VA official: No line-by-line account of where $1 billion went (The Denver Post)
A top Department of Veterans Affairs official said Wednesday that his agency may never explain precisely how a hospital project in Aurora with a $604 million construction budget skyrocketed to $1.73 billion in barely two years. Members of Congress, including Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet of Colorado and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, have asked for a detailed account of the price increase, saying those numbers must exist. But during a news conference at the construction site, VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson said not to expect a line-item description of the $1.1 billion difference. “You’re not going to find a dollar-by-dollar account,” he said. Gibson said the best explanation of the cost overruns can be found in the Civilian Board of Contract Appeals court decision in December 2014 that sustained contractor Kiewit-Turner’s complaint against the VA. That ruling identified numerous VA errors but did not estimate how much any mistake cost. Gibson said the two biggest contributors to the cost increase in Aurora were the decision to use an Integrated Design and Construct contract, a method unfamiliar to the VA, and the handwritten agreement signed in November 2011 to get construction started. That agreement, known as SA-007, “put the liability of cost on the VA” to provide an affordable design, Gibson said. “From that point on, VA and Kiewit-Turner were at odds.
Senators call for VA to explain why it couldn’t find mustard-gassed veterans (NPR.org)
A group of 12 U.S. senators is calling on the Department of Veterans Affairs to help World War II veterans who were exposed to mustard gas, after an NPR Investigation found the VA broke a decades-old promise to provide them compensation. Last week, we reported that the VA had promised to contact about 4,000 veterans who were exposed to the chemical weapon during secret gas warfare tests in the 1940s. But in more than 20 years, the VA contacted only 610. Agency officials said they couldn’t find the rest, but an NPR researcher located more than 1,200, living and dead, in two months. NPR also found that many of the veterans who applied for benefits were denied, even though they met the VA’s established criteria. Tuesday the 12 senators — 11 Democrats and one Republican — wrote a letter to VA Secretary Robert McDonald saying they found the reports “profoundly disturbing,” and telling the VA “to take immediate and comprehensive steps to address this issue.” They called on the VA to contact as many of the mustard gas test subjects as it can and immediately assist them in getting benefits. They also said the agency should determine why it failed to contact the veterans earlier and explain why some of those who met the benefits criteria had been rejected. The group of senators includes Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., the ranking member on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and Jerry Moran, R-Kan., who also sits on the committee.
U.S. campaign highlights stress of fireworks on combat veterans (Fox News)
Every Independence Day for the past eight years, Shawn Gourley and her family have left their Indiana home for remote campgrounds to escape the fireworks that trigger her veteran husband’s wartime memories. Gourley’s husband Justin, who served in the U.S. Navy from 2000 to 2004, is one of about 500,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, which can be worsened by the cracks and thunder of celebratory fireworks. “Anytime that we get scared, we react. They do the same thing,” said Gourley, whose husband becomes anxious at the sound of fireworks, paces back and forth and searches for ways to guard his family. This year, in an effort to expose an issue about which many veterans feel shame, the Gourleys launched a sign campaign to educate their neighbors about the effects of fireworks on combat veterans. The group, Military with PTSD, on Wednesday was finishing up mailing out nearly 4,000 signs reading “Combat veteran lives here, please be courteous with fireworks,” to veterans who requested them, Gourley said. Another 3,400 people are on the waiting list to receive a free sign. About 31 percent of Vietnam War veterans and 10 percent of Gulf War veterans suffer from PTSD, according to the National Institutes of Health. The loud blasts and flickering lights that resemble gunfire and other battleground noises can trigger panic attacks and other stress responses linked to the illness, according to the Veterans Health Administration.
Senator asks Pentagon to investigate University of Phoenix (AZCentral.com)
Sen. Richard Durbin sent a letter Wednesday to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter asking for an investigation into the tactics used by the University of Phoenix to recruit soldiers and veterans to become students. The request by the Illinois Democrat, the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee, is based on a report published Tuesday by the Center for Investigative Reporting, a non-profit news organization. Durbin called on the Pentagon to immediately bar the University of Phoenix from further access to service members “until the issues are resolved.” Officials of the school said the report was biased and flawed. “The University of Phoenix is organized in an amazing way to ensure that we are completely in compliance with all DOD (Department of Defense) directives and how they affect both our active duty personnel who are students and our veterans who are students,” said retired Maj. Gen. James “Spider” Marks, who heads the university’s College of Security and Criminal Justice. A spokesman for the Defense Department said it was aware of Durbin’s letter and “we will respond promptly and directly to him.” The Pentagon also said it had received no complaints of wrongdoing by the University of Phoenix. The report said a survey of five large military bases found the University of Phoenix paid the military nearly $1 million over the past five years to sponsor events that were used for recruitment. The school also has partnered, the report says, with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation to hold employment workshops at Hiring Our Heroes job fairs. Many of the fairs took place on military bases.
After court ruling, gay veterans get marriage benefits they were denied (The Washington Post)
Days after the Supreme Court ruled that the right to marry must be open to gays, the Department of Veterans Affairs has moved immediately to extend marital benefits to same-sex couples who were denied them — even in states where they were available to other federal retirees. The new policy lifts restrictions on veterans’ pensions, VA-backed home loans, burial rights, survivor benefits and disability compensation for same-sex married couples in every state, a victory that advocates estimate could affect hundreds of thousands of veterans. “We are thrilled that they are acting so quickly,” said Chris Rowsee, director of family readiness for the American Military Partners Association, which sued VA last year on behalf of veterans who were denied spousal benefits. The lawsuit was on hold pending the Supreme Court decision. Other veterans groups praised the new policy as a historic shift in a community whose older members were resistant just four years ago to lifting the military’s long-standing ban on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender troops serving openly. “For our generation of veterans, marriage equality is definitely a core issue,” said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and chief executive of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which supported the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. “Many of our members are openly gay themselves, or were kicked out under don’t ask don’t tell,” he said.
VA: Worker’s response to veteran is unacceptable (Military Times)
Iraq war veteran Chris Dorsey figured that no one would believe he had been turned away from a VA clinic when he sought an appointment for post-traumatic stress disorder. So when he went on Tuesday to another facility, the VA Oakwood, Georgia, Community Based Outpatient Clinic, he flipped on his smartphone camera. On the video, Dorsey is heard waiting patiently in line for more than 5 minutes. When he reaches the check-in counter, he informs the desk he needs a transfer from the Athens, Georgia, VA system and an appointment. The response? “We’re not accepting any new patients — not this clinic,” the VA employee behind the desk says, without providing any extra information, assistance or follow-on guidance for treatment. VA officials released a statement Wednesday responding to the report, saying the desk assistant’s response to Dorsey is “inconsistent with our ICARE values,” referring to its core tenets of integrity, commitment, advocacy, respect and excellence. “VA staff should have established a full understanding of Mr. Dorsey’s medical situation and determined if an appointment was available for him at another location or if he was eligible for the Choice Program and could be seen outside of VA,” said VA spokesman James Hutton. “The message Mr. Dorsey was given, as seen on the video, is completely unacceptable and will not be tolerated.” Hutton said leaders at the Atlanta VA Medical Center will follow up with Dorsey to ensure that he receives services and care and officials are developing a plan to retrain front-line staff. “At VA, we know that we must improve our service to veterans and that is precisely why Secretary [Bob] McDonald began MyVA, a reorganization of the department with the singular goal of placing the veteran at the center of everything we do,” Hutton said.
Prosecutors: Cemetery worker used veterans’ headstones as flooring (CBS News)
Federal prosecutors say an employee of the Rhode Island Veterans’ Cemetery has agreed to plead guilty to the theft of granite grave markers and other cemetery items. As part of his plea agreement filed in federal court, Kevin Maynard will plead guilty to one count of theft of government property. Court filings indicate the government will recommend the 59-year-old Charlestown resident get one year of probation and serve 500 hours of community service. Prosecutors said that during an April 23 visit to Maynard’s home, investigators from the Veterans Administration and the Rhode Island State Police found at least 150 grave markers being used as flooring in a shed and two garages. In an affidavit, VA special agent Jason T. Kravetz wrote “he observed automotive fluids and debris scattered over the gravestones,” according to CBS affiliate WPRI. The search also found other headstones and American flags believed to be cemetery property. Maynard is to appear in federal court July 13. The headstones that mark the graves at the cemetery are provided free of charge to families of veterans by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, according to WPRI.
West Palm Beach VA works to eradicate Legionnella from facility (WPBF-Palm Beach)
The West Palm Beach Veteran’s Affair Medical Center said it is working on a long-term plan to eradicate the Legionella bacteria from its facility. The latest test results from June came out and confirmed there are still trace amounts present, but hospital officials said the levels are not high enough to prompt a risk for patients. Despite the low levels of the bacteria, the hospital is taking extra precaution by shutting down the water fountains and adding filters to the ice machine and showers.
Hampton VA center is trimming wait times, review concludes (HamptonRoads.com)
An external review of wait times for veterans at the Hampton VA Medical Center has found the hospital is making strides to give veterans more timely care, but there’s still more to be done. During a review of the medical center in June, a team of experts from the Department of Veterans Affairs confirmed that wait times, both for getting appointments and for getting in to see a primary care doctor, have been steadily declining. It also found that the medical center has taken steps to fix the system, hiring not just doctors but also nurse practitioners and physician assistants. In addition, the medical center has put in place an appropriate model for team-based support for patient care. But the review also found that while these efforts have helped reduce stresses on patients and doctors, there are still delays in some areas of care and patient loads on doctors are still too high. The review found that the number of veterans assigned to each doctor in Hampton exceeds the national target by 10 percent. The result: New patients have to wait too long to see a doctor and more doctors run the risk of burnout. Hampton also lagged under specific measures: new patients being seen within 30 days and veterans feeling they have access for an urgent need or a routine follow-up. Those metrics were likely to improve in upcoming reports based on actions the medical center has taken, the report said.
Unemployment for post-9/11 vets remains historically low (Military Times)
Unemployment for post-9/11 veterans in June held steady at the near-record low of the previous month, 5.4 percent, government data show. As a whole, the nation added 223,000 jobs last month, with the overall unemployment rate dipping to 5.3 percent, down from the 5.5 percent recorded in May, according to the Bureau for Labor Statistics. June marks only the third month in history with an unemployment rate for the latest generation of vets below 5.5 percent. May 2015, also with a 5.4 percent rate, was the second, and May 2014, with a record 5.3 percent rate, was the first. The veteran-specific data is based on surveys with a very small sample size, and as a result, it’s prone to dramatic fluctuations. Still, halfway through the 2015 monthly jobs reports, the trend seems to be historically positive. All but one of the year’s monthly jobs reports posted numbers below 7 percent, a streak that actually started in November 2014. Before this stretch, there was one three-month period in 2014 with rates below 7 percent. Before that, only one month ever saw a sub-7 percent unemployment rate: back in November 2008. For veterans of all generations, unemployment hit 4.4 percent in June, down from 5.0 percent in May.
Vets will pioneer eco-friendly food carts (Wall Street Journal)
Joseph Sadigur gets to work by cutting through Central Park—an American flag on the back of his motorized wheelchair flapping in the tailwind—as he navigates to the corner of 58th Street and Fifth Avenue. The trip takes 17 minutes, but sometimes Mr. Sadigur is delayed by encounters like the one he had recently, when a Dutch tourist spotted his World War II veteran’s hat and ran up to thank him for his service. Seventy years after Mr. Sadigur fought as a machine-gunner in the invasion of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge, the native New Yorker—now 93 years old—said he still can’t believe he made it back from Europe alive. “Thank God, now I’m here,” he said. “Working a hot dog stand.” Soon, however, his won’t be just any old hot dog stand. Mr. Sadigur is set to receive the first of 500 high-tech, environmentally friendly food carts that Queens-based MOVE Systems, in partnership with the city, is introducing to New York City vendors free of charge over the next year. They’re being distributed as part of a pilot program aimed at making street-food vending more eco-friendly than the fume-emitting carts now on the streets. Called the MRV100, MOVE’s vehicle generates power with natural gas instead of propane, and has solar-charged batteries that reduce the need for generators. MOVE Systems CEO James Meeks says the hybrid system is quiet, clean and safe. California-based Clean Energy Fuels Inc., a MOVE investor, supplies the natural gas. It’s also equipped with a wireless credit card reader that analyzes sales trends and accepts smartphone payments. The technology is provided by First Data, also a MOVE investor. There are about 5,000 mobile food vendors working on city streets, according to city records, but the first 100 MOVE carts will go to disabled veterans, said Mr. Meeks, who during two tours in Iraq as a U.S. Army tank commander lost hearing in his right ear when his truck hit an improvised explosive device.
Chris Kyle statue could come to VA clinic (Military.com)
A statue of slain American Sniper Chris Kyle will likely be displayed at a local veteran’s clinic, which may also be renamed after Kyle. Philanthropist and community art activist Dick Gillham said that the working plan is to place the still under construction statue of Kyle, who was born in Odessa, at the West Texas Veteran Affairs outpatient clinic on Highway 191. Kyle, a U.S. Navy SEAL, is the deadliest sniper in U.S. history and was an Iraq war veteran. His autobiography “American Sniper” detailed his military career and struggles after leaving the military and how he began working with veterans. He and friend Chad Littlefield were killed in February 2013 by a troubled vet. His story was made into an Academy Award-winning movie starring Bradley Cooper and directed by Clint Eastwood. Kyle was born in Odessa and spent about two and a half years living in the area while his father worked for Southwestern Bell. Gillham noted that the statue, once completed, will be donated to Medical Center Hospital, who in turn will display the statue and provide maintenance.
Tim McGraw giving away mortgage-free homes to veterans (USA Today)
Country music star Tim McGraw has already given six mortgage-free homes to U.S. veterans this year and plans on giving more before his tour ends this fall. McGraw teamed up with Operation Homefront and Chase Bank to provide a total of 36 homes free of charge to military veterans. The singer has 30 stops left on his 2015 Shotgun Rider Tour and plans on giving one house away at each of the remaining stops. This isn’t the first time McGraw has given free homes to veterans. Since joining the operation in 2012, McGraw has given away over 100 homes, according to a statement on the singer’s website. In a recent promo video for the homes’ giveaway, McGraw said he wanted to give back to veterans who risk everything to protect their country. “For them to be able to come back and have that same sort of security for their little girls and their little boys and their wives, and to be able to have a home that is secure and safe is something that really hit home for me,” McGraw said.