Congress: Be skeptical of more money for VA (The Hill)
Commentary: “The warped thinking at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is perfectly illustrated in two recent stories about its spending habits. Late last month the VA claimed the department faces a nearly $3 billion shortfall for this fiscal year, potentially forcing them to furlough employees, freeze hiring and deny care to veterans. Yet just a few weeks earlier, a department whistleblower detailed how financial mismanagement at the VA squanders at least $6 billion per year, violating government contracting rules and undermining the department’s purported mission of service to veterans. The contrast between these reports illustrates perfectly the vast gulf between the priorities of the VA bureaucracy and those of the rest of the country. While many businesses and families try to “do more with less” since the Great Recession, the VA has perfected the art of “doing less with more.” But the only solution the VA advocates to address its well-documented problems is more money. Don’t take the bait—it’s past time to hold the VA responsible for its failures, and that starts with no longer enabling the VA’s reckless spending. It’s important to recognize how rapidly VA funding has increased in recent years. Since 2009 alone, the VA budget has grown by over 65 percent, from $98 billion to $165 billion. Meanwhile, in the last year, Congress allocated an additional $21 billion to the department in the wake of the VA wait list scandal. To be clear, part of the VA’s budget growth under the last two administrations can justified—but much of it can’t. The overall veteran population is aging and new veterans are entering the system. Funding and personnel followed in an effort to meet the needs of those veterans, but the spending and personnel increases far outpaced the increase in demand.”
VA supervisor took $1.2 million in kickbacks, prosecutors say (The Washington Post)
A case of criminal activity at the Department of Veterans Affairs involves kickbacks. In a case out of New Jersey, a former supervisory engineer at a Veterans Affairs facility in East Orange, N.J. is headed to prison for 46 months for accepting more than $1.2 million in kickbacks from contractors, and for falsely claiming one of the companies was owned by a service-disabled veteran, according to federal prosecutors. Jarod Machinga, 45, of Hopewell, N.J. partnered with a person identified in court documents as “Individual 1” to set up three companies that could be used to obtain VA work. He then directed more than $6 million worth of construction projects to those companies. Machinga admitted that he accepted $1,277,205 in kickbacks in exchange for his official action and influence between 2007 and July 2012. According to court documents and his statements at his June 30 sentencing in federal court in Trenton, N.J., Machinga also admitted that for many of the projects awarded to Individual 1’s companies, he recruited other contractors to perform the work so the companies were able to keep the money paid to them without having to incur the expense of actually completing the projects, authorities said. The company Machinga misrepresented as service-disabled and veteran-owned received more than $3 million from VA related to the contract, authorities said.
Veterans used in secret tests make progress in court (Military Times)
Veterans used as test subjects for chemical and biological tests during the Cold War won a small victory in court recently when appellate judges ruled the Army must keep them apprised of developments related to their health. In its June 30 decision, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals also said the Army, not the Veterans Affairs Department, should provide medical care to those vets. The ruling came on a class-action lawsuit filed by Vietnam Veterans of America, Swords to Plowshares and individual veterans over medical care for troops who participated in research programs at Edgewood Arsenal and Fort Detrick, Maryland, from the early 1950s through the mid-1970s. The judges ruled the Army is obligated to provide the vets updated information on issues pertaining to their health. They also rejected a district court’s earlier argument that even though the Army should have furnished medical care for the veterans under its own regulations, it didn’t have to to because the VA provides care to some of the affected personnel. The judges sent the case back to the Northern California District Court Judge Claudia Wilken to reconsider. “The district court could not … categorically deny injunctive relief to former volunteer subjects seeking necessary medical care because some former subjects may be entitled to receive medical care from another government agency,” the judges wrote. Nearly 7,000 troops took part in chemical research programs at Edgewood from 1950 to 1975 and in biological research at Fort Detrick from 1946 to 1977, testing substances such as mescaline, ketamine, LSD, and nerve agents like sarin.
White House promises action on VA inspector general (Military Times)
White House officials say they do plan to fill the vacant inspector general post in the Veterans Affairs Department, promising that the Obama administration is committed to strong oversight of every federal agency. The VA’s watchdog office has been without a permanent leader for more than 18 months, after former Inspector General George Opfer retired from the job. Last month, Acting Inspector General Richard Griffin retired after 43 years of federal service. That move promoted Assistant Inspector for Audits Linda Halliday to deputy inspector general and the default head of the office. Just days before Griffin’s retirement, a group of senators petitioned Obama for a permanent replacement, citing the need for management stability and strong leadership in the office. Administration officials would not offer a public timeline for when a new inspector general would be nominated, but said work is underway. “This administration has been committed to strong Inspectors General,” a White House statement read. “The administration also believes strongly in transparency and accountability in government, and inspectors general play a critical role in furthering those objectives.” Officials offered no reasons for the lengthy delay in filling the post. Griffin and the VA inspector general office have come under fire in recent months from critics who say there is too close a relationship between IG investigators and VA officials. They’ve also been criticized over not doing enough to prevent the 2014 patient wait time scandals, as well as failing to uncover similar systemic problems that have made headlines in recent months.
Plan in place to eliminate rats, bats at hospitals, VA says (Military Times)
The Veterans Affairs Department hospitals in Florida and Kansas recently beset by bats, rats and other pests are quickly working to restore the affected areas within their facilities. The James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa, Florida, recently established “a multidisciplinary enviro-team — consisting of safety, infection control, environmental management and other services — that responds if a potential safety or environmental risk is reported,” hospital spokeswoman Karen Collins said in an email to Military Times on Friday. The Haley hospital had “dead rats falling from the kitchen ceiling” last month in addition to cockroaches found on patients’ trays. Two months earlier, facilities management services “filled multiple buckets with roaches, dead rats and feces,” the Tampa Bay Times reported. “Being in a tropical, urban environment, we are keenly aware of the potential of, and continually monitor for, any pest control issues,” Collins said. “We have developed an aggressive and proactive plan to address it, including awarding a new five-year pest control contract focused on the canteen and food preparation areas.” In a separate incident, the Eastern Kansas VA Hospital in Leavenworth shut down its operating rooms Wednesday and postponed 16 surgeries until next week because of dead bats found in trash cans.
Lawmakers, families question VA Legionnaires’ probe (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
Federal lawmakers and families of victims of the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak at the Veterans Affairs Pittsburgh Healthcare System in 2011 and 2012 say they have significant questions about a federal investigation that found few problems with the testing for Legionella bacteria in patients and water at the hospital. “It looks like they looked for the information they wanted, to get the results they wanted to get,” said Judy Nicklas, daughter-in-law of William Nicklas, 87, of Hampton, the last of six veterans who died after contracting Legionnaires’ at the hospital during the outbreak. Reps. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, and Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley, as well as Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., all said they had problems with the way the VA Office of Inspector General conducted the investigation and believe it should have been more thorough. “If everything was done great, why did people die and people get sick?” Mr. Murphy said. “This looks like a very brief report that could have been written in a few minutes after a cursory review of a few records.” The outbreak in 2011 and 2012 led to at least 22 veterans contracting the water-borne Legionnaires’ disease. The report, released Tuesday by the inspector general, examined an allegation by a former Pittsburgh VA employee that there were delays in getting test results back on patients suspected of having Legionnaires’ disease that may have affected their treatment. The probe also looked into an allegation that VA employees had tried after the outbreak to manipulate tests on water by letting it run before testing it for Legionella, in the hope of getting more negative results. The report found little fault on the first allegation — saying only three of the 31 patient cases reviewed had delays in reporting the test results and that nothing delayed treatment — and none with the water-testing allegation. The Pittsburgh VA, which has been pilloried over the outbreak since it was revealed in November 2012, was pleased with the findings.
New goal at VA: Treating the root causes of vets’ pain (Minneapolis Star Tribune)
The backroom of the James Ballentine VFW Post #246 in Minneapolis’ Uptown neighborhood looks more appropriate for meat raffles and ladies’ auxiliary meetings than for medical treatments. But one night this spring, the post — just 7 miles from one of the country’s major Veterans Affairs medical centers — became the best refuge for veterans struggling to cope with the pain of injuries from their military service. Eight acupuncture chairs, four chiropractic chairs and three treatment beds were set up, awaiting vets who would soon be arriving. Alternative therapy — from acupuncture to yoga — is a key part of the VA’s new effort to reduce vets’ dependence on highly addictive pain medication. The Minneapolis Veterans Medical Center is helping lead the effort, with a first-in-the-nation chronic pain program that emphasizes education and other alternatives to drugs. But the free services offered by the Minneapolis VFW post are not authorized by the VA. They are an outgrowth of the frustration and anguish many vets feel about being ordered into a program that can serve only a fraction of those in need. The Minneapolis VA’s inpatient pain program, for example, has managed to graduate only 33 vets in the year that it has been operating. The VA says it’s adding more services. But as more vets find themselves cut off from prescription painkillers, the demands on the strapped VA system are bound to grow. While the VA says it is embracing alternative therapies, critics, including members of Congress, say the VA appears to want to keep the services under its own roof, where it can monitor treatment and control costs. The Minneapolis VA hired its first chiropractor in 2014 and was overwhelmed by the response, with more than 850 visits in less than five months. Because of the demand, 23 veterans have been allowed to make appointments with chiropractors outside the VA. The Minneapolis VA said it hopes to have its second chiropractor in place this summer. Dr. Carolyn Clancy, then the interim VA undersecretary of health, told a congressional committee in June that the VA is conducting research to identify predictors for veterans who abuse opioids and which veterans might respond best to nonnarcotic treatments. “We have some research going on in that area and we have a lot more to learn,” she said.
L.A. area veterans facilities waste water during drought (Breitbart News)
Veterans Affairs facilities in West Los Angeles and Loma Linda are apparently unconcerned about wasting water despite the state’s severe drought. CBS2 News discovered that the Veterans Affairs (VA) West Los Angeles Medical Center watered its lawn for over two hours with roughly a dozen sprinklers even though the Emergency Water Conservation Plan of the City of Los Angeles limits watering from those kinds of sprinklers to eight minutes per day, and bans watering between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. When investigative reporter David Goldstein showed up with his cameraman on June 2 and tried to set up cameras, Lina Satele of the VA Public Affairs Office claimed that she could confiscate the cameras because the site was federal property. She threatened, “Can you shut that off? Or I’m going to have to confiscate your cameras.” Goldstein responded, “No, you won’t.” The cameras recorded watering between 8:41 a.m. and 10:44 a.m., less than last October, when CBS2 found the site watered its lawn for almost six hours. Goldstein confronted VA grounds supervisor Willy Dye, asserting, “We had it two hours here – 120 minutes – and they recommend eight minutes?” Dye replied, “Well, what can I say?” When Goldstein continued, “But, you didn’t know? These are your men and women out here,” Dye fired back, “Okay, I’m going to stop the interview right now. We’re going ahead and stop the interview.” Satele intervened, saying to Goldstein, “I need you to stop.” She defended the watering by claiming it was needed to spruce up the lawn for the coming appearance of the VA secretary. When Goldstein asked, “The question is: Do you go by the guidelines of the local authority, which is DWP?” Satele said brusquely, “The interview is over.” In Loma Linda, a CBS2 viewer videotaped a broken sprinkler that released a torrent of water at the VA facility; CBS2 returned weeks later and saw the sprinkler was still gushing water.
New surge is fueling memberships in military motorcycle clubs (Military Times)
When Marine Sgt. Derek Schwartz was medically retired last year after 12 combat-soaked years of service, it wasn’t long before he found himself missing certain intangibles of military life — the family beyond blood, the kind of bonds built only around steel and speed. He was surprised to find it all on the back of a bike, surrounded by a new band of brothers who call themselves the Leathernecks MC. “I was amazed — it felt like family,” he says of the Marines-only motorcycle club. “Everyone just takes care of each other. It’s a brotherhood very similar to the one in the Marines. It’s one of the most therapeutic things I’ve experienced outside of active duty.” And, yeah, the steel and speed were pretty good, too. It’s a military tradition of sorts, running back more than six decades. In the wake of World War II, as a generation of troops returned home from combat, veterans across the country found a certain pleasure and purpose through a newly evolved piece of gear they’d become friendly with downrange: the motorcycle. New “motorcycle clubs” sprang up everywhere, filling the void of camaraderie and brotherhood — not to mention adrenaline and adventure — that many found themselves craving with the end of their military service. They called themselves “outlaws” — not because they were criminals but because they refused to be boxed in by the rules and regulations of the fledgling American Motorcycle Association. “Combat is where motorcycle outlaws come from,” says Don Charles Davis, who writes the Aging Rebel biker news blog from Los Angeles. “Clubs like the Boozefighters and the Outlaws were either invented or transformed by veterans on cheap Army surplus bikes.”
Veterans and civilians are helping one another in former police station (The Los Angeles Times)
Inside what was once the cavernous Escondido Police Department headquarters, former Marines and Navy SEALs are using military training techniques to teach civilians self-defense — a relationship that benefits both students and teachers, participants say. The newly opened training center — called the Warfighter Academy — is part indoor paintball facility, part mixed martial arts gym, and it offers civilians the chance to train in combat scenarios and other simulations, while helping veterans adjust to life after the military, co-owner Sonny Garcia said. “It takes the experience of these prior-service combat veterans and allows them to repurpose it — to get their mission back and get back into the fight by training civilians who are concerned about self-defense and home defense and taking care of their families,” Garcia said. The building at 700 W. Grand Ave. in Escondido had fallen into disrepair after being left vacant in 2010 when the Police Department moved to new digs. It took Garcia and partner Dave Maynard about six months to bring the place up to code. Homeless people had been living inside, and thieves had stripped 90% of the copper wiring from the building and destroyed its electrical system. It’s pretty bare bones now, but Garcia and the trainers say it’s perfect for what they are doing. One room has become an indoor paintball labyrinth with movable obstacles, around which clients engage in simulated gun battles, honing their reflexes and shooting skills. Another area — where the Police Department’s top brass once had offices — has been reconfigured to look like the interior of a small house with a bedroom, kitchen and family room. Students are taught how to defend themselves in scenarios involving home invaders.
VA to harness data from 390,000 vets to understand chronic conditions (HIT Consultant)
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is announcing four new studies that will use genetic and other data from VA’s Million Veteran Program (MVP) to answer key questions to better understand chronic conditions. MVP, which has enrolled more than 390,000 Veterans so far, has already become the nation’s largest database linking genetic, clinical, lifestyle and military exposure information. Part of a beta test for data access, the newly funded studies are among the first to use MVP data to delve into pressing questions on Veterans’ health. MVP-based studies on PTSD, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are already underway. The research would also specifically include the understudied African American and Hispanic Veteran populations, ties into the broader national Precision Medicine Initiative announced by President Obama earlier this year. The study will also establish new methods for securely linking MVP data with other sources of health information, including non-VA sources such as the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS). “There’s already been an impressive amount of data collected through MVP, and we’re continuing to engage more Veterans in the program and building its research infrastructure through studies like these,” said Dr. Timothy O’ Leary, VA’s chief research and development officer in a statement. The new studies include the following: cardiovascular risk factors; multi-substance use, pharmacogenomics of kidney disease, and metabolic conditions.
VA employees in Philadelphia face discipline over claims delays (Military Times)
As many as 11 employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs regional office in Philadelphia could face discipline over their handling of benefit claims. The VA’s inspector general had found this spring that Philadelphia staff neglected mail, altered claims dates and reviews and made $2.2 million in duplicate benefit payments as it tried to reduce backlogs. Investigators say more than 31,000 inquiries were delayed for an average of 10 months. The VA says Friday that eight employees have been notified about their proposed discipline while three others are expected to get such notices. The proposed discipline ranges from two-week suspensions to termination. The final decisions will be made after employees get a chance to respond. The VA’s inspector general has been investigating similar complaints at several other regional offices.
Orlando launches ‘surge’ to find homeless veterans (Orlando Sentinel)
When Andrae Bailey started the event being held at the Church on the Drive, the first person he wanted to introduce to the crowd was David Williams. As Bailey noted, Williams is a veteran who served this nation and defended the freedoms that all Americans hold dear. But there was another reason why Bailey wanted people to meet Williams — and hear his story. “David is a veteran,” Bailey said, “who was homeless.” Bailey, the CEO of the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness, was at the church on Edgewater Drive to launch his Veteran “Surge” Training outreach initiative, a collaboration with the local Veteran’s Affairs and Homeless Services Network, designed to locate every homeless veteran in Central Florida. Williams, he told the audience, had only recently discovered the services available to homeless veterans. “He came to us a week ago, and he’s already been approved for housing, and he’s here today to volunteer to help other veterans,” Bailey said. Williams said he was glad to be doing it. “I’m proud to be an American. I’m more proud to be a veteran,” he said. Williams said he knows other homeless veterans who are like him, and didn’t know that help was out there. “I lived at a homeless shelter, but I’m always talking to vets who say they’re scarred by this and that. All you have to do is show up,” Williams said. The Veterans Surge is about just that, Bailey noted: going right out into the community to find the homeless, and let them know there is help available.
VA secretary to Hawaii landlords: Pitch in to end vet homelessness (Honolulu Civil Beat)
Hawaii still has a long way to go in curbing homelessness among veterans. While places like New Orleans have practically eliminated veteran homelessness as part of a five-year national goal set by President Barack Obama in 2010, Hawaii has yet to gain a firm foothold in finding homes for hundreds of veterans. At the end of June, there were 376 homeless veterans on Oahu, including 129 who were unsheltered, according to Scott Morishige, executive director of the homeless advocacy group PHOCUSED, which helps analyze the state’s Homeless Management Information System database. This is why Robert McDonald, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, is in Honolulu this week, lending his hands in Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s “Heroes Helping Heroes.” McDonald told about 70 area landlords and property managers gathered Thursday at Mission Memorial Auditorium that the state needs their help in doing its part to meet the national goal of housing all homeless veterans. “Eliminating homelessness in this country is a team sport,” McDonald said. “It can’t be done by the city alone. It can’t be done by the state alone. It can’t be done by the federal government alone. It can’t be done by the private sector alone. It’s got to be done by all of us working together.” It’s not that Hawaii hasn’t made some progress. According to PHOCUSED, 368 homeless veterans on Oahu were placed into permanent housing from Jan. 1 to May 31. But, to eliminate veteran homelessness altogether, 129 unsheltered homeless veterans, as well as 247 people who are now temporarily housed — at homeless shelters or elsewhere — will also have to be placed into permanent housing.
VA official: South Hampton Roads veterans care center ‘high priority’ (Newport News Daily Press)
A new veterans health-care center in South Hampton Roads has been described a regional need, but it is also on the radar of top Veterans Affairs officials in Washington. “This is a pretty high priority for me,” said Deputy VA Secretary Sloan D. Gibson after a Friday tour of the Hampton VA Medical Center. Gibson, a West Point graduate and former Army infantry officer, was with the VA only three months when then-Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned under fire in 2014. Gibson served as acting secretary as the agency weathered national criticism for long waiting lists. A one-time banker and former chief executive officer of the USO, he served as acting chief for three months until the hiring of current Secretary Robert McDonald. Gibson credited Hampton with reducing patient wait times that were among the nation’s worst in late 2014. But he said congressional support for a 155,000-square-foot health-care center in South Hampton Roads would go a long way toward continuing that momentum. The VA has requested funding for the center in its 2016 budget submission. Now it’s up to Congress. “We won’t know anything until Congress passes a budget,” he said.
Couple guilty in VA embezzlement case (San Diego Union-Tribune)
A San Diego federal jury on Friday convicted the founders of a film school for wounded veterans of defrauding the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs by embezzling funds intended for the training program, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said. Judith Paixao, 61, was found guilty of all charges, including conspiracy, theft, making false claims and mail fraud, prosecutors said. Her husband, Kevin Lombard, 64, was found guilty of conspiracy, theft and making false claims, but acquitted of a mail fraud charge. Jurors deliberated about three days following a four-week trial. From 2007 until 2009, the couple were directors of the tax-exempt Wounded Marine Careers Foundation, which was intended to train veterans injured in Iraq and Afghanistan for careers in filmmaking. Evidence presented during the trial showed they conspired to defraud the VA by submitting false claims for training and equipment they never provided, prosecutors said. They claimed to have donated more than $200,000 to start the foundation, which drew up to 80 San Diego veterans, but they ended up taking $400,000 from the foundation’s accounts during the two-year period, prosecutors said. Some of the money went to repay their expenses, but the jury found more than $100,000 of the nonprofit’s funds were used to fund the couple’s lifestyle, including a trip to Bermuda, family cell-phone bills and a New Year’s Day sailing trip in San Diego Bay, prosecutors said. Defense lawyers said the couple didn’t purposefully mishandle the nonprofit, but encountered many of the same financial troubles that other startup charities do. On the mail fraud count, Paixao was convicted of accepting thousands of dollars from the Bob Woodruff Foundation for one student who had left the program. The couple is set to be sentenced Oct. 19.
Lawmakers concerned about suburban D.C. veterans clinic closure (The Washington Times)
Maryland lawmakers are calling the closure of a Greenbelt outpatient clinic in September without a replacement plan “a step in the wrong direction.” In a letter sent Thursday, Rep. Steny Hoyer and Sens. Ben Cardin and Barbara Mikulski tell Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald that they are concerned that no suitable replacement has been found nearby. The lawmakers say they have been told that doctors and services will be transferred 16 miles away to Camp Springs and there is only a plan for an assessment of a replacement location. Without the clinic, which is at capacity, they say the number of exam rooms in the region drops from 16 to 13. They say this runs counter to Congress’ message to Veterans Affairs of reducing veterans’ barriers to care.
MLB, Reds open Cincinnati veterans assistance center (Cincinnati.com)
Several of the biggest names in Cincinnati, including Reds owner Bob Castellini, VA Secretary Bob McDonald and former Reds All-Star Jim O’Toole, gathered in West End Saturday afternoon to open the new CityLink Welcome Center for veterans. The center, which will help veterans successfully transition back into civilian life, will assist veterans in throughout the Tristate area. The new veterans section of the CityLink Center in Cincinnati was formally launched Saturday. “There is no other facility in the country like this one,” said Leonard Randolph, chairman for the Tristate Veterans Community Alliance. The veterans center was created by the Tristate Veterans Community Alliance in collaboration with Major League Baseball’s Welcome Back Veterans initiative and the Reds. “To be a part of this in our community is very, very meaningful to me,” Castellini said. “This is my favorite Legacy Project that Major League Baseball has endowed our city with.” It offers various resources including financial planning and job readiness preparation. The center also refers veterans and their families to other assistance services in the community. “I can’t say enough about my dear friend Bob Castellini,” said McDonald, former CEO of Procter & Gamble. “Cincinnati is leading the way in showing how it cares for its veterans.”
Decades late, Bronze star and other medals awarded to WWII veteran (Stars & Stripes)
A Front Royal, Va., World War II veteran has received a Bronze Star and other awards he earned more than 70 years ago. A ceremony was held Wednesday for 92-year-old Jack Rickel in Winchester, Va. Rickel was drafted by the Army in 1943 and rose to the rank of sergeant as part of allied efforts in Europe. Media outlets report Rickel’s unit declared him missing in action when he ended up behind enemy lines. He was recovering from shrapnel wounds at a hospital in Verdun, France, when the war ended in 1945. His military records were eventually lost in a fire.