In controversial VA bill, a little-known boon for whistleblowers (The Washington Post)
The House’s passage of a measure last week that would give the government more power to fire poor performers at the Department of Veterans Affairs was poisonous for federal employee unions and Democrats. But the bill contains a little-noticed change that lawmakers in both parties have clamored for, particularly after last year’s coverup of long wait times for veterans needing medical care. The measure would give whistleblowers some of the strongest protections in history — and make sure that supervisors who punish them for reporting wrongdoing are themselves punished. “This would be the strongest law in the U.S. Code requiring accountability for bureaucratic bullies who retaliate,” said Tom Devine, legal director for the nonprofit Government Accountability Project, one of the leading advocates for whistleblowers. “It puts whistleblowers on an unprecedented pedestal.” The House measure would limit appeal rights for VA employees facing termination or demotion and extend new staffers’ probationary periods. Opponents — including President Obama, who said he will veto the measure if the Senate approves it — consider the bill overly broad and a threat to federal workers’ due process rights. Yet the VA Accountability Act of 2015 also would remove the rights that managers who retaliate against whistleblowers have had throughout government: The manager is rarely punished and is often promoted or, in the case of Sharon Helman, a former senior executive at the center of the disclosures of fudged health-care wait times for veterans, given a bonus. The legislation would require supervisors to report whistleblowers’ disclosures of wrongdoing up their chain of command, making them accountable to the employee. There would be mandatory discipline for anyone found to have retaliated, starting with a 14-day minimum suspension for a first offense and removal for the second. All VA employees would have to be trained on how to protect whistleblowers. “Everywhere else in the government, you report something to the inspector general and in three or four months they’ll get started on it, maybe,” Devine said.
Veterans learn VA hospital dumped patient records with personal info (Fox News)
A Veterans Affairs hospital in South Dakota has waited more than two months to notify 1,100 patients that files containing their Social Security numbers and other personal information were dumped in a trash bin. The Rapid City Journal reports that the data breach at the VA Hot Springs hospital took place in May, but it wasn’t until July 29 that anyone was notified. The paper said the breach was the most recent in a string of embarrassments that has engulfed the nation’s VA system over charges of doctored wait lists, poor care and wasteful spending. The VA Black Hills Health Care System blamed the breach on an employee who mistakenly tossed the patient files in a Dumpster. The records were found two days later by another employee who fished them out of the trash and notified hospital security guards. “The investigation found that during a regular office move, that the box of files were inadvertently throw in the receptacle, VA Black Hills spokeswoman Teresa Forbes told the paper, calling it “an unfortunate mistake.” The VA alerted the 1,100 military veterans of the breach in letters mailed last Wednesday. The letter informed recipients they could request a free credit report to ensure their personal data was not being misused. Forbes defended the lag in making the notification, saying that the VA was following procedures. The files included names, Social Security numbers, phone numbers and addresses. They did not include medical histories.
VA may accept applications for new ID card this fall (Military.com)
The Veterans Affairs Department could start processing applications for the new veteran identification card by the second half of September. Created by an act of Congress last month, the card is intended as a way for veterans to prove they served in the military without having to carry around and present a DD-214, Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty. Card details and costs — the law permits the VA to set a fee for the ID — have yet to be established. “The working group is addressing several aspects of the new ID cards, from design to cost estimates, etc., so I don’t think we yet know what they will look like or what to expect the costs to be,” VA spokesman Randy Noller said on Friday. President Obama signed the legislation on July 20 with the changes slated to go into effect on Sept. 20. The new veteran ID had broad support among lawmakers and passed both the House and Senate by wide margins. Support for the card has not been universal, however. After it was passed in July the VFW called the move unnecessary, pointing out that many states will include veteran’s status on a driver’s license. Veterans made the case that producing a DD-214 in order to prove veteran’s status was more than a hassle, but also created wear and tear on the valuable paper document. The document is needed when applying for federal benefits, not only from the VA but when applying for federal job and claiming veteran’s preference. There is also commercial value to the document, however, which Congress recognized in pushing for the new ID. House Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-California, noted that the card would ensure veterans have timely access to proper identification “so that [they] can prove their service and capitalize on service-related discounts in the marketplace.”
Desert Storm memorial awaits funding before construction begins (Military Times)
With the the 25th anniversary of start of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm on Sunday, a memorial dedicated to those who served in the war still remains years away from becoming a reality. “Operation Desert Storm/Desert Shield is the largest American war of the 20th century without a memorial,” said Scott Stump, CEO of The National Desert Storm Memorial Foundation and a Marine veteran who served in the war. “I was one of the lucky ones. But there are almost 400 people who didn’t come back.” Congress approved in December 2014 the creation of the memorial on federal land in Washington, D.C.. The foundation hired a fundraising firm a few months ago to help reach the $25 million goal that’s needed to build the memorial, which will not use federal funds. Construction cannot begin until fundraising is completed. While the monument will be built in Washington, the specific location is yet to be decided. The preliminary design of the monument looks like a hook, which symbolizes “the strategy employed in 1991 to swing around the left flank of the Iraqi army,” according to the foundation’s website. However, the final design and location will require the approval of the National Park Service. For decades, Gulf War veterans longed for a memorial to remember their sacrifices; nearly 400 coalition troops — including 294 U.S. service members — died, and hundreds more were wounded, according to the foundation and the Defense Department. In August 1990, Iraq invaded its smaller neighbor Kuwait, an action that was unexpected by the international community. In response, an American-led coalition launched an operation composed of nearly 700,000 troops, 470,000 of whom were from the United States. Two years before invading Kuwait, Iraq ended its eight-year war with Iran, leaving it with a huge debt. By controlling Kuwait, Iraq would have significantly increased its share of the world’s oil reserves. The coalition drove the Iraqi army, then the fourth-largest in the world, out of Kuwait in February 1991 in just 100 hours after a five-month build up. “The Gulf War looks today like something of an anomaly: short and sharp, with a clear start and finish; focused on resisting external aggression, not nation-building; and fought on battlefields with combined arms, not in cities by special forces and irregulars,” wrote Richard Haass in the Wall Street Journal. Haass is the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and was a special assistant to President George H.W. Bush.
Compound drugs fleece TRICARE (Pensacola News-Journal)
Dodgy companies peddling pricey compound pharmaceuticals have fleeced the TRICARE program so severely this year, before tougher screening procedures took effect May 1, that they are largely to blame for a $2 billion defense health budget hole Congress is scrambling to fill. In fiscal 2010, military outpatient pharmacy costs totaled $6.6 billion, with only $23 million spent on compound drugs. By fiscal 2014, outpatient pharmacy costs had risen to $7.7 billion but compound drugs costs soared to $515 million. In the first nine months of fiscal 2015, compound drug costs tripled again for TRICARE, to $1.7 billion, or more than 20 percent of the $8.2 billion TRICARE expects to spend on outpatient drugs the entire year. “It’s really unheard of to see this kind of a spike, and it threatens our program,” said Jon Rychalski, deputy assistant secretary of defense for health resources management and policy, in a phone interview Wednesday. “In April alone the compound pharmacy bill was about $500 million,” he added. “So we are very concerned with this year. And as we broke it down for the Congress, they have understood and they’re appalled.” Compound pharmacies combine more than one medication or ingredient to create drugs not available commercially. Doctors elect to prescribe them when their patients might benefit from a different kind or strength of drug, whether creams, ointments, capsules or pills. But compound drugs have been at the center of abusive marketing and pricing schemes. After the private sector health industry clamped down on these operations a few years back, they refocused on the military and TRICARE beneficiaries, officials said. Many retirees, it seems, got unsolicited calls asking if they had aches or pains and informing them of special drugs that would bring relief and that the TRICARE retail pharmacy benefit would cover. In just two years TRICARE’s average cost for a compound drug jumped from $192 to $2,595. “There were unscrupulous people out there taking advantage of this, heavily marketing in many different ways,” Rychalski said.
Veterans court advocates: 2nd chances save lives (Military Times)
After having his separation date extended under the military’s “stop-loss” policy during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, former Marine Corps Sgt. Tim Wynn spent several months in the gunners’ turret of a soft-skinned Humvee, riding around Baghdad and central Iraq providing security for convoys. Then, in a jarring transition that lasted just a few days, he returned to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, got his military discharge papers and drove back to his home in northeastern Philadelphia. On his first night there, he got into a bar fight — “I exploded,” is how he described it in an interview — and ended up in handcuffs. It was the start of a decade adrift. Wynn drank too much, became addicted to cocaine, racked up 19 arrests, suffered from post-traumatic stress and thought often about suicide. But his life turned around in 2013 after yet another arrest, this one for assault, led him to a court-appointed attorney who got him out of the traditional criminal justice system and into Philadelphia’s startup Veterans Treatment Court. “I wasn’t just another number on the docket,” the former Marine said. “The whole court staff knew my name after meeting me only once. That’s when I realized, OK, these guys are here to help me.” Wynn is one of thousands of veterans removed from the daily grind of the U.S. court system to receive treatment and support in specialized courts. Staffed by professionals who understand veterans’ issues, the courts offer troubled vets an opportunity to have criminal charges dismissed upon successful completion of drug treatment and mental health care programs. Advocates say about 11,000 former service members now have cases pending in Veterans Treatment Courts, which have expanded nationwide since the first one launched in Buffalo, New York, in 2008. They have grown along with other similar specialized courts for drug treatment and mental health treatment, alongside a broader criminal justice reform effort. “I think we are at a tipping point because these courts are working and nothing can beat success. These are veterans who are receiving life-saving treatment and who are coming back into our community to lead productive lives,” said Melissa Fitzgerald, senior director for Justice for Vets, a nonprofit group that advocates and provides funding and training for Veterans Treatment Courts.
Boots to Business training set to expand to all troops (Military Times)
Army Maj. Timothy Page is leaving the service in October and plans to have his first “auto spa” location operating by April. But getting that six-month business plan together has taken years of planning, research and work. “I first got the idea when I got back from Afghanistan in 2007, when some friends approached me about being a silent investor in some car washes in Chicago,” Page said. “That didn’t work out, so I shelved that idea for later. I always had that desire to own a business, and over the next few years the opportunity became evident.” Part of Page’s preparation for the career change was enrolling in the Small Business Administration’s Boots to Business training program, giving him extra insight into the legal and financial challenges of similar start-ups. He started and completed the crash course in business in just the last few months, and said the tips he learned are invaluable to his work. Now, federal officials want would-be veteran entrepreneurs like Page to start their business planning even earlier in their military careers, instead of waiting until their waning days of enlistment. SBA and Defense Department officials are now expanding the Boots to Business program beyond transitioning troops to any service member at any time in their career. Military spouses also will be able to sign-up for the program, space permitting. The goal, planners say, is to give individuals who are thinking about setting up their own businesses more time for the planning and budgeting work that is integral to making those ventures successful. “It takes a while to learn the language of business,” said Barb Carson, who heads up the SBA’s veterans programs. “It’s not that troops can’t quickly learn if they have to. But it helps to have some exposure to market, time to get some capital together, time to test the idea out before launch.”
Vietnam veterans get belated welcome home event (Fort Worth Star Telegram)
In 1968, James Hotopp flew from Vietnam to California and was told to immediately shed his Navy uniform for civilian duds. Still, his buzz cut gave him away — other men his age had shaggy manes — and he recalls the glances and whispers from fellow passengers. “There was no welcome-home parade, no thank you for your service,” said Hotopp, a Navy machinist who served from 1967 to 1968. “We had a tough time.” On Saturday, 40 years after the fall of Saigon, veterans of the war received a long-overdue welcome. Soldiers waved to friends and family, who lined a 2-mile parade route in White Settlement that ended at Veterans Park. Supporters waved American flags and embraced veterans, many of whom wiped tears from their eyes. Hosted by the Naval Air Station Fort Worth Joint Reserve Base and the city of White Settlement, the parade and celebration were part of the “Welcome Home 50th Anniversary Commemoration of the Vietnam War,” a 10-year Department of Defense program to recognize veterans. During a ceremony, veterans spoke of feeling isolated upon returning home from war and of the guilt they felt for surviving when comrades did not. “No one called us warriors. No one called as heroes,” said Linda Schwartz, who was an Air Force flight nurse and is now assistant secretary for policy and planning for the U.S. Veterans Administration. “We could not even wear our uniforms on the streets of our own country.” Soldiers returning from war today face a much different landscape, thanks to Vietnam veterans, said Capt. Gil Miller, the commanding officer at the air station. “At best, you were treated with apathy. At worst, you endured verbal and physical abuse,” Miller told veterans. “You have helped to ensure that our military sons and daughters do not receive the welcome you did.”
Marine vet travels 3,800 miles by handcycle to support other vets (WTOP-Washington)
After two months and over 3,800 miles of pedaling a handcycle across the country, Marine veteran Toren Gaal reached his final destination at the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington Sunday. Gaal lost both of his legs when an improvised explosive device (IED) blew up under his feet while at war four years ago. He spent months in a coma in Bethesda after the explosion and after receiving help from groups like the Semper Fi Fund, Gaal wanted to give back. “We tried to talk him, I don’t want to say ‘out’ of this experience,” says Kathy Wise, senior manager for the Semper Fi Fund. “But, we were really encouraging him to think about what he was going to do and he said, ‘I’m determined and I want to do this for the Semper Fi Fund. You have given me so much and I want to give back to you.’” Gaal and fellow Marine veteran and amputee Brian Riley began their journey June 1 in San Diego. Riley followed Gaal in a support van through the entire journey. After 3,800 miles and dozens of cities, Gaal and Riley reached the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington to a crowd of supporters. “It’s our duty now as Americans and veterans from our era to pay it forward to the next generation so we don’t have a relapse of what happened 40 years ago,” Gaal said after arriving in Arlington. Gaal’s cross country journey raised over $42,000 in support of the Semper Fi Fund.
100,000 Jobs Mission grows to more than 200 companies hiring vets (MarketWatch)
The 100,000 Jobs Mission announced today that its coalition of private companies has grown to over 200 member companies that have collectively hired more than 267,522 U.S. military Veterans through June. “We are excited that so many well respected businesses have joined us on this mission to collectively hire 300,000 Veterans,” said Ross Brown, director of Military and Veterans Affairs for JPMorgan Chase, a founding member of the coalition. “Our fellow coalition members represent both the best of their business sectors and a commitment to hiring Veterans and their spouses.” The 100,000 Jobs Mission was founded in 2011 by 11 companies including JPMorgan Chase & Co. that pledged to hire at least 100,000 Veterans by 2020. The coalition reports its hiring results quarterly and shares best practices for hiring and retaining Veterans in their organizations. Many of these can be found on jobsmission.com. Since the coalition’s establishment, membership has grown to 206 companies that represent nearly every industry in the U.S. economy, including its newest members: commercial real estate services firm JLL and global food and beverage giant PepsiCo. “I am proud to be part of JLL’s commitment to hiring veterans and our membership in the 100,000 Jobs Mission. Companies do themselves a favor by hiring veterans because they are team players, trustworthy, dependable, loyal and hard workers. JLL has a culture that values these qualities and we look forward to welcoming more vets into our organization,” said JLL board member and Americas executive chairman Roger Staubach, who also served in the U.S. Navy. “PepsiCo has a long history of hiring veterans, and we are passionate about helping them identify with a job and a supportive company that they can be proud of after their military career,” said Sheila Stygar, PepsiCo vice president of Talent Acquisition. “Veterans bring unique experiences and leadership skills that are highly valued by our organization to help us win as a business. We are grateful for their service to our country and our company and we are proud to have them as part of the PepsiCo team.” The 100,000 Jobs Mission continues to seek like-minded large employers to join the commitment to hiring Veterans and military spouses.