Report: Senior VA executives abused positions for financial gain (Stars & Stripes)
A senior Department of Veterans Affairs manager who was supposed to clean up a beleaguered regional office abused her position for financial gain, part of a wider scheme to give stealth raises to executives, according to a VA Office of Inspector General report released Monday. The inspector general had been investigating Philadelphia VA Regional Office Director Diana Rubens since March, after it became known that she received nearly $300,000 in compensation to move about 140 miles from Washington to Philadelphia. While the inspector general’s office concluded that her moving expenses were allowable, it found she and one other executive had manipulated the VA hiring system to create vacancies they sought for financial gain in an era of government pay freezes. The inspector general has made a criminal referral to the District of Columbia U.S. Attorney’s Office for actions by Rubens and Kimberly Graves, who is accused of a similar scheme to become director of the St. Paul Veterans Affairs Regional Office. No charges have been filed. Monday’s report could trigger one of the biggest shakeups in the VA since the nationwide scandal broke in April 2014, costing then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki his job. While other VA executives have lost their jobs or resigned under pressure, the latest IG report implicates two senior managers, an undersecretary and two of her deputies. Rubens and Graves retained their salaries — $181,497 and $173,949, respectively — despite taking new positions with fewer responsibilities at lower rungs on the federal pay scale. Together they received about $400,000 in moving expenses, and the IG report recommends that the VA consider recouping those costs. When Rubens took over the Philadelphia office in June 2014, VA officials said she was sent to clean up a regional office beset by problems including rodent-infested conditions, boxes of ignored mail that might have cost countless veterans their benefits, and a manager who asked employees to pay his wife to communicate with the dead at a party. However, the VA didn’t seek out Rubens. The report says that Rubens used her position as deputy undersecretary for field operations to transfer the former Philadelphia director and position herself to get the job. In reviewing job changes for 22 senior VA executives, the IG found a pattern of employees being moved to increase their salaries or keeping their salaries after responsibilities were reduced. The VA paid $1.3 million in moving expenses for those executives and increased their salaries by more than $300,000. “We found that Ms. Rubens inappropriately used her position of authority for personal and financial benefit when she participated personally and substantially in creating the Philadelphia (Veterans Affairs Regional Office) vacancy and then volunteering for the vacancy,” the report said. Veterans Benefits Administration management “used moves of senior executives as a method to justify annual salary increases.” The report also recommended that the VA consider disciplinary action against VA Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey and two deputy undersecretaries for their roles in Rubens’ move to Philadelphia. Hickey has said she handpicked Rubens for the job and has vehemently defended her in the face of growing public and Congressional scrutiny over Rubens’ moving expenses.
Vet groups warn lawmakers that shutdown would disrupt VA services (Military.com)
Veterans groups are warning Congress that their hundreds of thousands of members don’t want a repeat 2013 legislative failure that led to a government shutdown and disruption of veterans benefits and services. Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which in 2013 brought together members of 33 veterans groups to demand an end to the previous shutdown, plans to rally the organizations in advance. “Widow’s benefits, GI Bill checks and VA disability payments should not be held hostage by political games,” IAVA President Paul Rieckhoff told Military.com on Friday. “If leaders in Washington shut down the government to prove a partisan political point, know that over 20 million veterans will be adversely affected. And that we won’t forget when we vote in November.” Also on Friday, representatives of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Paralyzed Veterans of America and Disabled American Veterans warned lawmakers in a letter that “failure to fund the federal government beginning with the new fiscal year on October 1 will cause real harm to the brave men and women who have served and sacrificed for this nation.” The three groups, co-authors of an annual independent budget whose recommendations often find a place in the final legislation, said a shutdown halt work on more than 250,000 VA disability claims, force staff reductions at agency vocational rehabilitation programs close federal employment OneStops programs used by veterans. The groups also told lawmakers that going along with a continuing resolution or any other stop-gap measure rather than approving a full budget also “are not acceptable solutions.” Continuing resolutions limit funding, prevent the VA from starting or expanding critical programs and disrupt or delay ongoing research and construction projects, the letter states. Continuing resolutions also do not take into consideration inflation or increasing demand for VA benefits and services.
House readies emergency bill to continue paying troops during shutdown (Military.com)
The House appeared to be working toward a deal Monday on a short-term continuing resolution to avoid a government shutdown Wednesday while preparing contingencies to make sure that the troops continue to get paid in the event that negotiations break down. A spokesman for Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Tex., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said the goal of a continuing resolution would be to continue funding the government at current levels until Dec. 11 while seeking a long-term solution. However, compromise in December on funding will become even more difficult with Freedom Caucus GOP conservatives as decisions will also have to be taken at the same time on raising the national debt limits. At a news conference last Friday, Thornberry said that an emergency bill was being worked up to continue to pay servicemenbers if the government shuts down Wednesday. “We’re ready to go with that if it gets to that point,” Thornberry. “I hope it doesn’t get to that point. I don’t really think it will, but we’re trying to be ready for contingencies.” Negotiations on avoiding a shutdown have been complicated by the stunning announcement last week by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, that he would resign by December and the push by House and Senate conservatives to defund Planned Parenthood. Boehner was expected to move before Wednesday on a continuing resolution that could include funding for Planned Parenthood. It was believed that he had enough votes to pass the resolution.
The veteran obesity rate has reached 80 percent. What is being done to lower it? (Think Progress)
The U.S. veteran obesity rate has reached 80 percent, surpassing that of the general population. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) says that more than 165,000 veterans who use its health care services have a body mass index higher than 40, a threshold that interferes with basic physical functions and leads to chronic illness. Excess weight increases the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and some types of cancer. Diabetes and obesity have increasingly appeared together, especially in veterans, more than 20 percent of whom classify as diabetics. That’s why the VA has stepped into action to encourage healthy eating habits among its patients while addressing the root causes of an unbalanced diet and sedentary lifestyle. Since 2013, some branches across the country have hosted nutrition education and cooking classes for retired servicemen and women grappling with excess weight. Nearly 150 veterans in Portland, for example, decipher nutritional labels and learn about portion control while watching healthy cooking demonstrations. “There are a number of reasons. Food, addictively, works exactly the same neurons in the brain as other addictive substances such as alcohol, and drugs,” Michel Goldschmidt, health promotion and disease prevention manager at the Portland VA, told a local NPR member station. “Homelessness, job challenges, PTSD, issues related to their war experiences. That adds up to using what could be considered to be a socially available and acceptable outlet. And eating is one of them.” The United States’ obesity rate has more than doubled since the 1970s. More than 1 in 3 Americans carry excess body weight, according to figures compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That figure translates to 1 in 5 cancer deaths and $50 billion in health care spending. Like other post-battle ailments, veterans’ weight gain often stems from an uneasy transition to civilian life. Though they’re no longer in battle, they may maintain diets high in fats and carbohydrates, most of which they don’t burn off through physical activity. When left unmitigated, post-traumatic stress disorder may trigger cravings for sweets and other fattening foods. Goldschmidt and her colleagues also said unhealthy habits taken from the battlefield persist. For instance, soldiers often have to eat quickly during chow time, not giving their brain the 20 minutes necessary to signal fullness. Research shows that digesting food in that manner packs on the pounds much quicker.
Congress gives disabled vets hired as feds advance sick leave (GovExec)
The House on Monday passed a bipartisan bill would give disabled veterans hired as federal employees access to their full year’s sick leave immediately upon starting their jobs. The Wounded Warriors Federal Leave Act, which passed on voice vote, would give 104 hours of sick leave up front to first-year feds who are vets with a service-connected disability rating of at least 30 percent to attend medical appointments related to their disability. During their first year on the job, those vets would still accumulate their normal sick leave. The employees would only be able to use their extra sick leave for treatments directly related to their service and would not be able to carry over the one-time “wounded warrior leave” after the first 12 months on the job. The Senate passed its version of the legislation in July. There are some minor technical differences between the two bills that need to be tweaked before it heads to President Obama. Full-time federal workers in their first year on the job have no sick leave when they start, and accrue four hours of such leave per pay period. That amounts to a balance of 104 hours at the end of their first year. But disabled vets, who must attend regular medical appointments to maintain their health, and also to continue receiving their veterans’ benefits, quickly burn up their sick leave, according to the Federal Managers Association, which lobbied for the legislation. Many vets also have to travel far to reach the nearest VA facility to receive treatment, which can eat up leave time. The legislation had wide support in both chambers of Congress. “I am grateful that the House recognized the invaluable services these veterans provide the federal government,” said FMA President Patricia Niehaus in a statement. “These dedicated men and women gave a tremendous sacrifice to the nation and they choose to continue to serve their country; they should not have to choose between seeking medical attention and exhausting leave.”
Study: Lower heart rate variability predicts PTSD (Medscape)
Low heart rate variability (HRV), as a measure of disrupted autonomic nervous system functioning, has been associated with an increased risk of developing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In a prospective, longitudinal study, marines whose HRV was low before they were deployed were significantly more likely to be diagnosed with PTSD after deployment. “We found that marines and sailors who had lower HRV shortly before deployment to a combat situation were more likely to return home with PTSD,” study leader Arpi Minassian, PhD, clinical professor of psychiatry, University of California, San Diego, told Medscape Medical News. “Our results don’t necessarily suggest that lower HRV causes PTSD, rather that it’s a harbinger or a signal that the body’s stress response system is not functioning optimally and that may put the individual at greater risk of developing PTSD once he or she has been exposed to a trauma,” Dr Minassian said. “The results suggest that we need to continue to pay attention to the biological factors that are associated with PTSD, which might better inform our prevention and treatment efforts,” she added. The study was published online September 9 in JAMA Psychiatry.
Marines launch nonprofit to buy Chesty Puller’s house (Marine Corps Times)
Some Marine veterans are on a mission to purchase the former home of one of the Corps’ most revered generals. When the group found out that Lt. Gen. Lewis Burwell “Chesty” Puller’s retirement home in Saluda, Virginia, had hit the market, they scrambled to form the nonprofit “Chesty Puller House” and launch a GoFundMe site to raise the $400,000 needed to purchase it. By contributing to help fund the purchase, former intelligence Marine Sgt. Maleesha Kovnesky, who is spearheading the effort as chair of the nonprofit, said supporters will be directly contributing to a place that will serve as a standing monument to other Marines. “It’s the perfect place, perfect opportunity and perfect time to make sure there’s a place that fosters camaraderie [so] all Marines everywhere know they have a place to go and people who care,” she told Marine Corps Times. Puller, who died in 1971 at the age of 73, had one of the most distinguished careers in the Marine Corps. He earned five Navy Crosses over his 37 years of service as well as many other combat decorations, campaign medals and unit commendations. He retired as a lieutenant general in 1955, but his legacy lives on, said Kovnesky, who served as an intel Marine and left the Corps in 2000. The vets hope the 2,253 square-foot suburban house, built in the 1920s, becomes a self-funding venture over the years, with plans to hold events such as weddings, reunions, and promotion or retirement ceremonies on the Puller grounds.
Widow fighting VA to prove husband handled Agent Orange (WTAE-Pittsburgh)
A Pennsylvania widow says she’s been fighting the VA for years, working hard to prove her late husband handled the chemical herbicide Agent Orange. A victorious outcome could give her compensation. She’s sharing her story hoping it could help others out there. Deeni Tarre of Dravosburg says she knows her late husband handled Agent Orange. But the VA tells her unless she can prove it, she has no chance at getting compensation she believes she deserves. “I love him, I miss him, I didn’t want this to happen to him, I wanted to have a long life with him,” said Tarre. Tarre says her husband Christopher died at 64, after developing squamous cell cancer. During their 25-year marriage, he rarely talked about his service in the Air Force, stationed in Korea in the early 1960’s. “He was a loader, he loaded the stuff on the plane, this agent orange bound for Vietnam, now at a few points he did tell me he was in Vietnam but only on short missions,” Tarre said. Reporter: “He would load Agent Orange?” Tarre: “Yeah, in 55-gallon drums.” But after collecting 10 years of medical records, digging through military paperwork and pressing the VA to grant her claim for compensation. “Yeah, I was denied,” said Tarre. She’s fighting for Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, a benefit paid to eligible survivors of veterans for a death resulting from a service-related injury or disease. But proving the first steps, that her husband actually traveled into Vietnam – or was exposed to Agent Orange as a loader, has been tricky. “If they know that somebody working in Korea in his exact location during that period of time was the one loading all of the planes that eventually went and sprayed Agent Orange in Vietnam, we’re back in the game,” said Michael Quatrini, a private attorney. Reporter: “What do you make of all of this?” Tarre: “I think they are hiding something.” Tarre filed her first claim in 2011, and was denied. She blames the VA for failing to keep adequate records. “When I spoke to the gentleman at the VA he says, ‘ohmigod.’ I said, ‘what’s wrong?’ He said, ‘your husband’s files were destroyed,'” said Tarre. But the VA told Action News Investigates it’s not aware that Tarre’s files were destroyed. The agency does say it’s double-checking Tarre’s personnel file, including 1,000 pages of medical records. “Her claim for DIC was denied because we haven’t been able to make service connection to Agent Orange exposure,” said Pat Arnold, Pittsburgh VA regional benefits asstistant director. If her husband was alive, attorney Quatrini says they could ask key questions. That’s why he urges veterans or their loved ones to get on the ball now.
Army National Guard vet now ill from Ground Zero rescue efforts (Military.com)
Garrett Goodwin is a casualty of al-Qaida’s war against the U.S. Shortly after the jihadi organization turned aircraft into weapons, obliterating the World Trade Center in New York, hitting the Pentagon and crashing into a Pennsylvania field, Goodwin made the trip from Florida to Manhattan to help recovery efforts. He spent more than three weeks in the smouldering pile of twisted beams that was once the World Trade Center — the place where Pope Francis on Friday summoned the world to “unity over hatred.” Now, Goodwin is paying the price. It includes a stay, since last Tuesday, at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, where he is desperately seeking help for the maladies he believes are a result of his time at Ground Zero. Finally, after a health scare that started on the 14th anniversary of the attacks, Goodwin realized he needed greater medical attention. There are many others like him — first responders who have became casualties of war by dint of their time searching the wreckage, first for survivors, then for remains. Every day, there are more Garrett Goodwins, coming forward seeking help. Between Sept. 30, 2012, and June 30, 2015, there has been a more-than tenfold increase in the number of new members of the World Trade Center Health Program, created to provide medical monitoring and treatment for responders at the World Trade Center and related sites in New York City, the Pentagon, and Shanksville, Pa., as well as other survivors who were in the New York City disaster area. New members are those who enrolled after passage in 2011 of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act. Named after a New York City police officer who died as the result of lung issues from 9/11, the act “provides continued funding for health care programs treating those affected by the 9/11 events,” according to the New York State Workers Compensation Board. There are a lot of factors behind that increase from 226 new members nationwide to 2,623 in just three years, according to those who run the program. They cite increased among reasons for the jump growing awareness and the addition in 2012 of cancer as a covered condition. Overall, there are more than 70,000 people enrolled in the program.
OIG: Palo Alto VA gave patient info to IT company (Federal Times)
An inspector general’s report revealed that Palo Alto’s Department of Veterans Affairs facility provided patient information to a private IT company whose employees had not been cleared through background checks. The Sept. 28 report was instituted after a complaint by House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs alleged that the VA Palo Alto Health Care System’s informatics chief had entered into an illegal agreement with a healthcare tech company, Kyron, for sharing patient information. The OIG found no evidence of an illegal agreement and that a pilot program that the VA entered meant to provide statistical analysis of treatment information was properly administered. VA removed identifiable information beyond what was required for the statistical analysis before passing the information over. However, the OIG also concluded that VA did not ensure that Kyron staff handling de-identified patient information had received the background checks or the proper security and privacy training. The report also found Kryon’s software, which extracts de-identified information from VA servers, was not yet approved by VA information security officers before it was installed. According to the report, the informatics chief had reached out to ISOs for approval before allowing Kyron to install its software, but never received a response. The OIG made four recommendations, including conducting risk assessment on Kryon’s software and conducting the appropriate software approvals and training.
American Legion calls for action on Keystone XL pipeline (PRNewswire)
The head of the nation’s largest veterans service organization blasted the White House for its prolonged opposition to the job-creating Keystone XL Pipeline. “This month marks the seventh anniversary since a permit request was submitted to the U.S. State Department that would lessen America’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil and create an estimated 42,000 jobs,” American Legion National Commander Dale Barnett said. “Veterans need these jobs. Not just in the construction industry, but the permanent positions related to pipeline maintenance and security. The State Department has already concluded that the pipeline ‘would not substantially worsen carbon pollution.’ The American Legion was disappointed that President Obama vetoed legislation that would get the project moving. We call on him to approve the pipeline now.” Barnett pointed out that The American Legion has passed numerous national resolutions in support of the Keystone XL pipeline and the goal to make the United States energy independent. “The oil will still be extracted,” Barnett pointed out. “The bottom line is: do we want it to be shipped from Canada to China, or would we rather have it safely transported to our country where Americans can benefit from the $15 billion per year that it would pump into our economy? The Keystone XL Pipeline has broad bipartisan support in Congress. It is long overdue for the administration to approve this economic boon that would also make America safer.” With a current membership of 2.2 million wartime veterans, The American Legion was founded in 1919 on the four pillars of a strong national security, veterans affairs, Americanism, and youth programs. Legionnaires work for the betterment of their communities through nearly 14,000 posts across the nation.
Military experience is preparing veterans for private success (Defense One)
Those considered successful in America seem, at least superficially, to cover a fairly broad spectrum: the business entrepreneur, the pop star, the professional athlete, perhaps a surgeon. Yet while their success derives from very different activities, one feature they all share in common is wealth. To be successful in America means to be rich, and much of our culture is monomaniacally focused on getting rich. There is one major subset of Americans for whom this is not the case, who have not put making money at the center of their lives: service members. And it shows: Many retired service members are not doing well once they enter the private sector. As former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said at a Brookings Institution event last month, “If you go into the military at age 18—versus an identical person who stays in the private sector and takes a private sector job—10 years later, if you leave the military, your skills and wages are probably not going to be as quite as high on average as the private-sector person.” Living as we do in a climate where to say anything that could be vaguely construed as “anti-troop” is anathema, his remarks were quite controversial. To give some context, the subject of the Brookings event was “defense spending and its economic impacts,” and Bernanke’s comments were referring to the cost of maintaining a 1.4 million-person military—which he believes could be offset by better training service members to enter the workforce once they leave the military. In making his case, Bernanke specifically referenced the average unemployment rate of 7 percent for vets returning to the private sector, higher than the national average of 5.3 percent. If veterans were better able to contribute to the general economy once they separated from the service, America could more efficiently maintain a large military. The case that Bernanke is making might seem cold and removed, but it’s a characteristically unsentimental argument coming as it does from one of the nation’s top economists.
PaServes hopes to bridge veterans, area aid services (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
When military veterans need help finding work, job training or housing, they can schedule an appointment with the Veterans Leadership Program of Western Pennsylvania or walk in without an appointment at the nonprofit’s South Side offices. When veterans need assistance with issues the program is not formally trained to handle — such as education, mental health counseling or where to obtain food — it typically submits referrals to other veterans groups or human service agencies. Frequently its emails and phone calls go unanswered, leaving some veterans to navigate the complicated process of getting help on their own or to never get help at all, said Ben Stahl, the program’s chief operating officer. “It’s not through the fault of the other organizations; it’s just a capacity problem,” said Mr. Stahl, who served in the Navy for almost nine years. Mr. Stahl and officials at other veterans organizations are optimistic a new electronic referral network set to launch this week will help resolve the problem. The network, PAServes, will coordinate referrals in Allegheny, Butler and Westmoreland counties, where it estimates there are 140,100 veterans. Individuals may be referred for assistance through veteran service providers like the Veterans Leadership Program, or they may contact PAServes directly. Its website is PAServes.org and its toll-free number is 1-855-838-7744. The network currently includes 20-plus organizations that provide assistance, said Jean Coyne, director of intervention services for Mercy Community Health, a division of Pittsburgh Mercy Health System that is administering the network. The goal is eventually to have 40 to 50.
Ex-nursing home leader gets prison for stealing $300,000 from veteran (Atlanta Journal Constitution)
A former Georgia nursing home administrator is going to federal prison for stealing more than $300,000 in disability benefits from a Vietnam veteran who was a resident of the facility. Denise M. Bailey, 49, of Danielsville spent the money on personal expenses, including paying off family credit card bills, U.S. Attorney John Horn said Monday. The veteran, who was not identified, “…was not capable of managing his financial affairs,” said Special Agent in Charge Monty Stokes with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Horn said Bailey was the administrator at Azalea Gardens in Conyers, where one of the residents was a Vietnam veteran who needed long-term care after suffering a heart attack in 2006. The VA appointed Bailey the fiduciary for the veteran in December 2010, and she was to use any of the veterans benefits he was awarded only for his needs. On July 7, 2011, the VA awarded the veteran retroactive disability benefits in the amount of $313,452.37, which was deposited in an account held in the name of the veteran with Bailey as administrator, Horn said. Bailey drained the account within four days, he said. She transferred the money from that account to the Azalea Gardens account, then herself or accounts she controlled.