throughout this, have been ready to be able to take care of patients,” Colmery-O’Neil director Rudy Klopfer said at a news conference Monday. The ER at Colmery-O’Neil has been shuttered since Jan. 31, 2014, after the departure of several physicians left the ER critically understaffed. On May 20, the director of the VA Heartland Network, William Patterson, said an order temporarily closing the emergency room was anticipated to be lifted “by the end of May.” The letter was dated April 27, but was received by two members of Congress on May 20. On May 26, U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran and U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins spoke with Klopfer at the medical center. After the meeting, Moran told reporters in the hospital’s lobby that staffing shortages had been rectified and the emergency room could reopen once reauthorization paperwork from the Veterans Affairs Central Office in Washington, D.C., arrived at Colmery-O’Neil. “What we learned here today is that what Colmery-O’Neil is waiting on to be able to reopen the emergency room is the authorization, a document coming from the central office in Washington, D.C.,” the Republican senator said. Much to the frustration of Moran and Jenkins, however, the VA Central Office ordered Colmery-O’Neil to spend six weeks updating the ER’s data software, known as emergency department integration software. The software collects data from patients who have been through the emergency department.
VA partners with community to find Central Florida homeless vets (Orlando Sentinel)
Facing a Dec. 31 deadline to end veteran homelessness, the Orlando VA is joining forces with community agencies to find, interview and house every soldier still living on the streets of Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties. The Central Florida Commission on Homelessness will lead the effort, which officially kicks off June 30. “There has been a clear message nationally that, while the VA has brought a lot to the table as far as housing our homeless veterans, we can’t do it alone,” said Ken Mueller, coordinator of the Health Care for Homeless Veterans program at the Orlando VA. “The only way we’re going to be successful is collaborating with the community like this. We need to finish what we’ve started.” This year alone, the federal Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Housing and Urban Development will spend nearly $13.5 million on housing homeless veterans in the three counties. Since 2010, when the White House announced the goal of ending veteran homelessness, hundreds of Central Florida’s homeless veterans and their families have been moved into apartments. But finding and housing the rest will require not only the resources of the homeless commission and the nonprofit Homeless Services Network of Central Florida, but also the support of the faith community, political leaders, other nonprofits and a small army of perhaps 500 volunteers, officials said. “This is an audacious, historic goal, and we’re going to need anyone and everyone who cares about helping veterans,” said homeless-commission CEO Andrae Bailey. “I think it’s pretty exciting for a community to pull together like this, and we’re confident we have the resources and the commitment to make this happen.”
Missing In America project inters unclaimed remains of military vets (Columbus Dispatch)
The cremated remains of 10 military veterans left Downtown this morning on a journey to Dayton National Cemetery, where they will be buried with full military honors. The Missing in America Project coordinated the effort working with the Schoedinger family of funeral homes and Green Lawn Cemetery. The volunteer group was founded in 2006 to find and identify unclaimed cremated remains of U.S. veterans and have them properly buried in a national cemetery. With today’s ceremony, it will bring the number to 71 veterans and three spouses whose remains have been identified and given a proper service since the Ohio chapter of the project began its own work. The men whose remains are being buried served in World War I, World War II and during peace time. The only thing known about them are their ranks, branch of service, years of service, dates of birth and of death and that they died in central Ohio. The oldest of the cremated remains has been unclaimed for 46 years, said Steve Ebersole, the Ohio coordinator of the Missing in America Project. There also is a father and son in the group and one veteran among those being buried received an Air Medal for valor with five oak leaf clusters for his actions in World War II. Ebersole said it’s important work, and that whether the ashes are buried in a traditional grave or put into a new, modern columbarium above ground at the Dayton cemetery, their markers will all read, “You are not forgotten.”