House passes new VA reforms, but veto threat looms (Military Times)
House Republicans on Wednesday passed new rules to speed the firing of problematic Veterans Affairs Department employees, despite a veto threat from the White House and objections from Democratic lawmakers. The measure would shorten the appeals process time for fired or demoted VA employees and put strict limits on how long workers could be put on paid suspensions for infractions. Supporters call the accountability bill a critical step forward in reforming the VA’s reputation, still battered from accusations of mismanagement, records manipulation and callousness at regional offices. Bill sponsor and House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said the measure brings “much needed accountability” to the department, noting that officials routinely take months to punish or dismiss bad workers. “Bad employees mean bad customer service,” Miller said. “If we truly want our veterans to have the very best care and services, status quo is no longer acceptable.” But the 256-170 vote fell largely along party lines, with most Democrats opposed to what they see as unfair and possibly unconstitutional rules regarding protections for federal employees. Several argued that the changes would make VA workers “at will” employees who could be dismissed with only flimsy cause at any time. “This would destroy VA’s merit-based civil service system,” said Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md. “This bill is nothing more than union busting, and it needs to be stopped.” A day earlier, White House officials threatened to veto the measure, saying it could “have a significant impact on VA’s ability to retain and recruit qualified professionals and may result in a loss of qualified and capable staff to other government agencies or the private sector.” The bill also includes language that would allow VA officials to pull back some pension benefits of fired senior employees.
VA’s ‘experts’ on toxic chemicals may not know what they’re talking about (The Huffington Post)
Pfc. Donald Burpee spent four months of 1975 living at Camp Lejeune, a Marine Corps base in North Carolina. On July 7 of this year, at the age of 59, he lost an eight-year battle with kidney cancer — one of a number of illnesses linked with exposure to the toxic chemicals that tainted the drinking water at Camp Lejeune between the 1950s and 1980s. The Department of Veterans Affairs provided Burpee with medical coverage, including hospice, but repeatedly denied his claims for disability benefits. Burpee died not knowing whether his wife, four children and four grandchildren would be taken care of in the future. “They throw up so many roadblocks to you, it’s unreal,” said Brenda Burpee, Donald’s widow. Camp Lejeune’s water was contaminated by dozens of chemicals beginning in at least 1953, though it was only discovered in the early 1980s. The contamination has been traced to leaking underground storage tanks, industrial spills and the disposal of solvents from an on-base dry cleaner. Among the chemicals, trichloroethylene (TCE), perchloroethylene (PCE), vinyl chloride and benzene are thought to be the most damaging to human health. Lejeune veterans have reported ailments including prostate and bladder cancer, as well as chronic kidney disease. Kidney cancer is not uncommon. Burpee’s family found the VA’s denial baffling. Given the science supporting a connection between exposure to TCE and kidney cancer, what was the rationale for withholding disability? The family learned that the VA’s decision rested largely on the opinion of one of 22 experts recently hired by the agency to review veterans’ claims, part of what’s known as the subject matter expert program. The program was launched in 2013 to ensure “consistent and accurate decisions for Camp Lejeune veterans,” according to internal VA documents. But veterans’ advocates and scientists have raised troubling questions about the experts’ decisions, and critics speculate the program may be part of a push to deny claims and evade the responsibility to care for veterans who have served the country. The doubts about the SME program reflect wider concern about how the VA has treated current and former military personnel who may have been sickened by environmental exposures, including residual Agent Orange on repurposed aircraft, burn pit smoke in the Middle East and plumes of radiation following the Fukushima disaster.
VA whistleblower on reporting wrongdoing: ‘Prepare for hell’ (Stars & Stripes)
More than a year into a nationwide crisis in veterans health care, the government whistleblowers who exposed deadly faults in the Veterans Administration have had lots of experience in what to expect when speaking out against supervisors. On Thursday, four of those whistleblowers addressed the annual Whistle Blower Summit in a cramped room just down the road from the congressional buildings where many have testified about malfeasance such as secret waiting lists and abusive workplaces. This time, they were telling potential whistleblowers how to tell the truth while protecting themselves from retaliation. “A lot of the times, you’re so used to putting up with the retaliation that it just seems like part of your job,” said Dr. Katherine Mitchell, who helped expose problems at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care System that led to the national scandal. Mitchell was joined by Dr. Lisa Nee and social workers Germaine Clarno and Shea Wilkes, all current or former VA employees who have reported wrongdoing. All four are in town in part to brief lawmakers on how reforms are going at the VA. A lot of the advice was practical: Document everything, find out which agency to report to, strip out emotion and stick to the facts when writing an official complaint and keep your nose clean because supervisors may try to find a reason to get rid of you. Mitchell, who still works for the Phoenix VA system, has authored a 37-page guide to reporting wrongdoing. Other tips were more emotional. Wilkes made going public with malfeasance sound like a mix between taking on the mob and preparing for a presidential run, telling potential whistleblowers to sit down with their family and discuss the potential impact before speaking out. “You have to be prepared to put your career on the line,” he said. “Once you go, you’ve got to prepare for hell, because they’re going to come at you with all that you’ve got.”
FTC investigating online for-profit University of Phoenix (CNBC)
The University of Phoenix, an online college popular among military veterans, is under federal investigation for possible deceptive or unfair business practices, its parent company the Apollo Education Group announced Wednesday. The for-profit, publicly traded company is the largest recipient of federal student aid for veterans and often a sponsor at military education and employment events. Since 2009 when the GI bill expanded student aid benefits for veterans, the University of Phoenix has taken in more than $488 million in tuition and fees—a figure that dwarfs nearly every other institution identified as a GI recipient by the Department of Veterans Affairs. In a filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company told shareholders that it received a “civil investigative demand” from the Federal Trade Commission this week. According to the document, investigators asked for information on a “broad spectrum” of matters, including marketing, recruiting, enrollment, financial aid, tuition, academic programs, billing and debt collection, as well other facets of the business. The filing lists “military recruitment” as one of the areas the FTC is examining. The FTC probe is the latest of many state and federal investigations into the for-profit college industry. Critics say many of these colleges are aggressive in recruiting students who qualify for large amounts of federal student aid, including GI money. The credits often don’t transfer to other schools and aren’t recognized by employers.
Feds attack Colorado VA clinic scandal results (The Coloradoan)
The findings in a 2014 Department of Veterans Affairs investigation into the Fort Collins clinic’s appointment fixing scandal are “unsupported” and “not reasonable,” according to the federal agency charged with reviewing the investigation. The Fort Collins VA Clinic and the Cheyenne, Wyoming, Veterans Affairs Medical Center, which oversees the clinic, were embroiled in an appointment fixing scandal last spring when an inspector general’s report found patients were “blind scheduled” and had appointments set in ways that did not follow agency policy. While the VA acknowledged the wrongdoing — six people were punished as a result — it also found no patients suffered from longer wait times and appointment manipulation. According to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, the VA investigators might as well have been speaking from both sides of their mouths. “In making this determination, the VA finds the employees and management engaged in serious wrongdoing … but simultaneously determines that these serious shortcomings have no negative impact on patient care,” Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner wrote in her nine-page report. “… it is troubling that the agency continues to be unwilling to acknowledge that the confirmed wrongdoing posed a possible danger to patients at Fort Collins and Cheyenne.” The VA investigators found eight patients who died while waiting for appointments at the Cheyenne or Fort Collins VA facilities, all but one of whom were elderly or appeared to have prior medical conditions.
Agency says VA clinic water safe, but others plan tests (Wilmington Star-News)
An independent agency says the water at the Wilmington VA Health Care Center is clean, but others plan more tests. According to the VA, the report has been provided to the New Hanover County Health Department and the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority. Those agencies plan another round of tests, according to the VA news release. CFPUA issued a response to the VA release, and noted nothing has changed. The health department’s “Do Not Use Water” notice remains in effect and posted on the building. Pace Analytical Services, certified by the state for domestic water lead and copper testing, analyzed 25 water samples that had been taken throughout the building July 20 by Nalco, a water and environmental hygiene company. Pace found that the samples were well below “actionable levels,” which are the threshold where consumption could threaten safety. The Wisconsin-based building owners’ repairs to their building include flushing the water system, replacing the anodes in the water heaters and replacing more than 400 galvanized connectors with brass ones that are compatible with copper plumbing. In March, heavy metal contaminants were found in the clinic’s water, which had blue-green coloring indicating the presence of dissolved copper, CFPUA spokesman Mike McGill said. The water problems resulted in the suspension of gastrointestinal, urology and dental procedures. All other services (primary care, mental health, audiology, optometry, pharmacy and specialty clinics) remain available to veterans.
VA declares 72-year-old vet dead instead of his wife (WSB-Atlanta)
A retired Marine veteran who was mistakenly declared dead by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says he is still fighting with the VA more than a year later to get his full disability benefits. Morris Scott says the mix-up happened last February when a note addressed to his wife, who actually was dead, mistakenly listed him as the deceased. “I’m upset but more hurt than anything else. I take the check and letter to VA the next day. We are going to get this straightened out,” Scott said. Scott says the VA did eventually acknowledge its mistake but he is fighting to get his 100 percent disability benefit he believes he is owed because of his coronary artery disease. “I got tough skin. The Marine Corps taught me how to be tough and I’m a fighter and I fight back,” Scott said. “The VA works diligently to deliver timely and accurate benefits to veterans and their families. However, a small number of human coding errors do occur in the millions of transactions successfully completed each year. Additionally, we’ve improved verification of the veteran’s identity when processing ‘notice of death’ transactions. We regret the inconvenience to veterans and reassure them we work quickly to restore their benefits as soon as we are alerted to an issue,” said Chris DiBello, a spokesman with the Atlanta VA Regional Office. While the VA now considers Scott alive, he says his fight is far from over.
VA: South Carolina patient was paid $7,488 for false mileage claims (WIS-Columbia)
A Columbia, S.C., man has pleaded guilty in federal court to theft of government funds for entering false mileage reimbursement forms to the department of Veterans Affairs. Bobby Joe Haynes, 61, will be sentenced at a later date. A U.S. District Judge accepted Haynes’ plea. According to federal prosecutors, Haynes submitted mileage reimbursement forms for treatment he received at the VA Medical Center in Columbia. Prosecutors say Haynes falsely claimed he lived in Georgetown to receive higher mileage payments. Haynes lives in Columbia. Over two years, Haynes was paid $7,488 for 140 false mileage claims. The maximum penalty for theft of government funds is 10 years in prison and/or a $250,000.
Law seeks to make SBA loans cheaper for veterans (New Hampshire Public Radio)
President Obama signed into law Tuesday a bill that would make it easier for veterans to start businesses with loans from the Small Business Administration. The bill would waive fees for veterans starting up new businesses with SBA loans—which New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen says will help veterans get started. “This is bipartisan legislation,” Shaheen says. “I introduced it in the last Congress and we reintroduced it. It got support in the House. And I’m very happy the President signed it quickly into law.” Last week, Shaheen and Republican Senator David Vitter of Louisiana amended the legislation to increase the lending authority for one SBA loan program. A Senate version of this bill was co-sponsored by Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte.Shaheen says the bill would also create a committee to study why female veterans are underrepresented among business owners.
Anchorage hospital for service members named for Chris Kyle (Military Times)
A new Anchorage hospital for veterans and active duty military in need of mental health care has been dedicated to the late Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL who inspired the movie “American Sniper.” The Alaska Dispatch News reports that the 36-bed Chris Kyle Patriots Hospital was dedicated Tuesday. It is part of North Star Behavioral Health System, a subsidiary of Universal Health Service, which is based in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. According to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs statistics from 2014, almost 73.400 veterans live in Alaska. Director of Alaska’s Office of Veterans Affairs Verdie Bowen says roughly 27,000 military personnel live in the state.
Private employers in Illinois can now give hiring preference to vets (The State Journal-Register)
Private employers in Illinois can now give preference to veterans when hiring new workers. Gov. Bruce Rauner signed the Veterans Preference in Private Employment Act into law on Tuesday. The measure allows private employers to voluntarily adopt hiring policies that give preference to those who served in the military, whether on active or reserve duty, including the Illinois National Guard. A similar state law is in place for public employees. The veterans preference policies must be in writing and publicly displayed at the workplace or on the employer’s website, as well as on job applications.