October 1 Veterans News

October 1 Veterans News

Veterans news updateVA apologizes for ‘ill-advised’ ban on veterans’ cellphones (Fox News)
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) apologized on Wednesday for temporarily implementing what it called an “ill-advised” policy at some medical centers that banned veterans from bringing cellphones to appointments, according to a statement provided by the VA to the Washington Free Beacon. Photographs emerged earlier this week showing official signs at VA medical facilities stating that a veteran would have his or her appointment cancelled if they bring with them a cellphone. The photos, first published on the blog Disabled Veterans, depict of a list of “prohibited items.” Included within that list, along with guns, knives, and backpacks, is a photo of an iPhone. “If brought to your appointment [these items] will result in the cancelation of your exam(s),” reads the flyer, which bears the VA’s official logo and slogan, “Defining Excellence in the 21st Century.” These flyers were included in appointment packages to veterans, according to a VA official who spoke to the Free Beacon and disclosed that the flyers would be “immediately discontinued.” “The flyer included in Veterans’ Compensation and Pension (C&P) appointment letters at the VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System’s (ECHCS) Golden community based outpatient clinic were ill-advised,” The VA official said in a statement. Exams will not be cancelled if a phone is brought to a C&P appointment, the official made clear.

VA urged to favor veterans on toxic exposure claims (Military Times)
The Veterans Affairs Department must learn to favor veterans when deciding whether to approve claims for illnesses related to environmental exposures and contaminants, senators said during a Tuesday hearing on Capitol Hill. From the South China Sea to the Arabian Desert, from Iraq to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and elsewhere, service members have been exposed to pollutants that have harmed their health, yet the VA continues to engage in “passive-aggressive rebuttal of scientific findings” to deny them health care and compensation, charged Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C. Speaking to the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Burr implored its members to increase their oversight of the VA’s handling of toxic exposure claims, adding that while he is encouraged by VA Secretary Bob McDonald’s recent efforts to improve the department’s understanding of exposure-related illnesses, more needs to be done. “To this day I remain appalled at the way the United States government has treated these families,” Burr said, speaking of the more than 1 million residents of Camp Lejeune who consumed contaminated drinking water at the installation from the mid-1950s through 1987. “Our government rewarded them for their service by negligently poisoning them.” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., have sponsored a bill, the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act, which would grant benefits to hundreds of thousands of sailors who served on aircraft carriers, destroyers and other large Navy ships in the waters off Vietnam and have illnesses associated with exposure to the toxic defoliant Agent Orange. The VA provides compensation and care for veterans who served in the “brown water” Navy — small boats and crafts that patrolled rivers and inland waterways — but does not acknowledge exposure among many veterans who served on the larger vessels at sea. The VA argues that those sailors were not directly exposed and therefore, their illnesses are not service-connected. The Institute of Medicine released a study in 2011 saying there is not enough information to determine whether these “blue water” veterans were exposed to Agent Orange. But Gillibrand cited an Australian Veterans Affairs Department study that found its vets were exposed to Agent Orange when its ships distilled seawater contaminated with the herbicide for onboard use. She said blue water veterans are suffering needlessly as a result of “arbitrary bureaucracy.”

VFW: VA turned ‘blind eye’ to insurer profiteering off survivors (Military.com)
One of the country’s largest veterans’ organizations says it has uncovered proof that that the Veterans Affairs Department agreed to an insurance policy payout system that gave Prudential Insurance Co. an edge in holding onto survivor’s money rather than pay it out in a lump sum. A 2009 document shows that that VA allowed Prudential to pay benefits in the form of an account that survivors could draw on rather than a single payment, as the law governing Service Group Life Insurance and Veterans Group Life Insurance required. “The documents speak for themselves, and they show that Prudential initiated this program for the money that could be gained, not to help grieving military families — and the VA knew all about it,” VFW National Commander John A. Biedrzycki Jr. said. “For an insurance company to profit off the dead is sickening, but for our own government to turn a blind eye to profiteering is something entirely else.” A spokesperson for the department didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Among the 3,600 pages of documents acquired by the VFW is one detailing a plan wherein account managers were encouraged to increase earnings by holding onto control of client — that is beneficiary — money. The document includes a subtitle stating “It’s About Money,” Biedrzycki said in a statement Tuesday. Another document reveals Prudential trained personnel on how to deal with survivors who insist on a lump-sum payout rather than leaving the money with Prudential and drawing on it in much the same way they would a savings or checking account. Biedrzycki is calling for an independent investigation into the Prudential/VA arrangement and for the SGLI and VGLI contracts to be awarded to another company.

Calls for accountability after VA misconduct report (KARE-Minneapolis)
More calls for accountability are being made, including on the U.S. Senate floor, following a report of Veterans Affairs misconduct. On Monday, the VA’s office of Inspector General recommended possible criminal prosecution of Kim Graves, Director of the VA’s St Paul Regional Benefits office. The VA’s own investigation claims that Graves and Diana Rubens, a former Deputy Under Secretary in the Department of Veterans Affairs “… inappropriately used their positions of authority for personal and financial benefit …” The two women are accused of using their power to create job openings for themselves with less responsibility – but the same high salaries. Graves is also accused of improperly claiming $129,468 in relocation benefits. “This conduct documented in the Inspector General’s report is unacceptable and further erodes the public’s trust in the VA,” said Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar on Wednesday. “The VA needs to do right by our veterans and taxpayers by holding bad actors accountable and implementing reforms to prevent exploitation like this from ever happening again.” Also Wednesday, the Minnesota American Legion asked that the alleged wrongdoing be investigated and those responsible be held legally accountable. “There has been a pattern of lapses in judgment, verging on illegal activity, that could cause Minnesota veterans to lose faith in the system,” said Randy Tesdahl, Department Adjutant of the Minnesota American Legion. “This can no longer be business as usual. The leadership and judgment of the VA is in question. We would ask that the VA take an aggressive stance in addressing these problems, and in letting veterans know what they doing to make it better.” Congressman Tim Walz expects “those who violated the law to be prosecuted to the fullest extent.

VA to OSC: We substantiated allegations of whistleblower driven out of her job (Daily Caller)
The Department of Veterans Affairs medical facility in Albuquerque, N.M., has just substantiated the first set of allegations made by whistleblower Vanessa Lech, who was driven out of her job in retaliation for reporting her supervisor’s misconduct in addition to concerns about patient and staff safety. In communication with the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), an independent government agency tasked with protecting employees from retaliation, the VA noted that Lech was right: there was a serious and pervasive problem of unsecured, unlocked doors, which now seems to be fixed. Lech viewed a lack of access controls as a major concern because it allowed mentally unstable veterans with a potential for behavioral problems to wander into staff areas. One particular building where this happened on a regular basis did not even have a security desk or reception. The VA said that it secured all doors in the basement, as well as multiple access points on the first, second and third floors. Police officers are now tasked with conducting a walkthrough twice a day during regular hours. After regular hours, officers will re-check the building and all doors. At this point, the VA has substantiated half of all the safety violations Lech mentioned. That substantiation has occurred countless months after Lech first brought up her concerns to OSC in February and was retaliated against by her supervisor. The investigation is still ongoing, and the current findings did not mention the chronic shortage of vehicles needed for social workers to transport veterans. It also declined to mention safety problems with the vehicles themselves. In one case, the brakes on one of the vehicles failed while Lech was driving. A mechanic’s report later showed that the brakes were 95 percent worn. Lech’s Equal Employment Opportunity claim, which alleges sexual harassment and all manner of retaliation, including false accusations of violating regulations, has not been answered. OSC has granted the VA two extensions to complete its investigation. The new due date for the second extension is Oct. 26.  The generally accepted number of extensions is three.

Whistleblower cites rampant nepotism at VA (The Washington Examiner)
Shea Wilkes, a Department of Veterans Affairs clinical worker in Louisiana, confirmed to the Washington Examiner that the VA is rife with nepotism and cronyism, a claim other disgruntled VA workers have made over the last year. Wilkes said all he ever wanted to do was serve in the U.S. Armed Forces, and help veterans. But he said soon after he started working at the VA in 2007, he noticed the agency’s corrupt hiring practices. “I started noticing the hiring practices were kind of … I was like, I don’t think they did this right,” he said. “It was just a shame,” he said. “Weren’t giving veterans preference, they know how to manipulate those masterfully.”  “That’s why there’s such a big thing of cronyism, which is basically one of the major problems in the VA,” he added. “You have poor leadership from top to bottom, and those leaders have taught those under them the wrong way to do things.” He said his local VA office is filled with connected “good ol’ boys.” “To be honest, they’re incompetent,” he said. “A lot of the reasons there’s problems is they’re incompetent.”

UCLA partners with VA to bring cancer trials to veterans (KPCC-Pasadena)
Veterans with cancer have had a tough time accessing experimental drugs through the Veterans Administration health care system, but that’s about to change under a new partnership with UCLA, the university and the federal agency announced Wednesday. The pair have joined forces to provide veterans with access to clinical cancer trials through a program that will bring UCLA doctors from the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center to the VA’s West Los Angeles campus. The $440,000 two-year project is being funded by UCLA’s Ronald A. Katz Center for Collaborative Military Medicine and Operation Mend, which operates other programs in collaboration with the VA. Until now, clinical trials were not available at the VA and it was hard for veterans to enroll in them at non-VA hospitals, said Dr. Fairooz Kabbinavar, a UCLA oncologist who is co-leader of the new program. “Veterans like any other patient need more options at their disposal,” he said. “The only way I know of accessing novel drugs is through clinical trials.” Program officials say this is the first partnership of its kind. Doctors intend to focus on common cancers among veterans. According to the VA and UCLA, veterans tend to have a higher risk for certain kinds of cancers such as head and neck, lung and liver cancer. The causes include higher rates of smoking and blood transfusions done before donated blood was tested for infections such as hepatitis C, Kabbinavar said. He said the West Los Angeles VA sees about 150 cases each of liver and lung cancer and about 100 head and neck cancers annually. And many of those cancers are diagnosed late, he said. “Advanced cancer patients don’t have time on their side,” he said. “This is a great way of accessing new drugs for cancers that may have exhausted available options.” Doctors hope the program will become self-sustaining and serve as a model for cancer care for veterans nationwide. It will be open to all veterans receiving care through the Greater L.A. VA, including those treated at the Long Beach and Loma Linda facilities.

Measuring how military service affects women’s longevity, overall health (SCOPE)
Despite the large numbers of women who serve in the military, there is a dearth of information about their postmenopausal health risks and how military service might impact their longevity. Now comes a study of more than 3,700 female veterans, led by a Stanford-affiliated psychologist, which is the first to examine the postmenopausal health of women veterans who participated in the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) and who, given their ages, likely served in World War II or the Korean War. The study, which was published online yesterday in the appears online in the journal Women’s Health Issues, shows these women have higher all-cause mortality rates than non-veterans, even though their risks for heart disease, cancer, diabetes and hip fractures were found to be the same. “The findings underscore the salience of previous military service as a critical factor in understanding women’s postmenopausal health and mortality risk, and the value of comparing women veterans to appropriately selected groups of non-veteran women, rather than benchmarking their health against that of the general public. It also reminds us of the importance of including women veterans in research,” said Julie Weitlauf, PhD, the study’s lead author and a clinical associate professor (affiliated) of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the School of Medicine. The Women’s Health Initiative is one of the most comprehensive research initiatives undertaken on the post-menopausal health of women, involving more than 160,000 women, including nearly 4,000 veterans. Women can only serve in the military if they are deemed to be in good health, and military service stresses physical activity and many other elements of a healthy lifestyle, thus contributing to the concept of a “healthy soldier effect,” Weitlauf said. That explains why research typically shows that veterans, including women, have better health and lower mortality risk than non-veterans from the general public, she said. While the women in the study, most of whom who were likely military nurses, were probably very fit and healthy during their time of service, this effect may not be sustained throughout their lifetimes. Veterans, particularly nurses who served during the earlier wars of this century, could have been exposed to many military occupational hazards, including infectious diseases; environmental exposures, such as second-hand smoke and other toxins; military sexual trauma; and forms of secondary trauma exposure that may result from treating wounded soldiers, as well as exposure to other trauma-related incidents, she said.

Record-keeping at St. Louis VA mental facility draws IG criticism (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
A new Inspector General’s report says an employee at the St. Louis Veterans Affairs Health Care System’s mental health area wrongly listed the status of patient consults “completed” before patients had seen a psychiatrist, bolstering a whistleblower’s claims of lax practices at the facility. “We substantiated the allegation that the St. Louis VA HCS inappropriately changed the status of consults to ‘Complete’ prior to the provider actually completing the appointment with the patient,” the OIG report obtained Wednesday said. The acting director of the St. Louis VA agreed with the report. She said the incorrect record-keeping was done by just one employee, and that employee was “removed from the consult group on June 20, 2014.” The acting director, Patricia Ten Haaf, also said the VA’s St. Louis Health Care system “will ensure scheduling staff receive appropriate training and guidance on proper consult management.” That mental health clinic nurse in charge of consult management, who was not named, told OIG investigators that “he never received formal training or the policy on consult management,” the report says. Inappropriately recorded consults for appointments where a patient doesn’t show up or the clinic cancels the appointment “increases the risk that veterans may become lost in the system if they missed their consult appointment,” according to the report. The VA has been besieged by allegations of long patient waiting lines, improper record-keeping and bureaucratic incompetence, and it has been the subject of numerous congressional probes. The St. Louis VA system has been further hampered because it has not been able to find a permanent director.

Veterans hospital approved for completion (The New York Times)
Congress has approved a deal to let the Veterans Affairs Department complete a long-delayed and over-budget medical center outside Denver. The department can now shift the $625 million it needs to finish the hospital from elsewhere in its budget after a series of votes on Wednesday in the House and the Senate. The deal also turns over big construction projects to the Army Corps of Engineers because lawmakers did not trust the veterans department to manage them. The Denver-area hospital is expected to cost nearly $1.7 billion, almost triple last year’s estimate. A Corps of Engineers study blamed the overruns on multiple design changes and a decision by V.A. officials to use a complicated contract process they did not fully understand.

N.Y. law clinic appeals veterans’ discharges, denied benefits (The Washington Times)
The new legal aid clinic for military veterans at Syracuse University College of Law has taken on dozens of appeals of denied benefits and less than honorable discharges. The free clinic began handling cases this year, established by two graduates, both now in the military, to meet the large unmet need they saw. It has 64 current cases and another 84 awaiting records from the Veterans Administration and service branches, director Yelena Duterte said. Most clients are from upstate New York, though it’s open to any veteran, Duterte said. “Because of the need, I’ve opened up the geography,” she said. There are 35 other clinics at law schools around the U.S. that focus on veterans, ranging from Yale in Connecticut to Baylor in Texas and including the State University of New York at Buffalo. In Syracuse, the new clinic has also referred many veterans to the law school’s clinics that handle family, criminal and other legal issues.