Veterans advocates say VA shrank backlog by redefining the backlog (Military.com)
Representatives for two of the largest veterans’ service organizations in the country say they’re pleased with the reductions the Veterans Affairs Department has made in its claims backlog but say part of the progress was done simply by redefining the backlog. “They’ve made substantial progress in this one area — you can’t say that there’s anything wrong with that — but what’s been wrong for the past two or three years is their definition of the workload and the backlog,” said Greg Manar, deputy director of National Veterans Service at the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Manar said that the VA decided that administrative claims — such as adding a spouse or dependent onto a claim application — would no longer be part of the backlog, a move that may have reduced what the VA then considered the backlog but immediately blew up the number of such claims taking longer than 125 days to process. “Today there are [about] 221,000” such claims awaiting action, he said, up from the typical 40,000 several years ago. “Why would they go up five times in the span of three years? Because they changed the process.” Such claims are now handled as a separate application, said Manar, whose view is shared by Louis Celli, director of the Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Division for The American Legion. “The Legion is extremely concerned about all claims currently in the backlog that need to be addressed,” not only the administrative claims but appeals as well, Celli said. VA Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey last week announced that the backlog had finally fallen below 100,000, down from a high of just over 600,000 in 2013.
Research spots link between Agent Orange, blood cancer in Vietnam vets (U.S. News & World Report)
Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange have a more than doubled risk of developing abnormal blood cells that can become cancerous, a new study suggests. The researchers found that U.S. Air Force vets who conducted aerial herbicide spray missions of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War had a 2.4 times increased risk of developing the blood disease known as monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS). The presence of MGUS in a person’s blood is a prerequisite for developing multiple myeloma, explained lead author Dr. Ola Landgren, a hematologist-oncologist and chief of the myeloma service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. “Most people who have MGUS will not develop multiple myeloma, but everyone who has myeloma first had MGUS,” Landgren said. About 30 percent of people with MGUS will develop multiple myeloma within 30 years, said Dr. Nikhil Munshi, director of basic and correlative science at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s Jerome Lipper Multiple Myeloma Center in Boston. Agent Orange is an herbicide sprayed during the Vietnam War to kill off trees and vegetation that the enemy used as cover. The military sprayed millions of gallons of Agent Orange and other herbicides during the war, mainly in an Air Force effort code-named “Operation Ranch Hand,” which ran from 1962 to 1971, according to background information in the study. Agent Orange contained two herbicides that, when blended, produced a dioxin called TCDD as an unwanted byproduct, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. TCDD is the most toxic of the dioxins and is classified as a proven carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The chemical concoction has been linked to a wide array of illnesses for which veterans can receive benefits, including multiple myeloma. However, until now there has been no scientific evidence to show how exposure to Agent Orange might cause a person to develop the blood cancer, Landgren said. To figure out the possible link, Landgren and his colleagues examined blood samples taken from 958 Vietnam veterans. These included 479 Operation Ranch Hand veterans who were involved in aerial herbicide spray missions, and 479 comparison veterans who were never exposed to Agent Orange. The study found that about 7 percent of Operation Ranch Hand veterans had developed MGUS, which is a condition in which plasma cells produce an abnormal protein in the blood. But only 3 percent of unexposed veterans had developed MGUS. The analysis also revealed that Operation Ranch Hand veterans were more likely to have higher levels of TCDD in their blood, and that their risk of MGUS increased as their TCDD levels increased.
The American veterans who fight ISIS (The Wall Street Journal)
Bruce Windorski could hear Islamic State fighters taunting him as he peered down the moonlit Syrian village street early this year. Their voices were getting louder, and their aim seemed to be getting better. The 40-year-old former Army Ranger from Wisconsin reached into his bag of semi-reliable grenades, chose one, pulled the pin and tossed it over the wall. There was a blast, he says, and the jeers came to an abrupt halt. “It was definitely a satisfying event.” But the battle continued for days. As militants closed in one night, Jamie Lane, a Marine combat veteran who had traveled from California to fight, wondered if they would make it out alive. “We’re holding our ground,” he says quietly in a video he took in the pitch dark as gunfire crackles. “I imagine it will go until dawn.” The men are part of an unusual fringe of American veterans joining the war against Islamic State. They go, even as their president and Pentagon leaders strive to keep U.S. forces out of the ground war. Mr. Windorski and Mr. Lane, 29, joined other Westerners going into combat alongside the Kurdish fighters who have proved to be one of the most effective forces confronting Islamic State. They met fighters from America and England, Greece and Australia, Israel and Iran. No one has good numbers, but the Federal Bureau of Investigation estimates fewer than 100 Americans have gone to fight Islamic State, also known as ISIS. Still, as military veterans hear of the route to the front lines, more are going, says Lu Lobello, a Marine combat veteran in Las Vegas who has helped some join the battle. “America is not fighting Islamic State,” he says, “but Americans are.”
VBA didn’t always protect benefits of vulnerable vets, IG says (Fierce Government)
The Veterans Benefits Administration didn’t protect the benefits of hundreds of veterans who weren’t able to manage their own affairs, according to a Veterans Affairs Department inspector general report. The VA runs its Fiduciary Program to protect VA beneficiaries who, due to injury, disease or age, are unable to manage their benefits. Under the program, the VA-appointed fiduciary receives and disburses VA benefits on behalf of the beneficiary, the report says. As of July 2014, VBA reported providing fiduciary services to more than 147,000 beneficiaries in fiscal 2013 who received more than $2.6 billion in VA benefits. However, the program doesn’t always work, the audit says. The IG projects that in calendar year 2013, VBA didn’t ensure the protection of 758 beneficiaries who received a combined $45.2 million in VA benefits. VBA also did not take action to restore $2.1 million of misused funds that it discovered. The VBA did a better job in the instances where it found misused VA benefits. Generally, VBA was timely in removing fiduciaries from individual beneficiaries where misuse was determined. The IG identified two fiduciaries in the sample whom VBA determined misused a beneficiary’s funds. They were removed in each case, but then allowed to continue to manage the combined estates of 48 other beneficiaries, IG says. The 48 beneficiaries’ estate values totaled just under $947,000. “Unless VBA ensures actions taken are timely and according to policy, VBA may not adequately protect approximately $16 million in annual benefits payments or $80 million during calendar years 2014 through 2018,” the report says.
Report faults VA management for Colorado hospital failures (The Denver Post)
An Army Corps of Engineers report concludes that the poor choice and use of an unfamiliar contracting method was the primary factor in busting the budget of a veterans hospital in Aurora, Colo., by a billion dollars. The Corps report was released Thursday as Sloan Gibson, deputy secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, made his 10th visit to the construction site and again expressed confidence that the hospital will be completed. The report cited the “myriad challenges” the Aurora VA hospital faced, from changing plans and designs to chaotic management and long delays in processing requests for change orders, which led to construction delays. But “the single biggest driver of cost and schedule delays is unquestionably the fundamental mismanagement of Integrated Design and Construction (IDC) methodology,” the Corps reported, which resulted in a breach of the construction contract and a shutdown last December. The Denver Post identified the IDC contract — a method the VA had never used to complete a major project — as a key problem three months ago. An investigation by The Post published in August, however, found there were other factors, including a 2011 agreement between the agency and its contractor making the VA responsible for a design that could be built for $604 million. The project cost has soared to $1.67 billion, and the hospital is not expected to open for at least two more years. In theory, the IDC contracting method is used to select a contractor early in the design phase to help review costs. But in Aurora, the VA hired its design team years before selecting Kiewit-Turner as the general contractor. Hospital construction restarted soon after Kiewit-Turner won a contract breach case and shut down the site. But the project has survived ever since on short-term gulps of capital from a disgruntled Congress.
Tomah VA director fired after over-prescription reports (The Military Times)
The director of the Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center has been fired, becoming the second top official ousted amid reports of over-medication practices at the facility. Acting director John Rohrer sent an email to employees Wednesday stating only that Mario DeSanctis is no longer employed by the VA, the La Crosse Tribune reported Thursday. The VA did not immediately say whether DeSanctis was fired or quit, but U.S. Rep. Ron Kind’s office told the newspaper that Kind was informed he had been “let go.” DeSanctis was reassigned last March to another position outside the medical center, at the Great Lakes Health Care System network office. Tomah VA spokesman Matthew Gowan said the search for a new director would begin immediately. DeSanctis, an Air Force veteran who took over leadership of the west-central Wisconsin center in 2012, is the second Tomah VA official to depart amid reports of excessive opioid prescriptions being written there. Last month, the VA’s inspector general said deficiencies in care led to the mixed drug toxicity death last year of Jason Simcakoski, a 35-year-old Marine Corps veteran from Stevens Point. The investigation found that psychiatrists did not discuss with him or his family the hazards of a synthetic opiate he was prescribed, acted too slowly when he was found unresponsive, and did not have anti-overdose medicine on hand. One physician who attended to him was fired. Citing staff shortages, the Tomah VA announced last week it would temporarily close its inpatient psychiatric unit, halt psychiatric admissions to a residential treatment center and permanently curtail urgent care hours. In the meantime, any Tomah area veteran requiring psychiatric treatment will be transferred to VA facilities in Madison and Milwaukee, or to non-VA hospitals. A VA report earlier this year concluded that patients at Tomah facility were more likely than patients at other VA hospitals to receive high doses of pain killers. The report also said there was an atmosphere of fear among staff members that affected patient care.
VA’s record of waste, fraud and abuse keeps piling up (The Washington Times)
The federal agency entrusted to stretch tax dollars as far as they can go to get veterans the best medical care, in fact, has a hard time spending tax dollars wisely. Over the last year, the Department of Veterans Affairs has been repeatedly cited for waste, fraud, abuse and theft that took valuable tax dollars away from veterans, many who are still waiting in long backlogs to get benefits decisions. The examples are jaw-dropping, starting with the a memo that surfaced in March by the VA’s chief procurement officer, Jan. R. Frye, who went public with a stunning admission that the VA likely wastes $6 billion a year on unnecessary contracts, purchases and services. “Doors are swung wide open for fraud, waste and abuse,” Mr. Frye, the deputy assistant secretary for acquisition and logistics, wrote in a whistleblower letter that made national headlines. The examples backing up Mr. Frye’s claims just keep piling up:
• The VA’s inspector general reported that the agency’s human resources department wasted $6.1 million on two conferences in Orlando, Florida, that treated employees more to vacation than to training.
• The inspector general also divulged in that report that department officials wasted $97,906 on trinkets like bags, pens and water that were unnecessary. VA employees also improperly accepted gifts including room upgrades, meals, limousine services, golf, spa services, helicopter rides and tickets to see the Rockettes.
• In July, an employee at the Rhode Island Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Exeter pled guilty to stealing 150 marble headstones from a veterans cemetery in a scheme that went unnoticed for a long time.
• In June, a former head engineer at the VA hospital in East Orange, New Jersey, was accused of taking $1.2 million in kickbacks for contracts, which fleeced taxpayers.
• The VA’s inspector general found last month that the Veterans Benefits Administration mismanaged millions of dollars in benefits for veterans who were unable to manage their own income and estates due to age, injury or disability. Among the woes cited in the report was a failure to remove two custodians who had misspent benefit funds.
• In testimony before Congress in May, Mr. Frye cited reports that VA employees in the Bronx in New York City had swiped charge cards 2,000 times, saying they were buying prosthetic legs and arms for veterans. Each charge was for $24,999, one dollar below the VA’s charging limit for purchase cards. When lawmakers demanded details about the charges, they were told there was no documentation.
VA Choice Card money misused, according to lawmaker (KJRH-Tulsa)
Weeks after a veteran was made to wait to undergo heart surgery, Congressman Jim Bridenstine says he knows the reason for the stall. Martin Potter is an Air Force veteran who recently discovered an aneurism on his heart. He is currently recovering but not before the Department of Veteran Affairs had him wait six weeks to have the life-saving surgery. “I told one of the fellows at the VA, I said, you know it was great when you needed us to go into the military but now we’re out and we’re getting older, nobody cares,” said Potter. Congressman Jim Bridenstine says the reasons for Potter’s delay all stem from the VA and its misuse of funds. Congress gave the Department of Veteran Affairs three billion dollars for the Veterans Choice Card program. The Choice Cards cover non-VA expenses, like Potters surgery, but the VA spent the three billion on other VA services, not on the choice card. “In other words, they intentionally did not use that money for the Veterans Choice Card. Then they come back to Congress, when the Veterans Choice Cards aren’t working and they say, ‘We need you to give us more money.’ This was against the law. They took the money and they used it for something that it wasn’t intended for,” said Congressman Jim Bridenstine. Potter finally got his surgery last Friday and is recovering with his best friend that’s been by his side for 58 years, his wife Helen. “I told him. I said let’s try for 60,” said Helen. Potter thinks that’s a good plan. Meanwhile, Congressman Bridenstine wants Congress and the President to hold the VA accountable for violating the law. Also, Congressman Mullin has been working on reducing red tape to speed up treatment for veterans. Both Congressman Bridenstine and Mullin have veteran caseworkers who assist veterans with cases. If you have an issue or know of a veteran who needs assistance, the Congressman ask that you call their local offices.
Army base declines to release records of University of Phoenix concert (Reveal.com)
Fort Campbell officials have declined to immediately release public documents that could shed light on an agreement between the U.S. Army base in Kentucky and the University of Phoenix for a concert featuring country rapper Big Smo. A Reveal investigation published in June found that last year’s concert was part of a recruitment strategy for the for-profit school, the country’s biggest benefactor of the GI Bill – federal education funds for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. The event sidestepped recruitment restrictions initiated by President Barack Obama in 2012 to prevent predatory practices by for-profit colleges on military bases. The University of Phoenix paid the military $25,000 to sponsor the October concert, according to records previously obtained by Reveal through the Freedom of Information Act. Reveal also filed a FOIA request seeking a copy of the so-called MWR agreement between the school and the base. MWR refers to programs that contribute to the morale, welfare and recreation of military personnel. But in a letter dated Aug. 7, an information officer said the school was notified of the request “to afford them an opportunity to object to disclosure of any information your (sic) requested.” It was signed by Valerie M. Florez, a freedom of information and privacy act officer at Fort Campbell. “The information in the contract may contain financial data or other information the contractors may object to disclosure,” the letter said. University officials were given 30 days to respond, and Florez said the base would get back to Reveal by Sept. 30.
Vision for a new VFW: An off-the-wall partnership (Military Times)
A new group of young, Denver-area veterans is harnessing creative powers to find direction and healing from the destructive grip of war. Their energy in what has been dubbed the Art of War Project is, in turn, helping to transform one of the oldest veterans organizations in the nation. Like a circle, that old veterans group — Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1, formed in 1899 and the genesis of today’s VFW — provides safe harbor to the artist-warriors as each continues to infuse the other with a new sense of life, vitality and purpose. And it’s all the result of three simple suggestions.