Lawmakers demand answers from VA on ‘shockingly unethical misuse of funds’ (Washington Post)
Senior members of Congress are investigating the case of two Veterans Affairs executives who abused their positions to get plum jobs and perks, part of a pattern of unjustified moving incentives and transfers identified by the agency’s watchdog. The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee has scheduled a hearing on the alleged abuses next Wednesday. And on Tuesday, the chairman, ranking member and two others on the Senate Committee that oversees the Department of Veterans Affairs called on Secretary Robert McDonald to hold the benefits executives accountable for what the lawmakers called a “shockingly unethical misuse of funds.” “Our committee confirmed your nomination to fundamentally overhaul and reform this struggling agency,” the senators wrote in a letter released Tuesday, signed by Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), top Democrat Sen. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) and Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.). “But, unfortunately, it is clear … that your well-intentioned and meaningful efforts to change the culture of VA have not yet taken hold.” The senators asked McDonald to document “any actions you are taking” to stop the practice of “inappropriate” job relocations and provide them with a plan to reform the approval and reimbursement process for relocations — in particular, a program where the government buys employees’ homes. They also demanded documentation of any federal personnel requirements that prohibit agencies from lowering the salaries of senior executives who are transferred to new jobs that carry less responsibility.
Poliquin bill would boost rural veteran health care access (Bangor Daily News)
Just hours before he was to visit with veterans and top officials for the Veterans Administration’s Vet Center programs, Maine’s 2nd District Rep. Bruce Poliquin announced he was introducing a bill aimed at helping rural veterans. Poliquin, a Republican, said Tuesday his bill, Helping Our Rural Veterans Receive Health Care Act, would allow hospitals outside the VA’s system to enter contracts to provide care for veterans through the system, giving veterans easier access to local care options. Poliquin’s legislation builds on a pilot program authorized by Congress in 2011 that tried the idea with five hospitals around the country. Because that program, dubbed Access Received Closer to Home, or ARCH, proved to be a “major success,” Poliquin said it was time to expand the program. “Maine is home to many Veterans who answered the ultimate call of duty to protect our freedoms and liberties,” Poliquin said in a prepared statement. “Forty percent of the 22 million veterans in the United States live in rural areas. That’s why I introduced the Helping Our Rural Veterans Receive Health Care Act to help make the ARCH program permanent and expand the program to more rural hospitals across the country.” Poliquin said by allowing rural hospitals to enter pre-negotiated contracts with the VA, more rural veterans and their families will receive the benefits and health care they deserve.
Lockheed Martin to upgrade system for post-9/11 veterans educational benefits (MarketWatch)
Improvements to the system used to process veteran benefits will soon ensure that recently transitioned veterans and eligible spouses will have access to money for continuing education. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has awarded a contract that will advance the reliability of their Chapter 33 (CH33) system to Systems Made Simple, a Lockheed Martin company. CH33 was established after the GI Bill was updated in June 2008 when the United States Congress passed the Post 9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act. This program gave educational assistance for members of the armed forces who served on or after September 11, 2001. “Having supported CH33 for more than five years, our organization has a strong awareness of the requirements and stakeholder needs of this program,” said Horace Blackman, vice president, Health & Life Sciences at Lockheed Martin. “Lockheed Martin is proud to be able to continue our partnership with the VA and provide our nation’s veterans the services they deserve in the most timely, efficient way possible.” Since the program’s inception, the VA has delivered more than $41 billion in benefits for 1.2 million beneficiaries to advance education and career readiness using IT developed and supported by the Office of Information & Technology. Congress continually adds or adjusts CH33 benefits, requiring changes to the IT systems used to process payments.
Governor signs Jackson bill to support wounded warriors (Noozhawk)
A bill by Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) to help wounded veterans transition from military service to the state workforce has been signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown. Senate Bill 221, the California Wounded Warriors Transitional Leave Act, will give new state employees who are disabled veterans up to 96 hours of sick leave during their first year in the state workforce to attend medical and VA appointments during work hours without having to take unpaid leave. “I’m very pleased that the Governor has signed this bill into law. Many of our veterans are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with disabilities and health issues that need medical attention,” said Jackson. “I believe these veterans should be able to access the care they need without hesitation, and without jeopardizing their livelihoods or having to miss these important appointments. It’s the least we owe them,” she said. “This bill is an important way to show our continued commitment to these brave men and women who have served our country, while also ensuring we have a healthy and productive state workforce.” The bill had the support of numerous veterans organizations, including the California chapters of the American Legion, AMVETS, Military Officers Association of America, the VFW, and the Vietnam Veterans of America. “SB 221 will allow state-employed veterans to seek treatment for their service-related disability without having to worry about using up their regular sick leave allotment when they first start to work for the state,” said Pete Conaty, a veteran and advocate for these organizations. The bill, which takes effect Jan. 1, 2016, would apply to state employees hired on or after Jan. 1, 2016, and who are 30 percent or more disabled as determined by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Indiana giving military veterans a second chance (The Brazil Times)
Indiana has recently joined a growing number of states offering many first offender military service veterans a second chance. This past legislative session Indiana lawmakers included enabling legislation and funding in the budget bill to help formally expand veteran’s treatment courts. “The Military Veterans Coalition of Indiana and our partners thank Senators Zakas and Kenley and others by including enabling language and some funding in this past session’s budget bill,” states Lisa Wilken, Women’s Liaison, AMVETS Indiana and Assistant Legislative Director, AMVETS Indiana. “This is a good start and we look forward to working on expansion around the state.” … “These young veterans are returning home and most need help finding decent paying jobs with benefits,” said Zach McIlwain, with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).. “Unfortunately for a few their transition from the military back to civilian life has its challenges, and the Veteran’s Treatment Court offers that needed second chance to these deserving Hoosier Heroes”
Court program helps faltering vets reverse spiral (News4Jax)
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) – More than a year after flying into a rage at a Fowler Avenue gas station, where he pointed a gun at a clerk, insulted the man’s ethnicity and later fired shots into the air, Clay Allred stood ramrod straight in a Tampa courtroom, ticking off the things he has accomplished during the past few months. He completed mental health counseling. He logged more than the required number of community service hours. And he has stayed away from alcohol. In another courtroom, those accomplishments wouldn’t have meant as much. But on this Friday, Allred, a former Green Beret staff sergeant, was appearing in Hillsborough County’s Veterans Treatment Court, where the steps he’s taken mean the difference between prison time on felony charges and house arrest. A little more than six months ago, Allred, 30, would have been on the regular court docket, facing 20 years in prison for his crimes. But thanks to an expansion in February of the 2-year-old Veterans Treatment Court to include people accused of certain felonies, Allred has a chance to turn his life around under a strict program requiring a far greater commitment to self-help than the regular court system. The Veterans Treatment Court was launched in October 2013 by county Circuit Judge Richard Weis, a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves, who saw a steady stream of misdemeanor charges filed against veterans suffering from service-related mental illness, traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. In February, the program was expanded to include people like Allred who are accused of felonies. The underlying issues are the same, says Circuit Judge Gregory P. Holder, a retired Air Force colonel who now runs the program. More than 50 veterans charged with felonies and misdemeanors are now enrolled. The court relies on services provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs, as well as a therapist specializing in post-traumatic stress issues, a collegial atmosphere between prosecutors and defenders and a team of several dozen military veterans serving as mentors. The goal, Holder says, is to get veterans out of the vicious cycle of crime and punishment and to end veteran homelessness in the county by the end of the year.
State’s forgotten veterans laid to rest with honors (Albuquerque Journal)
Twenty-eight deceased veterans may have died without relatives or close friends, but on Tuesday they were honored by their brothers and sisters in arms. The New Mexico Department of Veterans’ Services Forgotten Heroes Program honored 27 men and one woman who fought in the Vietnam or Korean wars and whose ashes went unclaimed in Bernalillo County. This is the largest number of unclaimed veterans interred at the Santa Fe National Cemetery at one time since the program started in 2010. Even though the deceased had no relatives present, hundreds of veterans paid respects, and dozens of Legion Riders escorted the urns from Albuquerque to the cemetery. Gov. Susana Martinez gave the eulogy. “There are some that might say that these men and this woman were forgotten, but they weren’t,” state Veterans’ Services Secretary Jack Fox told the congregation. “Their brothers and their sisters escorted them here today. New Mexico has vowed that no veteran will ever go to their final rest without being recognized and without being honored.”
Parrots and veterans heal one another at Serenity Park (Huffington Post)
It’s no secret that the United States has a lot of work to do when it comes to properly supporting its veterans. Many return home only to receive inadequate mental and physical healthcare, if they receive any at all. Even when they’re suffering from issues like PTSD or depression, veterans might find it difficult to locate help or find a way to supplement their treatment in a meaningful and beneficial fashion. There are tens of thousands of homeless veterans living on the streets, seemingly abandoned by the government they swore to serve. It’s a serious and under-reported issue that doesn’t show much promise of improving unless sweeping changes are made. In the meantime, many of America’s veterans are on their own when it comes to finding help. Fortunately, there are a number of different grassroots campaigns specifically designed to give veterans the support they deserve. These programs cover a wide range of industries, but their intent is the same: to help America’s veterans cope with being back home in the face of depression, PTSD, survivor’s guilt, addiction, and physical wounds. Some of the most successful of these programs revolve around animals. You’ve probably heard that animals can help heal a whole heap of ailments. You might have even expressed the popular sentiment that rescued animals save their humans just as often as their humans save them. What kind of animal do you picture when thinking about these mutually-beneficial relationships? Dogs and cats are probably the most common answer — but they are far from the only option. Did you know that parrots and veterans have a lot in common? … Sometimes the goodwill of others can create something truly incredible, and this certainly holds true in the case of the Serenity Park Parrot Sanctuary. Established by noted psychologist Lorin Lindner, Serenity Park Parrot Sanctuary is an exotic bird rescue that is located on the campus of the West L.A. Department of Veterans Affairs. It’s a facility that has brought a lot of veterans hope and happiness by forging a seemingly unlikely bond between vets and the orphaned exotic birds residing within the sanctuary. It turns out that many individuals identify with the plight of the abandoned parrots, and this holds particularly true with veterans. Caring for parrots at the sanctuary also helps provide the structure and sense of accomplishment that are so important in life. The sanctuary has experienced a “huge success rate”, and the veterans who help care for the birds credit the facility for keeping them out of the hospital — or at least helping to diminish the number of trips. James Minick, a Navy veteran, works in the Serenity Park Parrot Sanctuary and says that when veterans see the birds, “there’s a connection. It’s like a smile from the inside, and it looks like some of these guys haven’t smiled in years.” Thanks to the success of the Serenity Park facility, The Veterans Administration and The Association for Parrot C.A.R.E. have worked together to help increase awareness about the program. They want to make the program a nationwide option, and have secured the funding — via donations and sponsors — to build eight new aviaries in L.A. This will allow the program to employ 30 more veterans currently on the waiting list.
VIDEO: Why Blackstone’s Schwarzman is hiring veterans (MSN)
Blackstone CEO Steve Schwarzman tells CNNMoney’s Cristina Alesci that hiring veterans has been good for the firm and veterans alike.