Florida office cited for errors in handling vets’ disability claims (McClatchyDC)
The Department of Veterans Affairs office that handles disability cases for Florida didn’t properly process claims – in some cases overpaying and in others shortchanging the state’s veterans, according to a recent report. A report from the department’s inspector general found that the regional office in St. Petersburg, Fla., did not consistently process two types of disability claims the office reviewed, inaccurately handling 19 percent of the small sample reviewed. A total of 90 claims were reviewed, with 17 in error; because of it, 54 improper monthly payments were made to seven individual veterans. While the numbers aren’t large, the regular review from the inspector general highlighted ongoing problems in claims processing at the VA, something that has bedeviled the department for years, with high backlogs and error rates plaguing a system swamped with claims. In recent months, the VA has made significant progress in reducing its backlog, both nationwide and in the St. Petersburg office, which handles disability claims for all Florida counties and is one of the largest of the VA’s 56 nationwide. From an average processing time of 252 days in early 2013, average claim-processing time in St. Petersburg dropped to 160 last year and 109 days today, according to regional office director Kerrie Witty. “We’re getting better every day, and more responsive to (veterans’) claims – and that’s only going to continue,” she said in an interview Monday. “I don’t foresee anything that’s going to make that get anything but better.” Witty said the regional office has substantially improved its processes in recent years, meaning it is better equipped to handle the problems pointed out by the inspector general. The inspection report was part of the inspector general’s ongoing review process of regional offices throughout the country, and it selected certain potentially problematic types of claims. That 19 percent of claims were inaccurately processed does not mean the universe of St. Petersburg claims are wrong 19 percent of the time; in fact, the office said its VA-calculated accuracy rate is about 90 percent, in line with national averages.
Veterans: Federal jobs can be a bad fit, so many of us leave (The Washington Post)
Veterans who’ve joined the government find it’s just too bureaucratic. They bristle at the resentment they feel from colleagues who know they went to the head of the hiring queue. They acknowledge that they don’t always fit in: Just below the surface, deep culture clashes in their offices simmer. These are some of the issues at the root of why veterans don’t stay long in federal jobs, say former troops still working in government and those who’ve quit. With new data out showing that veterans leave within two years on average despite the Obama administration’s sustained efforts to hire them — a shorter average tenure than non-veterans at most agencies — we asked some of them why. Like non-veterans, former service members move on for a variety of reasons, from better opportunities to relocation for family reasons. But veterans say a federal office cubicle can be a bad fit after military service, with limited opportunities to advance. “Some veterans will say, ‘I go to staff meetings with a pen and paper and I’m all about the mission,’” said Walter Elmore, a drill instructor during the Vietnam War who set up an affinity group for veterans at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. “Things don’t move that quickly in government. There’s a culture here that’s very different from the culture our veterans are used to dealing with.” Elmore said veterans suffer from a widespread perception that they aren’t qualified for the jobs they got, since they benefit from preferential hiring for civil service jobs. “People look at us in a very hostile way,” he said. “It’s a little bit of ‘Who do they think they are?’ When you come into a place and you feel like you don’t fit, you say, it’s a good job, but I want a certain peace of mind.’”
Dem to FCC: Broadband subsidies would help veterans (The Hill)
Expanding phone subsidies for low-income Americans to include broadband Internet service would help veterans, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said in a letter Monday. Blumenthal’s letter to Federal Communications Commission Chairman (FCC) Tom Wheeler and Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Robert McDonald also urged them to work to expand veteran access to the program, called Lifeline. He said the program could best serve veterans if it was expanded to include subsidies for broadband service. “Veterans can use the Lifeline Program discount to improve access to the technology that will allow them to contact VA for benefits or medical appointments, or to communicate with potential employers or housing providers,” Blumenthal wrote. “The proposal to expand the Lifeline program to broadband, would help veterans access affordable quality health care services.” Blumenthal, the ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, wrote in the letter that the FCC and VA should collaborate on outreach to veterans about the Lifeline program. “It is our duty to ensure that veterans with limited or no income are accessing each and every resource they may be eligible for,” he said. He also tied the program to the broader issue of veteran homelessness. “The fight to end veteran homelessness is still ongoing and we must ensure that we provide as much support as possible in order to ensure housing stability,” he said. An FCC official said the agency had received and was reviewing the letter. In a party-line vote earlier this year, the FCC elected to consider ways to expand the subsidy program while also signing off on other accountability measures. The program currently provides small subsidies to low-income Americans for mobile or landline phone service. Conservatives have tried to tie it to President Obama by using the derisive moniker “Obama phone” for the 30-year-old program.
Veterans center cut by VA pins hopes on grants, goodwill (The Argus Leader)
Backers of a drop-in center for homeless and formerly homeless veterans are hopeful that grants and community support will fill in the funding gap left by the local Veterans Health Administration’s June decision to pull funding. The Veterans Outreach Center in Sioux Falls, S.D., lost its VA funding in June in the face of a budget crunch at the health system. Volunteers of America, which operates the center, quickly moved to fund it through March 2016, but backers of the program have yet to find a source for continuing beyond that. The veterans have reached out to the state’s congressional delegation, and staffers for Rep. Kristi Noem and Sen. John Thune attended a gathering at the center on Saturday. A few days earlier, the veterans attended a meet and greet with Sen. Mike Rounds to voice their concerns. Sioux Falls City Council member Kenny Anderson Jr. was at the Saturday meeting, as well. Anderson says the center’s offerings — laundry and Internet access, job and housing search help and showers — are worth preserving. “I feel that it’s a great resource for our veterans, and I think it’s reached out as a place of support for those veterans who are most at risk,” Anderson said. “The services it offers are invaluable for our city. I hope the city and county will take notice of what these volunteers are doing.” The center doesn’t offer beds for the homeless, but it serves about 20 veterans a day in a variety of ways, according to veterans specialist Adam Hanisch. There are other services for the homeless in Sioux Falls, but the center offers them in a place that’s convenient for veterans. It also serves as a home base for a group of like-minded people facing similar struggles, he said. “We believe strongly that there’s a need for this,” Hanisch said Saturday.
Angry billboard brings VA protest to Haley center (Tampa Tribune)
A national group of veterans and their families, upset with the Department of Veterans Affairs, has brought its protest to Tampa — in the form of a message on an electronic billboard on the 1200 block of East Fowler Avenue near the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital. “VA is Lying, Veterans Are Dying,” reads the message, sponsored by a Facebook group called “VA is Lying,” launched by a Vietnam War veteran from Indiana. “I started the Facebook group about two years ago because I was angry at the VA,” Ron Nesler said. Nesler said he was upset, in part, about the treatment of his step-daughter, whose biological father is a Marine exposed to Agent Orange when he served in Vietnam. The exposure led to severe birth defects in the child and Nesler said his anger has been stoked by the VA’s poor response to a federal law mandating treatment for children of veterans exposed to the defoliant. The VA’s actions on the matter have been “unconscionable,” said Rick Weidman, executive director for policy and government affairs for the Vietnam Veterans of America, a veteran service organization that has helped Nesler fight for benefits for his stepdaughter. Nesler’s latest effort on behalf of the group, which he said has nearly 10,000 members nationwide, has been the billboard campaign. The slogan, he said, is a reflection of how veterans feel they are treated. “We say VA is Lying and veterans are dying because that is exactly what is happening,” he said. “Look at the VA backlog, VA claims they are fixing the backlog, but veterans know better. VA’s way to fix the back log is to move claims into the black hole of the appeals process, so VA looks a little better on paper, but the same vets are still waiting, just in a different line. And these vets are dying while they wait, and VA is lying.” VA officials deny a connection between reduction in the backlog and appeals. “There is not a correlation between the decrease in rating claims pending over 125 days and an increase in the number of appeals,” said Bruce Clisby, a spokesman for the VA St. Petersburg Regional Office. “The association exists between the increased number of claim decisions and the average percentage of claim decisions that are appealed.”
Surviving resignation calls, VA’s Hickey says ‘faith kept me here’ (Military.com)
Some 15 months ago, with the Veterans Affairs Department mired in scandal over secret waitlists for patients that were linked to deaths, lawmakers and at least one major veterans service organization demanded the resignations of the agency’s top officials. By mid-May of last year, Veterans Health Administration Under Secretary Dr. Robert Petzel was gone – his planned retirement pushed ahead of schedule when VA Secretary Eric Shinseki asked for his resignation. Not long after that Shinseki tendered his own resignation to President Obama. That left only Veterans Benefits Administration Under Secretary Allison Hickey, who last week – still very much on the job – announced that the disability claims backlog had hit “an historic milestone” by dropping below 100,000 from a high of more than 600,000. Resigning never entered her mind, she told Military.com in a separate interview later. “No. And I say that very straightforward,” she said. “I don’t say it was easy.” Rep. Jeff Miller, a Republican from Florida who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee, was the first to call for Hickey’s resignation in March 2014. By May, The American Legion, one of the largest veterans service organizations in the country, joined that call, noting that Shinseki and Petzel needed to go, as well. Neither Miller nor The American Legion would comment for this story. Hickey has been on the job since June 2011. Before then, she headed the Human Capital Management program at the consulting firm Accenture, focusing on the intelligence community and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. For Hickey, the resignation calls came as she was preparing to announce that VA had reduced the backlog by about 50 percent. “So, no, I didn’t [resign],” she said. “You know why? Because I came here for this mission. I came here for the people this mission serves. I gave up a very lucrative job in industry. I was happy where I was but this was a calling for me.”
Bill aims to improve care for women veterans (WWMT-Kalamazoo)
A Michigan-led bipartisan bill is aiming to improve access to medical care for female veterans. U.S. Senator Gary Peters is co-sponsoring the Women Veterans Access to Quality Care Act. According to the VA, as of January, there were more than 46,000 women veterans in Michigan, and more than 2 million nationwide. The legislation would require the VA to establish standards that focus specifically on women’s needs, including full-time obstetricians or gynecologists at every VA Medical Center.
Louisiana picked for 285-job veterans care call center (NOLA.com)
A Phoenix-based company that manages private-sector health care for military veterans under a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs contract has picked Jefferson Parish to open a call center, the company said Monday (Aug. 31). TriWest Healthcare Alliance will open the call center in November with 285 employees. The company will focus on recruiting veterans to fill its jobs, officials said. The average salary: $35,700. Gov. Bobby Jindal’s office and the Jefferson Econcomic Development Commission announced the plans, but neither specified TriWest’s planned location. A JEDCO spokesperson said the company isn’t ready to disclose the site. TriWest is one of two companies contracted to run the federal Veterans Choice Program, which offers private medical care outside the Veterans Administration system. The goals are reducing wait times and improving access for veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA center. Veterans Choice was created as a temporary program. It is scheduled to end in August 2017, earlier if its $10 billion funding runs out. A TriWest spokesperson said the company hopes recent legislation will let its New Orleans operations continue beyond 2017. The call center, which will serve veterans across 28 states, will process medical care requests and schedule appointments. TriWest plans to spend $1 million on the new office. “We are seeking qualified applicants (who) have a deep desire to serve our nation’s veterans,” TriWest Healthcare Alliance chief executive David McIntyre Jr. “If every position was filled with veterans themselves, we would be most pleased.” Jindal said Jefferson Parish was selected in a competition with eight other metropolitan areas. The state said it offered TriWest a “competitive incentive package” that includes Louisiana Economic Development’s FastStart workforce development and Quality Jobs program, which provides a 5 percent or 6 percent cash rebate of annual gross payroll for new direct jobs for as long as 10 years. “TriWest Healthcare Alliance has a long history of providing health care services for our nation’s heroes, and we extend a heartfelt welcome to its operations center in Jefferson Parish,” Jindal said.
Donations to veterans charity mostly go to pay telemarketers (Chicago Tribune)
To address the profound and unmet needs of veterans, Americans last year donated $1.4 million to a Rockford, Ill., charity called VietNow National Headquarters. But most of the money — about 85 percent — went to for-profit phone solicitors, and most of the rest was spent on VietNow’s own administrative costs and a convention, public tax filings show. The fraction of donations spent on direct service to former military personnel and their families did not even reach 7 percent in 2014. The charity gives out scholarships to youths, but it reported only a handful, worth $3,985. “It may not seem like much, but it’s the best we could do. That’s probably the best way to put it,” said charity President Joe Lewis, who took the top office last year. In all, more than 90 percent of the $24 million donated to VietNow since 2003 came through telemarketers who kept the lion’s share, the Tribune found. After fielding questions from the Tribune, Lewis vowed to renegotiate VietNow’s telemarketing contracts. “I wish (critics) could show me another avenue or how to raise money that we could embrace that would provide us with the funds we need for our organization,” Lewis said. “I understand from the public’s perception how it seems like so little of it comes to us. Do I wish we could get more? Pardon the language but, hell yes.” Charities that receive high marks from watchdog groups sometimes use telemarketers to raise contributions. But they also deploy advertising, special events, direct mail appeals and corporate sponsorships, allowing them to spend a far higher percentage of the money they raise on programs. Philanthropy experts say at least two-thirds of every donated dollar should be spent on services for the needy.
Housing for 84 Delaware homeless vets sought (The News Journal)
A coalition of service providers and government officials is aiming to find permanent housing for more than 80 homeless veterans in northern New Castle County, Del., before the end of the year. The initiative is the first step in a countywide effort to solve homelessness among former military members. It was launched in response to a challenge last year by President Barack Obama to address the issue. The initial goal is to find housing for 84 veterans who have been identified, then develop a more permanent solution to locating regular housing quickly for at-risk veterans, said Phyllis Chamberlain, executive director of the Homeless Planning Council of Delaware. The organization in February found 102 homeless veterans statewide and 49 in New Castle County. The county number is expected to double by the end of the year. The second phase of the effort involves helping social service agencies to work together to discover gaps in resources. A steering committee of local government, planning council, state housing and state veterans officials have met twice each month to track the plan’s progress and explore solutions to problems service providers encounter. Similar plans are being tailored to resources in Dover and the rest of the state. Broadus Lovett, a Vietnam War veteran living at the Delaware Center for Homeless Veterans shelter on Walnut Street in Wilmington, said it can be difficult to navigate the various programs and help that’s available. “A lot of us veterans just don’t know what we are entitled to or what to ask for when it comes to benefits,” he said. He received assistance at the center for drug and alcohol use. Lovett had been homeless for two years – at one point living in his car. He said many veterans are pushed to homelessness by post-traumatic stress disorder and are too prideful to ask for assistance.
Army veteran gets overdue surgery (Military.com)
George Scarbro, an Army veteran who served in Germany in the early 1960s and competed on a shooting team throughout Europe, didn’t think it would take long for doctors to treat a shoulder problem when he visited a local Veterans Administration medical clinic nearly 11 months ago. An X-ray showed he needed shoulder surgery. After multiple 300-mile round trip drives to the VA hospital in Dublin, Ga., he asked to use his Veterans Choice Card. The card enables veterans to receive local health care if they have to travel long distances, are unable to schedule an appointment at a VA facility within 30 days, or live more than 40 miles from a VA facility. All veterans enrolled in the VA health care system as of Aug. 1, 2014, and those who have served in combat are eligible for the card. He is currently recovering in his St. Simons Island home from the surgery performed in mid-August by Southeast Georgia Health System surgeons. He raved about the hospital, the staff and the care he has received. “I have never seen a better hospital,” he said. “It was smooth as silk.” He also complimented the VA clinic in Brunswick, which is only allowed to do very few procedures. “They aren’t even allowed to give you a shot,” Scarbro said. “The local VA is great. They have done everything in their power to help me but anything I need to be done, I have to go to Dublin.” His problems began after he used the card earlier this year and questioned why he was being sent to the VA clinic in St. Marys, which does not have the ability to perform the surgical procedure. VA officials responded by telling him he could not use his Veterans Choice Card because he refused treatment. After he met with VA officials in Dublin, he finally convinced them to allow him to have the surgery in Brunswick, but he ran into more delays when VA officials refused to approve the months of physical rehab he’d have to undergo after surgery. A week before the surgery, doctors learned the VA was not planning to pay for the months of physical rehabilitation required after shoulder surgery. They refused to operate without a guarantee Scarbro would get physical rehab after surgery. “It has not been a pleasant experience,” he said. “I’m not the only person who has had this problem.”
Marine walks 3,000 miles for comrades (San Diego Union-Tribune)
On March 1, a Marine set out to walk across the continent to raise money for his comrades injured in combat. Nearly six months and more than 3,000 miles after leaving Charlotte, North Carolina, Gunnery Sgt. Roy Wesley “Wes” Brady, Jr. walked up to the main gate at Camp Pendleton on Thursday. The retired Marine veteran went through thunderstorms, flooded roads and the heat of summer, wearing out three shoes to put in his support for the Combat Wounded Veteran Challenge, a nonprofit that helps rehabilitate injured veterans. “It was more of a mental challenge,” Brady said. “When you’re mentally strong you can get through anything.” He hiked through Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and finally California, carrying a 60 pound backpack made out of the Marine Corps flag. When Brady went through tough parts of his cross-country “Walk for Warriors,” he kept thinking about about why he was doing it. “I’d think about those who couldn’t do this,” Brady said. After Brady retired two years ago, he set his mind on doing something to give back to fellow Marines and other military members. The 22-year-Marine infantry veteran took on the effort to help pay for the nonprofit’s expeditions that challenge wounded veterans to build confidence and reach their potential. The nonprofit based in Tarpon Springs, Fl. also supports research to treat physical, neurological and psychological injuries, such as loss of limbs, post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
Navy vet to address Ohio Women Veterans Conference (WTTE-Columbus)
A U.S. Navy combat veteran will give the keynote speech at Ohio’s conference for women veterans to be held in Columbus. The Ohio Department of Veterans Services says veteran Amanda Wirtz will address the conference at the Hilton Columbus at Easton on Sept. 12. She will share her story of overcoming significant health challenges. State officials say the conference provides a networking forum for women veterans and provides them with information about the challenges faced by other women veterans and resources and strategies available to help them overcome those challenges. The last Ohio Women Veterans Conference in 2013 drew more than 700 women veterans. Registration for this year’s conference has been extended to Monday, Aug. 31. The state says Ohio has more than 67,000 women veterans.