VA caught sending veterans’ mail to the shredder (The Washington Examiner)
The government watchdog for the Department of Veterans Affairs reported Monday that it was able to substantiate claims that the VA’s Los Angeles office was sending mail from veterans to the shredder. The VA’s Office of Inspector General said it launched an “unannounced inspection” of the Los Angeles office after hearing allegations that the VA staff there was shredding mail related to veterans’ disability compensation claims. Though the OIG said it can’t measure how often this might have happened, it did say it found some examples of mail lined up for the shredder that instead should have been opened and read. “Although we cannot quantify or identify claims-related documents that the VARO may have shredded prior to our review, we found nine claims-related documents that VARO staff incorrectly placed in personal shred bins for non-claims related documents,” the OIG reported. “Eight of the nine documents had the potential to affect veterans’ benefits and one had no effect on the veteran’s benefits.” The OIG said the placement of these letters in “shred bins” means that they were able to bypass the first level of control, which requires letters to be reviewed before they are shredded. “Of the nine claims-related documents, five did not have required initials of both the employee and supervisor and the remaining four had only the employee’s initials,” the report said. “If … staff and their supervisors followed VBA policy, these nine claims-related documents would not have been placed in personal shred bins that are designated for non-claims related documents.” The report said if the OIG had not stepped in, “it is likely that. … staff would have inappropriately destroyed the nine claims-related documents we found.” It added that a records management officer was supposed to be on staff in Los Angeles to prevent this from happening, but said there was no one in that position from August 2014 until February 2015. The original records officer was promoted, and the office’s assistant director “determined that it was not necessary to fill the … position.” Officials who tried to take over that role “lacked training regarding maintaining, reviewing, protecting and appropriately destroying veterans’ and other governmental paper records,” the report said.
VA investigating wrongly discarded claims forms (Military Times)
Investigators are reviewing surprise inspections at Veteran Affairs Regional Offices across the country to determine whether wrongly discarded claims forms found in Los Angeles earlier this year are an isolated incident or signs of broader, systemic mistakes. The VA Inspector General’s office announced the move as part of its interim report on the February incident in Los Angeles, when paperwork required to finalize veterans’ disability claims was found in a shredding bin instead. Only nine documents were found misplaced in the shredding piles, but investigators noted they could not determine if more paperwork was incorrectly destroyed because of record-keeping issues at the facility. VA officials have said the mistakes were found before final reviews of the documents were conducted, noting that would likely have prevented the paperwork from being destroyed. They previously downplayed the problem as a one-time mistake from a small number of workers who had no “malicious intent.” But investigators noted the lack of proper training and paperwork review techniques, and questioned that assessment. “Because the Los Angeles (staff) did not consistently follow (Veterans Benefits Administration) controls, it is likely that staff would have inappropriately destroyed the nine claims-related documents we found,” the IG report said. The report recommends that officials at the Los Angeles facility create a new training plan for staffers charged with safeguarding the documents, and take actions against employees at fault for the mistakes uncovered.
For-profit colleges recruit vets for cash (The Los Angeles Times)
Many of the nation’s largest for-profit college chains have seen enrollments plummet amid investigations into questionable job placement rates and deceptive marketing practices. One crucial source of revenue, however, has remained a constant: military veterans. For-profit colleges have collected $8.2 billion from the latest GI Bill since it went into effect in 2009, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis of government data. Those colleges enroll only 8% of all U.S. students but 30% of the 1.4 million veterans who have used the most recent version of the GI Bill. That money for years helped prop up some of the industry’s most distressed institutions — including ITT Educational Services Inc. and bankrupt Corinthian Colleges Inc. — which needed the funding to meet tough regulatory requirements. To keep the GI Bill money flowing, the industry aggressively targeted veterans, and often hired them to help recruit their brethren returning home from the battlefields, according to internal school memos and interviews with former students and employees. U.S. Army veteran Don’re Walker took one of those recruiting jobs at an ITT campus in Orange County in 2012. He quit less than a year later. His department faced intense pressure to enroll GI Bill beneficiaries, Walker said. Once he understood the school’s high tuition costs — and students’ low probability of transferring credits to traditional colleges — he regularly advised veterans against attending. “It was basically ‘Get people in any way possible,'” he said. “They were exploiting my brothers.” For-profit colleges grew rapidly during the Great Recession by offering admission to almost anyone with a high school degree, flexible class schedules and promises of job training to displaced workers. As enrollments soared, regulators took notice of high tuition costs and poor student performance. For-profit colleges on average charge more than four times as much as community colleges, according to the College Board, and cost significantly more than the in-state tuition at public four-year colleges. Associate’s degree programs in fields such as automotive repair and information technology can cost as much $47,000. Many veterans were attracted to practical training programs that offered online coursework and start dates throughout the year. For veterans juggling families and other responsibilities and eager to get back in the workforce, it’s a highly successful pitch, former students said.
Nurses sue, say VA’s not paying overtime (Cincinnati.com)
Two nurses employed by the Department of Veterans Affairs are among those who have relaunched a federal lawsuit against the federal government, claiming they were forced to work overtime but were not compensated. Thirty-three nurses from VA medical centers across the country have joined the suit filed in the Court of Federal Claims. The nurses charge that the VA “expected, required and induced” them to work overtime performing View Alerts, an electronic health records system, according to the lawsuit. VA officials and the U.S. Department of Justice attorneys defending against the lawsuit would not comment while litigation continues. Audricia Brooks, a nurse practitioner at the Cincinnati VA Medical Center in Corryville, and Stephanie Mercier, a nurse practitioner at the Lexington VA Medical Center, are the original plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed in December 2012 by Cook and Logothetis, a Downtown law firm specializing in labor law. Their complaint explains that View Alerts are electronic requests for information or follow up that are sent directly to nurses and physicians regarding patients who use the VA as for primary medical care. Nurses receive View Alerts anytime day or night from up to 900 patients, said Sadie Hughes, president of National Nurses United and a nurse in the Cincinnati VA Medical Center. The alerts can contain patient notes, information on doctors appointments, prescriptions, and lab test results, Hughes said. “In the midst of trying to take care of everybody, you may miss something that could be significant,” Hughes said. “That could be lethal for a veteran. With that in mind, I’m responsible for that patient, so I’m going to do what I need to do to get the job done. Whether I’m paid for it, or not.” David Cook, a lawyer for the nurses, said that Mercier sometimes spent 20 hours a week outside of her scheduled shifts tending to View Alerts. “I’ve stayed late, I’ve come in on weekends and many people do that to get the job done,” Hughes said. “After a period of time the nurses just start saying ‘we’ll just do it.’ Anytime we ask for overtime, it has a negative impact and if they don’t work overtime then patient care suffers.”
12 Medal of Honor recipients endorse Bush (The Hill)
GOP presidential hopeful Jeb Bush is touting the support of 12 Medal of Honor recipients as he unveils his plan to help the nation’s veterans. Among the recipients who endorsed Bush on Monday are two Afghan War veterans, retired Marine Lance Cpl. Kyle Carpenter and retired Army Staff Sgt. Leroy Petry. Some of the other 10, all Vietnam veterans, also submitted statements in support of Bush. “Governor Bush’s strong record on veteran’s issues makes him the best choice to serve as our next Commander in Chief,” said retired Marine Capt. James Livingston, a Vietnam veteran. The endorsements were released just ahead of a speech to veterans in South Carolina, and as GOP front-runner Donald Trump has attacked Congress on the campaign trail for not doing enough for veterans. Bush’s campaign also touted his record on veterans as Florida governor, and posted a seven-point plan on its website to improve services for veterans. “As Governor, Jeb made military families and veterans a signature issue,” said the statement. It highlighted efforts to increase the number of state veterans homes from two to six, increase tax exemptions and eliminate fees for disabled veterans and create job programs for veterans and servicemembers’ families. “He also passed laws that provide free undergraduate tuition at state colleges and universities to Florida recipients of the Purple Heart (and combat-related decorations ranked superior in precedence to the Purple Heart) and their children,” it added.
Audit criticizes Louisiana military veterans centers (NOLA.com)
The Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs didn’t properly address deficiencies at its five military veterans’ homes or adequately monitor contractors who provide health services there, the state legislative auditor’s office said Monday (Aug. 17). The report covers veteran homes in Bossier City, Jackson, Jennings, Monroe and Reserve from 2012 through 2014. The centers house more than 700 people. They offer nursing care, rehabilitative therapy and other long-term health services for veterans, their spouses or parents of soldiers who died during active duty military service. But auditors say staff at the veterans’ homes didn’t correct many of the problems found in their own internal quality assurance reviews or follow up on deficiencies cited by federal surveys. The audit also said staff didn’t follow guidelines for updating care plans when incidents happened, like patient falls, injuries or other problems. Of almost 2,000 quality assurance reviews examined by auditors, 27 percent found problems of non-compliance with federal standards of care, the new audit says. Of those, more than half “did not have an action plan for correcting the problem.” Veterans Affairs Secretary David LaCerte said many of the audit findings have been addressed — or will be corrected by a new quality assurance program that was launched in October 2014, near the end of the three years reviewed by the auditor’s office. The department “would like to stress that none of the findings listed in the report resulted in negative impact to the quality of care provided to residents,” LaCerte wrote in response to the audit.
A Missouri patio paved in military headstones? Vets mad, VA investigates (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
A patio and staircase apparently built out of military gravestones at a property in southern Missouri has sparked a firestorm of criticism on social media. Navy veteran Ed Harkreader of Mountain Home, Ark., posted photographs of the arrangement on Facebook last week. The post triggered scores of outraged comments and was shared thousands of times. “This isn’t the way you should use military headstones,” Harkreader told the Post-Dispatch in a telephone interview Monday. “This is disrespectful of military veterans.” Harkreader, 55, said he served in the Navy for 22 years. He said he heard about the use of the stones from a friend and drove the short distance from his home in Arkansas to the property in Ozark County, Mo. The property is near Lake Norfork just north of the Missouri-Arkansas line. Harkreader took pictures and tried without success to reach the property owner. His photographs show a patio and staircase fashioned from what appear to be military headstones, some with the names of veterans and spouses clearly visible. A check of Internet grave services indicates that some of the stones were for grave sites in California, Alabama and Texas. Chris Erbe, a spokesman for the National Cemetery Administration in Washington, said officials heard about the matter from Harkreader’s Facebook posting. The inspector general’s office of the Department of Veterans Affairs is investigating the report, Erbe said. It’s not clear where the stones came from. Markers are sometimes inscribed with errors or typos and are supposed to be destroyed. Often stones are replaced rather than re-inscribed when spouses die and are buried at the same location. Older military headstones sometimes are replaced, Erbe said, but the old stones are supposed to be destroyed. “They are not to be used for any kind of home improvement project,” he said. The markers in Harkreader’s photos appear to be relatively new, with several showing death dates in the 2000s. Harkreader’s posting drew numerous angry replies, some of which suggested solving the matter violently. Harkreader said he was distressed by those comments but wanted the stones removed and properly disposed of.
Emma Didlake, nation’s oldest veteran, dies at age 110 (Detroit Free Press)
Emma Didlake, a longtime Detroiter and America’s oldest living veteran, passed away at age 110 on Sunday morning — just weeks after meeting President Barack Obama in Washington. Didlake died Sunday at a long-term care facility in West Bloomfield, said one of her granddaughters, Marilyn Horne, 62. “I’m saddened she’s not here, but glad that she got an opportunity to do everything in her life that she wanted to do, including meet the president,” said Horne on Monday. Obama said in a statement: “I was humbled and grateful to welcome Emma to the White House last month. Michelle and I send our deepest condolences to Emma’s family, friends, and everyone she inspired over her long and quintessentially American life.” Didlake went on a whirlwind tour of the nation’s capital on July 17. She met with Obama in the Oval Office, who praised her accomplishments and her service while media snapped photos. “It’s a great reminder of not only the sacrifices the greatest generation made on our behalf but also the kind of trailblazing that our women veterans made, African American veterans who helped to integrate our Armed Services,” he said at the time. He added, “We are very, very proud of them.” When Didlake was 38 and a mother of five, she joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) during World War II. She served stateside for about seven months during the war, as a private and driver.
New Illinois laws offer discounts, property tax breaks to veterans (Rockford Register Star)
Gov. Bruce Rauner signed several bills on Sunday affecting Illinois veterans, including a measure establishing a discount card program and another offering property tax breaks for those with military-related disabilities. The Republican first-term governor’s office released a short statement Sunday saying six bills had been signed in honor of Veterans’ Day at the Illinois State Fair. Veterans received free entrance to the fair on Sunday with events honoring those who’ve served. One newly-signed law provides tax breaks to veterans who make accessibility upgrades to their homes, such as wheelchair ramps and lifts. Such changes wouldn’t increase the assessed valuation of the property for years after improvements are made, under the law. It would also allow certain disabled veterans to quality for an annual property tax exemption of $2,500. The legislation, which takes effect immediately, received unanimous support from lawmakers. Another plan that also takes effect immediately says the state’s Department of Veterans’ Affairs will establish and administer a veterans and active duty discount card program for use at participating merchants. House and Senate lawmakers voted unanimously in favor of the legislation. State Sen. Steve Stadelman, D-Rockford, helped sponsor the discount program for military veterans and said nearly 722,000 Illinois veterans are eligible. “We may never be able to fully repay our veterans for the sacrifices they have made, but this program is a small step to show our appreciation,” Stadelman said.
VA weighs PTSD care that avoids traumatic memories (Military.com)
Revisiting a traumatic event in a therapy session can open a door to relief for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. But confronting bad memories may not be the answer for everyone. After years of emphasizing trauma-focused psychotherapy as a preferred treatment for PTSD, researchers and clinicians with the Department of Veterans Affairs are considering forms of therapy that steer clear of traumatic memories, including those focusing on mindfulness. Although relatively new and backed by less research than other therapies, the treatments could expand practitioners’ options and could offer patients a greater say in their care, a top VA clinician said. That, in turn, could lead to better outcomes. “I think the coming years will be a maturation of the field, the realization that there’s more than one door,” said Harold Kudler, chief consultant for VA Mental Health Services. Since 2008, the VA has largely recommended therapies that focus on trauma. Among the most common is cognitive-processing therapy, or CPT, which pushes patients to readjust their associations with negative memories. Another, prolonged exposure, seeks to reduce the power of a negative memory by having the patient confront it repeatedly. A study published this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests a number of new possibilities. VA researchers in Minneapolis found that a group of PTSD patients enrolled in a program with yoga and breathing meditation over nine weeks reported greater improvement in symptoms than their counterparts in a control group that taught coping skills. “It demonstrates that we can have another important arrow in our quiver,” Kudler said of the study. “Because there are many people who aren’t ready to do these kinds of (trauma-focused) therapies.” Alternative therapies likely will receive more discussion next year as the VA begins work on an updated set of guidelines for PTSD treatment, Kudler said.
WWII veteran’s prayer book returned to family after 70 years (The Washington Post)
A late World War II veteran’s prayer book found in New Zealand was safely returned to his wife in suburban Philadelphia after 70 years. A military family living in New Zealand found Anthony DeFinis’ military prayer missal with his name and military serial number written in the front. Determined to return the book to its rightful owners, the family went to the U.S. Embassy, and now the prayer book is home in Newtown, Pennsylvania, with DeFinis’ widow Patricia. She says she was “totally shocked” to receive the book, which her family had no idea existed. Anthony DeFinis was a medic in the U.S. Navy and the Marines. He served on Okinawa and was stationed in New Zealand following the end of his tour of duty.