September 2 Veterans News

September 2 Veterans News

Veterans news updateMore than 300,000 dead vets on VA’s active health care enrollment list (The Washington Times)
More than 300,000 dead veterans are still listed as actively trying to sign up for health care at the Department of Veterans Affairs — part of a massive 860,000-claim backlog that the department still hasn’t been able to clear up, an inspector general said in a report Wednesday that described a department still struggling with the basics of tracking and deciding who should get benefits. Veterans Affairs workers appear to have deleted another 10,000 benefit applications without ever even processing them, investigators said, potentially denying veterans care they deserved. And 13 percent of the names on the backlog have been waiting more than five years. Many of those on the waitlist have since died, but the VA never went back to delete their names, leaving a system so messy that the department can’t properly triage cases and figure out who needs help the most urgently. “Overstated pending enrollment records create unnecessary difficulty and confusion in identifying and assisting veterans with the most urgent need for health care enrollment,” the investigators said in the report. “Additionally, outreach efforts to obtain additional information for enrollment eligibility may have been frustrating and upsetting to family members of deceased veterans.” More than a year after the veterans wait-list scandal broke, the Department of Veterans Affairs continue to struggle with its operations. The inspector general said the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) did not have a requirement for how quickly applications should be processed, leaving tens of thousands of them waiting for years. Investigators said leaving the dead veterans on the list also raises the chance of identity fraud, with someone using a dead beneficiary’s name to get “unauthorized” access to health care. The VHA’s system was so deficient that the inspector general couldn’t figure out how many of the 860,000 pending records were for health care benefits. The system was set up in 2009 and incorporated all existing records at that time, but workers never checked to make sure those records were still active — putting dead veterans on the rolls. In one case a veteran who died in 1993 still has a pending claim from that 2009 transition.

McDonald: Political fights set up VA to fail (Military Times)
Talk of eliminating or scaling back Veterans Affairs Department services sets up the VA programs to fail and puts politics ahead of veterans’ best interests, the department’s top official warned on Tuesday. In remarks to the American Legion’s annual convention, VA Secretary Bob McDonald conceded the need for reform and improvements in many facets of his department in the wake of a nationwide scandal in 2014 over lengthy patient wait times and records manipulation. But he pushed back against the idea that VA’s problems are beyond repair, and also refuted recent suggestions from politicians about dismantling the $160 billion-plus agency. “Some people in Washington are questioning the need for VA. Others have attempted to squeeze the needs of veterans within a ‘sequester’ budget that artificially constrains the budget,” he said. “All of this …  leads to the same place: A place where the needs of veterans are secondary to ideology, scoring political points, and shortsighted budget policies. A place where VA is set up to fail.” Veterans groups already have cautioned that the issue of privatizing VA health care will be a major discussion point in the 2016 election campaign, and that they will oppose plans that seek to remove safety nets for veterans in need of health care and support services. Last week, Republican presidential hopeful Ben Carson suggested that VA operations should be folded into Pentagon programs, with health care vouchers for veterans to seek private care appointments instead of VA clinic services. Other GOP candidates have suggested similar, but not as far-reaching, changes. Earlier on Tuesday, American Legion National Commander Michael Helm vowed his group “will not let someone step in and try to privatize health care for our veterans,” calling those plans “crazy ideas.” But Helm acknowledged that VA officials must better adapt to the needs of veterans, in part by increasing the availability and ease of health care options for veterans outside the department.

Taxpayers must shoulder $30 million in KBR legal fees, judge rules (The Oregonian)
U.S. taxpayers will have to pay at least $30 million to cover attorney fees incurred by defense contractor KBR Inc., accused of wrongly exposing U.S. and British soldiers – including dozens from Oregon – to toxic chemicals during duty in the Iraq War. KBR’s contract to restore Iraq’s oil fields indemnifies the company from paying legal costs to defend itself against the soldiers’ lawsuits, an Armed Services Board of Contract Appeals judge ruled last month. This leaves the costs of KBR’s lawyers, and any potential court judgments, up to the Army to pay – a burden ultimately shouldered by taxpayers. The skyrocketing costs, with no end in sight, have left public officials outraged. Three years have passed since U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., asked Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to examine billable hours run up by KBR as part of its contract with the Pentagon. Wyden’s staff pored through court records, finding that lawyers for the company billed up to $750 an hour, sometimes flew first class to legal proceedings and paid millions to expert witnesses. One expert, paid more than $500,000, dozed off during a deposition. Lawyers for KBR say the Aug. 13 opinion by Administrative Judge Jack Delman correctly interprets the Pentagon contract, which they say clearly indemnifies KBR from paying the costs of defending the company against multiple lawsuits. KBR’s lawyers rang up billable hours, airfare, travel and meals in the normal course of defending the company against those suits, according to a 2012 court filing in Oregon. “As a taxpayer, it’s unbelievable that you’d be given incentive for the worst kind of misconduct,” said Houston lawyer Mike Doyle, who represents 159 veterans who have sued KBR for exposing them to sodium dichromate. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs acknowledges that in 2003, more than 800 service members guarding the Qarmat Ali water treatment facility in the oil fields of southern Iraq were exposed to sodium dichromate dust. The primary material in that dust is hexavalent chromium, a known carcinogen made famous in the movie “Erin Brockovich.” At Garmat Ali, service members guarded KBR workers as they rebuilt Iraq’s oil fields.
Also: What the VA says about Qarmat Ali Water Treatment plant

Legionnaires’ outbreak in veterans home worsens; 7 dead (Chicago Tribune)
The number of fatalities at a downstate veterans home hit by an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease is now at seven, and officials said that figure could grow. A total of 39 residents of the Illinois Veterans’ Home in Quincy have tested positive for Legionnaire’s, with seven of them dying in the past week, officials with the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the state Department of Public Health said Tuesday. The outbreak was first made public Thursday, when eight people had contracted the disease but no one had died. There were four fatalities as of early Monday, and three more people died between midday Monday and early Tuesday, officials said. Those who died had been infected with the disease, but officials have not confirmed whether Legionnaires’ was the cause of death. Testing is ongoing for other residents.  “Unfortunately, we expect to see additional cases and possibly additional deaths because the incubation period for Legionnaires’ disease can be up to two weeks, and because patients with underlying medical conditions are at increased risk of more severe illness,” Department of Public Health Director Dr. Nirav Shah said in a statement. State Department of Veterans’ Affairs spokesman Ryan Yantis said Monday that any resident with a respiratory illness will be treated as though he or she has Legionnaires’ until tests show otherwise. Legionnaires’ is caused by bacteria commonly found in warm water sources such as hot tubs, cooling towers, hot water tanks, fountains and large plumbing systems, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A person can become infected with the disease by inhaling water vapor carrying the bacteria, according to the CDC. It is not spread from person to person or by drinking contaminated water. Those most at risk for contracting the disease include people older than 50, those with compromised or weakened immune systems and people with chronic lung disease, according to CDC fact sheets. About 8,000 to 18,000 people are hospitalized for the disease in the U.S. each year, according to the state health department. Symptoms can include cough, fever, muscle aches and shortness of breath, according to the CDC, although many exposed to the bacteria don’t get sick.

Minnesota, Wisconsin vets facing thousands in old co-payments from the VA (Minneapolis Star-Tribune)
Minnesota’s congressional delegation, led by Rep. John Kline, is fighting a Veterans Affairs directive that found veterans suddenly being billed for co-payments that were as much as five years old. Recently, members of Congress were notified that the VA discovered unbilled copay amounts for inpatient care provided to veterans over a five-year period. Veterans were going to be assessed copays ranging from $1,000 to $3,000 because the VA erred in not charging them at the time of the care. Veterans in Minnesota and Wisconsin were to be affected, prompting members of Minnesota’s and Wisconsin’s congressional delegations to sign a letter to VA Secretary Bob McDonald asking to delay attempting to collect the payments from the vets, many of whom are on fixed incomes and might not be able to pay. “Our veterans sought care at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in good faith and should not be suddenly saddled with thousands of dollars in bills years later due to the VA’s inability to properly track, record, and bill for services,” the letter said. The VA responded in July, apologizing for the episode and assuring that it would “develop stronger internal controls to mitigate risks of this from occurring in the future.” The incident affected only vets served by the Minneapolis Veterans Medical Center and amounted to $549,198. McDonald said every affected vet would be personally contacted about setting up a payment plan or applying for a waiver. The VA identified 1,482 veterans in Minnesota and Wisconsin who would have been affected by the retroactive charges, including 26 who have been deceased for more than six months.

New technology allows Cincinnati VA to give care across U.S. (Dayton Daily News)
In a modest room on the ninth floor of the Cincinnati VA Medical Center, a team of doctors and nurses are providing care to critically-injured veterans across five states. The hospital is working to improve and expedite care for the nation’s veterans through more than 60 computer monitors, high-resolution cameras and the real-time sharing of hundreds of electronic medical records every day. Cincinnati’s Tele-Intensive Care Unit opened in early 2012 to monitor 72 ICU beds in Ohio’s four VA medical centers, including Dayton and Cleveland. The operation continues to expand, now overseeing 213 ICU beds in states as far south as Georgia and Alabama, said Michael Torok, RN, Tele-ICU operations director. “We are watching over our veterans,” Torok said. “The VA is a high-tech, government hospital system. This shows the investment the VA puts into its patients.” The original investment was $4 million by the VA and an annual operating budget of $7 million, according to Torok. The Tele-ICU is staffed with critical care nurses 24 hours a day, and with physicians board certified in critical care from 4 p.m. to 8 a.m. Monday to Friday and 24 hours a day on weekends. There are 27 full-time equivalent nurses and eight critical care physicians, also called intensivists. “The ICU is our sickest patients,” Torok said, recovering from a complex surgery or cardiac event, for example. In Ohio alone, there were over 52,000 uses of the Tele-ICU in 2014, according to Torok. In the first two quarters of this year, the cameras have been used 21,760 times for Ohio veterans. The operation continues to grow as more hospitals request to join, Torok said. They are currently in negotiations to add another seven hospitals — 100 more ICU beds — in 2016. To keep up with demand, a Tele-ICU satellite location opened in 2013 in Cleveland and a second satellite will open in October in Greater Los Angeles, according to Torok.

Is Donald Trump the new ‘champion of veterans’ (The Blaze)
Commentary: “Have veterans finally found a presidential candidate to support their cause? Not a lot has been heard in the mainstream media since the scandal within the Department of Veterans Affairs first made headlines. You may recall that veterans were placed on wait lists for medical care for long periods of time until some them died before they could be seen for treatment. Subsequently, many promises were made by President Barack Obama and his newly appointed Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald, to rid the VA of the issues that have long plagued them. However, it appears that many veterans and even members of Congress aren’t happy with the job that McDonald is doing and have at times come to verbal blows over their frustrations. At the end of the day, the continuing conflict between the politicians and McDonald don’t seem to be helping veterans. Many veterans may be wondering if there is anyone who really cares about their issues. They may have finally found their advocate in GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump. On several occasions now, Trump has not been shy about his feelings regarding how he perceives our veterans have been treated. In July, Trump announced that his campaign was formulating a new coalition called “Veterans for Trump” and he discussed what he hoped to achieve for them. “Our Veterans are incredibly important and I’m proud to have the support of this coalition, especially in New Hampshire, where if I am elected I will build a full-service, first-class VA hospital to ensure all New Hampshire Veterans receive the care they deserve,” Trump said in his statement.”

For fallen vets who went unclaimed, a final rest at Arlington (The Washington Post)
They returned home after serving honorably on battlefields in Italy, France and Vietnam many years ago. And when they died stateside, some, it seemed, couldn’t rest in peace. One veteran’s remains went unclaimed for more than three decades; the remains of another went missing for months after his death. A third veteran was estranged from family when she died, and no one arranged for her burial. On Tuesday, six veterans who were largely anonymous in life and death were interred with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery. “He’s happy, and I think he would give me a big hug,” said Andrew Pincsak of his cousin Richard Pincsak, a professor and Silver Star recipient in the U.S. Army who was shot down twice over Cambodia during the Vietnam War and died in 2014. “I think he knew he was dying and just before he died, he reached out to me and talked about this — he asked if I’ve ever been [to Arlington National Cemetery] before.” “He told me to take care of it,” said Andrew Pincsak, who said he planned to arrange a military burial. But he initially couldn’t find his cousin’s remains at local funeral homes, and turned to one national nonprofit organization for help. The burials were the culmination of a nearly year-long search by the Missing in America Project, a national group dedicated to finding, identifying and interring the remains of unclaimed service members. Since 2006, the group has been to 1,857 funeral homes and found the unclaimed remains of more than 11,986 people. From that number, it identified 2,759 service members and has interred 2,496 of them in cemeteries around the nation. Sometimes, organizers said, people call after finding urns in all sorts of places, such as the bed of a pickup truck or a storage unit. And in all sorts of containers: a plastic bag or a cardboard box, sometimes brown paper bags.

Still searching for a Marine on Iwo Jima (Sarasota Herald-Tribune)
It took representatives from 10 nations just 23 minutes to sign Japanese surrender papers aboard the USS Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945. And with a few swipes of several pens in Tokyo Bay, the global conflagration known as World War II was officially over. But 70 years later, a Bradenton, Fla., resident’s longstanding quest to close out some unfinished business from that conflict reiterates William Faulkner’s contention that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Two years old when an American Marine staff sergeant was lost forever just six months before the surrender, Bob Bolus contends he is on the verge of recovering those remains and bringing them home for burial. “The military’s all about leaving no one behind,” says Bolus, who splits his time between Bradenton and Scranton, Pennsylvania. “Well, with the equipment and the technology we have today, we can do that now. And we should do that.”  Given how 83,115 service personnel are listed as missing in action during U.S. wars in the 20th and 21st centuries – 73,515 in WWII alone, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency – that would appear to be a tall order. But in the case of one Bill Genaust, the 38-year-old combat photographer whose 10-second, 16mm color footage of Americans raising the flag over Mount Suribachi produced one of the era’s most celebrated events, Bolus is certain he knows where to find him. And he’s spent a small fortune to find out – including three trips to the windswept volcanic island – since his odyssey began in 2006. Joe Rosenthal, the Associated Press photographer whose still photo of the flag-raising actually became more renowned, made it home safely. But on March 4, 1945, less than two weeks after the Suribachi moment, Genaust was shot to death while attempting to flush out a cave held by Japanese defenders. Two other leathernecks died with him. U.S. forces then hosed the hideout with flamethrowers, blasted it with explosives, and bulldozed the position into a tomb. Efforts by the U.S. Defense Department’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) to locate Genaust’s remains in 2007 and 2008 were unsuccessful.

Navy veteran wins 7-Eleven franchise (
With a passion to lead — whether in his home, on the job or in the community — U.S. Navy veteran Mark Anthony Page of Granbury said winning a 7-Eleven franchise would allow him to use his leadership skills and settle into a community with his family. Page said it is the American dream to own his own franchise and that is what prompted him to enter 7-Eleven’s Operation: Take Command contest last year. The contest launched on Veterans Day as a multi-phased competition for first-time prospective franchisees retired or separated from the military. Entrants first had to be interviewed and qualified. The top 25 of the 6,000 entrants competed for the public’s votes in a Facebook video competition with the three finalists interviewing face-to-face with 7-Eleven Inc. CEO Joe DePinto. In his entry, Page said he’s always been committed to service from when he was on active duty in the Navy, as a reservist, and later an educator and role-model for young people. A devoted family man with four children, Page said he believes running a 7-Eleven franchise would allow him to continue his commitment to community service. After a tough start in life that included being a ward of the state for two years, Page moved in with his grandmother who had already raised 16 children of her own. He enlisted in the Navy just days after graduating from high school, seeing it both as a way out and a way up. While in the reserves, Page attended college and earned a bachelor’s degree in communications and a master’s in kinesiology. He taught and coached in public schools before taking a position that required him to be away from his home and family. Voters were impressed with Page’s background, leading him to sweep the competition and placing in the final three. The prize was an available 7-Eleven store of his choice at a discount, valued up to $190,000. DePinto, however, was so impressed he offered Page a store at no cost.