July 15 Veterans News

July 15 Veterans News

Veterans news update70 years on, Japanese company to apologize to U.S. WWII vets (The Denver Post)
A major Japanese corporation will offer a landmark apology this weekend for using U.S. prisoners of war for forced labor during World War II, according to the Simon Wiesenthal Center that is hosting the event.A senior executive of Mitsubishi Materials Corp. will apologize to 94-year-old James Murphy, of Santa Maria, Calif., and relatives of other former POWs who toiled at plants its predecessor company operated in Japan during the conflict.  Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean at the center — an organization that primarily educates about the Holocaust — called it an important gesture, coming as it does ahead of the 70th anniversary in August of the end of the war that has heightened scrutiny of Japan’s attitude to its past abuses. “As far as I know, this is a piece of history,” said Cooper, who is helping moderate the closed-door meeting Sunday at the center’s Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. “It’s the first time a major Japanese company has ever made such a gesture. We hope this will spur other companies to join in and do the same.” A press release from the Wiesenthal Center said the apology will be made by Hikaru Kimura, senior executive officer for Mitsubishi Materials Corp. The company did not immediately respond to a call seeking comment late Monday. Mitsubishi Materials U.S.A. Corp. said Tuesday it had no information about it. Masato Otaka, spokesman for the Japanese Embassy in Washington, said to the extent of his knowledge, it was an initiative of Mitsubishi Materials. He said the Japanese government has no involvement.

Deadline: VA has about 80 days to clear 128,000 backlogged claims (Military.com)
Just over two years ago the Veterans Affairs Department released a strategy for ending the disability claims backlog. The VA is little more than two months away from the deadline it set — the end of Fiscal Year 2015 — but currently has just under 128,000 backlogged claims. “Maybe they’ll be able to get there by the end of the calendar year. I seriously doubt they’ll get there by end of September,” said Gerald Manar, Veterans of Foreign Wars deputy director of national services. That’s also the view of The American Legion, where Deputy Director of Claims Zach Hearn notes VA officials have tried to squeeze in additional time by changing the target date. “They’ve flip-flopped with the dates … by saying the end of 2015, the end of the calendar year,” Hearn told Military.com. During hearings, officials would begin talking calendar year as the goal, he said, “and soon everybody was shifting to calendar year.” According to the VA’s own strategy paper, published in January 2013, Sept. 30 is when the backlog is supposed to be at zero. In a statement released to Military.com on Friday, the VA offered its explanation for the different end-dates. It said then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki established the calendar year end of 2015 as the goal.  “Because the federal government’s planning cycles are generally based on fiscal years, VBA [Veterans Benefits Administrration] developed its strategic transformation plan on the basis of fiscal years. However, VA’s goal for elimination of the backlog, as set by Secretary Shinseki, remains a calendar year goal. “ According to the plan as currently detailed by VBA Deputy Under Secretary Beth McCoy on Performance.gov — an Obama administration website detailing government actions — the deadline remains Sept. 30.

GOP vows investigation into report that 1/3 of vets died waiting for care (Washington Examiner)
Lawmakers on the House Veterans Affairs Committee vowed Tuesday they would launch a new investigation into the bureaucratic failures that allowed thousands of veterans to die while waiting for healthcare benefits. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., blasted the Department of Veterans Affairs for its “corruption, unaccountability and incompetence” after documents that surfaced on Monday showed nearly one in three veterans waiting to be enrolled in VA healthcare programs died before their applications could be verified. “This latest scandal will be closely investigated by our Veteran Affairs Committee,” Huelskamp told the Washington Examiner. “We’ve discovered the unexpected: something longer perhaps even than the list of excuses VA has made for failing our Veterans. Unfortunately, that is the apparent list of deceased veterans who never received the VA care they deserved,” he added. The VA’s massive backlog of applications has forced thousands of veterans to go long stretches of time without coverage — a problem that prompted lawmakers to ask the agency’s inspector general to investigate last year. “Today’s troubling news highlights VA’s ongoing mismanagement and calls into question VA’s ability to adequately care for our nation’s veterans,” Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the veterans affairs committee, told the Examiner.

VA records sketchy on veterans’ deaths (Military Times)
The Veterans Affairs Department’s system for verifying whether a veteran is alive or dead contributes to costly or embarrassing errors, including compensation being paid to veterans who have passed away and records indicating they had visited doctors after they died, according to an internal VA report. The report, a review of the VA’s death eligibility system, found that the department’s medical records system lists as active patients 2.7 million veterans who are, in fact, dead. But the VA can’t expunge them from their rolls because the death notices came from sources such as the Social Security Administration, Medicare, the Defense Department and other government entities that the VA does not accept as proof of death. The VA accepts only actual death certificates, a record of a death at a VA facility or a notification from the National Cemetery Administration as sufficient verification to remove a veteran from the system, according to department officials. This method of record-keeping creates confusion over who is receiving care and benefits, and has prompted charges that nearly 30 percent of the 847,882 veterans waiting to hear whether they are eligible for VA health care died before they ever received word of a decision, as was reported Monday in the Huffington Post. Whistleblower and VA employee Scott Davis told Military Times on Tuesday that the VA is failing its veterans by not keeping decent records and not following up to ensure that veterans are still in need of care. “Every year, thousands of veterans lose their eligibility for VA health care due to the agency’s inactions and some are dying while they wait,” he said. Another problem with the poor record keeping: dead patients making and keeping doctor’s appointments, receiving checks and filling prescriptions. According to the internal VA report published April 1 by the department’s Date of Death Workgroup, the records of 10 percent of veterans in the VA system indicated “activity” — they received compensation payments, visited a doctor, made an appointment or had a prescription filled — after their actual date of death.

VA officials may close hospitals unless they get $2.5 billion in funding (The Daily Caller)
Veterans Affairs officials stated Monday that unless they meet a $2.5 billion dollar gap in funding, they may start closing hospitals. The department claims that it is dealing with major cost increases from a growing veteran population and increasing demand, as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down to a close, The Associated Press reports. Costs have soared, and so have wait times. The number of veterans waiting a month or more for an appointment has doubled in the past year. To make up the shortfall, officials are instituting medical rationing and hiring freezes. Just one pill to treat the infection Hepatitis C can cost the VA about $1,000 dollars, and in total, yearly treatments for Hepatitis C alone cost $500 million. Additionally, officials are eyeing the VA Choice Program as an ideal source of funding. Congress established the Choice program in 2014, allocating it $10 billion over three years, in order to mitigate the problem of never-ending waitlists.  The program works by permitting veterans to see private health providers in the event that they wait a month or longer for a medical appointment at a VA facility. While at first, VA officials tried to point to low rates of use as reason for terminating the program and re-appropriating the funds elsewhere, outside observers have argued that the VA has tried to subvert the program from the beginning. First, the VA tried to interpret the legislation creating the program to mean that if any VA facility exists within 40 miles of a veteran, then the program doesn’t apply, even if the facility does not provide the care the veteran needs. According to lawmakers, this move was in clear contradiction to legislative intent. Lawmakers haven’t responded too kindly to the VA posting a shortfall with very little notice in advance, especially since it appears to be a repetition of the same sort of budget planning errors the VA makes so frequently. “This is far from the first time VA has disclosed problems far too late and turned its blatant mismanagement into a fiscal emergency,” Miller said on Monday night.

New estimate for VA hospital includes $180 million for parking lots (The Denver Post)
Parking at the new VA hospital in Aurora won’t come cheap — especially for U.S. taxpayers. According to new cost estimates obtained by The Denver Post, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs plans to spend more than $180 million on three parking complexes at the unfinished medical facility, which is expected to open no earlier than 2017. That’s nearly triple the $66.5 million the VA planned to pay in 2011. Broadly, the price hike can be blamed on many of the same factors that have led to cost overruns across the project — namely poor planning and ineffective oversight. But the cost of the three parking facilities also includes add-on features such as solar-power panels, a pedestrian bridge and built-in measures to deter suicide attempts. All these components added to the price, although the VA estimate did not say by how much. Under normal circumstances, the additions might escape notice or even criticism. The Aurora project, however, has been under intense scrutiny since the VA revealed in March the total cost had ballooned to $1.73 billion. “This is not an art museum, it’s a hospital to serve those who served us, and it’s clear the VA does not get that,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, in a statement. Overall, the cost of construction rose 150 percent to $1.48 billion from $589 million in 2011, according to the new estimate. The total does not include $193 million for land acquisition, design and construction support.

VA quietly drops criminal investigation of whistleblower (Watchdog.org)
A social worker at a Louisiana Veterans Affairs hospital is no longer under criminal investigation by his employer for accessing a secret list that he used as proof to show that 2,700 vets languished – including 37 who died – awaiting care. It’s been a year since Shea Wilkes, a decorated Army Reservist, went to the media with evidence that the Overton Brooks VA Medical Center in Shreveport kept an off-the-books appointment list. The nationwide scandal that followed cost the VA secretary his job – and nearly cost Wilkes his position. He was demoted and harassed, and saw any future advancement evaporate while the VA Inspector General treated him as a suspect rather than a whistleblower. On June 24, Wilkes’ attorney received a phone call: The Inspector General agents had dropped their probe. “What they would’ve been investigating him for was accessing a list that wasn’t supposed to exist,” attorney Richard John said. “They had no intention of ever prosecuting him. They did it solely for purpose of intimidation. It has a chilling effect on other people coming forward as witnesses.” Wilkes is left with a mix of relief and anger. Even though he’s in the clear, the VA has not restored Wilkes to his management-level job in the mental health division — he’s still a front-line social worker. He has one small upgrade: he was moved from the closet where he was banished last summer to an actual office with a window — but in an area isolated from coworkers. This is the same VA hospital that ran out of linens, toiletries and pajamas for days on end, a Watchdog investigation found.

Vet activists gearing up for 2016 fight (Military Times)
Battle lines have already been drawn on veterans issues for the 2016 election, and both sides are preparing for the long campaign ahead. On one side sits Concerned Veterans for America, a favorite of conservative lawmakers who have been pushing for expanded private care options for veterans and an overhaul of the Veterans Affairs Department bureaucracy. On the other is VoteVets.org, the left-leaning political activist group that has accused Republicans of working to privatize veterans health care regardless of the dire consequences. Both groups already are lobbying veterans organizations on the issue, even with the major party presidential candidates still in flux. Officials with both groups see VA reform as a key issue in that race as well as in a number of local congressional contests, especially given the lingering scandals surrounding the department. “This is a real opportunity to see where the veterans groups are, and whether they’re willing to stand up and tell the public what they stand for,” said Jon Soltz, co-founder and chairman of VoteVets. That’s the only point the two groups agree on. VoteVets recently launched an effort to expose CVA as an advocacy arm of the far right, funded largely by the Koch brothers, well-known conservative activists. CVA officials have declined to respond publicly about where their group’s funding comes from, other than to say “private donors,” similar to other organizations working on veterans issues. “VoteVets is honest about being America’s largest progressive veterans group, and supporting progressive policies,” group officials said in a release. “CVA should be honest about representing the people who support dismantling programs that care for our elderly, our poverty-stricken, our children, and even our veterans.” CVA officials say those attacks are off-base attempts to distract from real reform efforts. While they blast VoteVets officials as partisan hacks, they bill themselves as nonpartisan advocates with a history of reaching out to both parties.

Canton VA clinic closed after man doses self with gas (WKYC-Cleveland)
The VA outpatient clinic here closed “…after a disturbance involving a non-patient individual shortly after 8 a.m,” according to a press release from the Public Affairs Office at the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center in Canton, Ohio. Lt Cole with Canton police tell WKYC that a man named Kliff Speaker came to the Canton VA Tuesday morning and poured gasoline on himself. Cole says he then produced a lighter. Before he could ignite the lighter, a VA security guard tackled him. Cole says the security guard got some gasoline in his eyes and had to be treated. Speaker was taken to a local hospital and then transferred to another facility for a psychological evaluation. Lt. Cole says the Canton Fire Department will press arson charges against Speaker. In a statement by Canton VA officials, “The safety and security of our Veterans and staff is of the utmost importance and all Veteran patients and staff remained safe during the incident. The disturbance involved gasoline. Although the scene was cleared shortly after, in an abundance of caution, we closed the clinic and canceled appointments due to a lingering odor. The Canton Police Department has the lead on the investigation and is working with VA police. We will re-open the clinic tomorrow. Staff is available on-site to respond to Veteran concerns and is contacting Veterans to re-schedule any canceled appointments.”

Online supporters aim to buy back evicted veteran’s house (The Buffalo News)
A second online “gofundme.com” page seeking donations for Johnnie H. Hodges Sr., the 90-year-old World War II veteran who lost his Humboldt Parkway home to debt, has raised $1,455 from 18 contributors so far. The goal is to raise an estimated $99,000 so the house can be purchased and returned to Hodges. “We’re slowly getting there,” said Greg Elwood, who set up the fundraising page. Donations raised on another gofundme.com page that had been set up by Robin Hodges, the veteran’s daughter, are in the process of being transferred to the page created by Elwood. “The transfer will give us a combined total of about $3,000,” Elwood said. Robin Hodges told The Buffalo News she no longer wants to be directly involved in the fundraising efforts in order to avoid any potential conflicts of interest. Elwood explained that the donations will be placed in a special bank account that only the veteran can access. The gofundme page is at http://www.gofundme.com/xgpe6pw and has been named “Buffalo Supports WWII Vet – Hodges.” Elwood said his motivation for spearheading the drive was out of respect for the Greatest Generation, whose members fought in World War II. “There are not many members of the Greatest Generation left and my hope is that our generous community will step forward to help,” he said.

Brotherly love: Free yoga for veterans, by veterans (CBS-Philadelphia)
A former Marine now living in South Jersey says yoga saved his life. Now, he’s offering free yoga classes to fellow veterans and their families. Eyewitness News anchor Ukee Washington got a chance to meet him in Cherry Hill. When Marine Captain C.J. Keller of Moorestown came back from serving in Iraq in 2008, he struggled with PTSD. “I was a gym rat. I would go and I would run, and I would go to the bar,” C.J. said. “Those were my coping strategies. That’s what I knew.” Then C.J. found yoga. He is now a yoga instructor. Twice a week, he offers free yoga classes for veterans, one class in Maple Shade, the other in Cherry Hill. “Yoga gives you the tools. It empowers you to be present with what is,” C.J. said. Veterans can bring their family members to classes, too. Jim Hambley, a former Marine corporal, signed up. He says the class helps him cope with difficult feelings, including losing a fellow vet and friend to suicide. “I used to push away the, the sad, the bad thoughts,” Jim said. “But I’m getting to a place where it’s okay. You need those emotions.” C.J. hopes to get twenty veterans and family members per class. The classes are free, but C.J. welcomes donations for Active Heroes, a non-profit trying to end suicides in the military. These veterans are back on a mission together: saving each other. They agree it’s a bond like no other. “I get to be with my brothers and sisters again,” Jim said.

Missouri law will end fees for Purple Heart license plates (Ky3.com)
A new Missouri state law soon will waive fees for certain veterans who want specialty Purple Heart license plates.   Legislation signed on Monday by Gov. Jay Nixon eliminated fees for Purple Heart recipients to receive the specialty plates. The Purple Heart goes to veterans wounded or killed in combat.  Veterans honored with a Purple Heart now don’t pay additional fees for their first specialty plate, but can be charged for additional plates. The measure will eliminate those fees once it takes effect Aug. 28. Veterans still must pay regular registration fees.