VA fails to meet its own deadline for reducing claims backlog (Washington Free Beacon)
The Department of Veterans Affairs has failed to meet its self-imposed deadline for reducing the backlog of disability claims to zero. In January 2013, when the agency was led by Secretary Eric Shinseki, promised that the count of unresolved claims 125 days old or older would be whittled down to zero by Sept. 30, 2015, the end of the fiscal year. As of Sept. 28, over 75,000 disability claims were still backlogged. When the count of backlogged claims stood at about 125,000 in July of this year, the agency walked back that initial promise, suggesting that Shinseki had meant to fix the deadline at the end of the calendar year, Dec. 31. Officials also say that the date was never intended as a firm deadline. Allison Hickey, a VA official, has suggested that the agency will never eliminate the backlog of its oldest claims. “Zero for us is not an absolute zero,” Hickey said in August when the backlog was reduced to just under 100,000 unresolved claims from a peak of well over 600,000 in March 2013. While the VA has touted its claims reduction, reports have surfaced of regional VA offices across the country manipulating and shredding records. For instance, employees at a Philadelphia VA center in 2014 were found to have manipulated claims data. More recently, an employee at a Houston VA center was discovered to have altered nearly 100 claims to meet management goals. The VA inspector general in August discovered staffers at a Los Angeles center shredding mail from veterans regarding disability claims. As a result, the VA has launched at least 10 investigations into benefit data manipulation at facilities nationwide. Dan Caldwell, a former Marine and the legislative and political director at Concerned Veterans for America, told reporters Thursday to take the VA’s alleged claims reduction “with a grain of salt.” “You really have to call into question their real success,” Caldwell said.
Senate Democrats block VA budget bill (Military Times)
Senate Democrats on Thursday blocked plans for a nearly $164 billion Veterans Affairs Department budget for fiscal 2016 over objections to Republicans’ overarching spending plans and a lack of progress on a compromise budget deal. The procedural move follows similar decisions to stall the fiscal 2016 defense appropriations bill earlier this year and echoes President Obama’s pledge to veto any budget measure that does not repeal mandatory spending caps looming over all federal operations. Republicans decried the move as playing politics at the expense of veterans. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called it “one more example of Democrats preventing us from doing our business.” The VA appropriations bill, which also includes military construction funds, would have provided a 3 percent budget increase for the new fiscal year. It’s another spending boost for the department, which has seen its total budget nearly triple since the late 1990s. But the ongoing budget fight has less to do with the specifics of that bill than with the larger Republican budget plans, which leave in place spending caps on a host of non-defense agencies but get around limits on defense spending by adding $38 billion to temporary war funding that falls outside the scope of the regular defense budget. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called that “a gimmick for short-term funding” and blamed Republicans for refusing to advance responsible budget plans. The VA budget is not subject to the spending caps. But just before Thursday’s vote, the White House reiterated plans for a veto of the VA spending measure as currently written. Obama “has been clear that he is not willing to lock in sequestration going forward, nor will he accept fixes to defense without also fixing non-defense,” officials said in a statement.
The number 22: Is there a ‘false narrative’ for vet suicide? (NPR.org)
A single number has shaped the way that Americans think about young military veterans. It’s the number 22, as in, 22 vets take their lives each day. The number has become a rallying cry for advocates trying to call attention to suicide among vets, especially those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Twenty-two, not some vague, rounded-off number. Not 30, not 20. Twenty-two. A number so specific it inspires action. Speeches, fundraisers, marches and even walks clear across the country. But 22 doesn’t quite add up. There were lots of news stories this summer about Toby Flaget, a retired police officer and Marine veteran, who walked from Oregon to New Jersey wearing a t-shirt that said “22 is 22 too many.” “People don’t want to talk about it. But it’s a real problem,” Flaget says. There’s actually a different problem. That number, 22, doesn’t really apply to the veterans everyone thinks it does: those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. “That number, if we talk about it out of context, it’s questionable,” Keith Jennings, Iraq combat veteran and clinical psychologist, says. He acts as chief science adviser for a North Carolina-based group called StopSoldierSuicide.org. “So when we talk 22 deaths a day, we as Americans think that number? 22? I can hang my hat on it. ‘Cause it’s a hard number. But it’s not, there’s a big plus or minus, uncertainty and variability behind that,” he says. Jennings says the 22 research was a Herculean effort by good VA scientists, but it’s not what advocates and politicians often suggest. The study looked at vets of all ages, and found that most who killed themselves were likely too old to have served in Iraq or Afghanistan. The authors were clear about that, and other caveats, but their cautions are often ignored when people talk about the number 22. Plus, suicide is notoriously tricky to study. One reason is that it’s relatively rare. “It takes so long to put together good data on suicide research because we need enough time to lapse to allow enough cases to accrue for us to start making meaningful sense of the data,” says Derek Smolenski, a Defense Department epidemiologist and statistician. He says suicide studies are usually full of caveats like that. So Smolenski and a team, in a study released this year, dug deeper. They found that vets who had served during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars commit suicide at a rate of about one a day — not 22. Of course, even one a day is a lot. And younger military vets are committing suicide much more often than civilians.
VA art budget comes under fire in Congress (Stars & Stripes)
The Department of Veterans Affairs ran its troubled Denver hospital project $625 million into the red, but it also might have made questionable art purchases, according to one congressman. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, went to the House floor on Wednesday with poster displays of a rock sculpture and other installations that account for $6.34 million in recent art and consulting expenses at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System. The massive rock at the mental health center in Palo Alto cost $483,000 and is part of a renovated $1.3 million courtyard. Cut into cubes with a laser and pieced together, the sculpture evokes “a sense of transformation, rebuilding, and self-investigation,” according to the designers. Miller offered a different perspective Wednesday, citing the rock as part of a pattern of “wanton and abusive spending practices” by the agency. He also said the agency’s spending habits continue to be a problem even as Congress was faced with cleaning up the fallout from the mismanaged hospital project in Colorado this week allowing the $625 million in new spending. “These projects include an art installation on the side of a parking garage that displays quotes by Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt in, wait for it … in Morse code that cost $285,000. It actually lights up,” Miller said. The bill to raise the VA spending limit on the massively over-budget Denver hospital — despite grumbling among lawmakers — passed easily. A House vote Wednesday was nearly unanimous following a similar Senate vote last week because the legislation also authorizes continued spending on a raft of critical VA programs that few lawmakers want to see expire. It also puts the Army Corps of Engineers in charge of any VA construction projects estimated at more than $100 million as a way to avoid the years of mismanagement and shifting plans that plagued the Denver hospital. The project was originally conceived in the late 1990s and later estimated to cost $328 million but has since ballooned to almost $1.7 billion. Miller, who voted for the bill, said the agency continues to be irresponsible with its use of money, including $33.4 million through the third quarter of this fiscal year on conferences for staff. “For example, as I address this House this afternoon, VA officials from across the country have gathered 40 miles away in Leesburg for a leadership conference that is costing the department $1 million,” he said. The VA did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday on the criticism on the House floor over spending on art and conferences.
Seattle VA ignores mail then tells dozens of vets benefits will be cut off (KOMO-Seattle)
At least two dozen local veterans were mistakenly told their benefits were being cut off, and it’s all because the Seattle Veterans Administration ignored a big pile of mail. It’s part of KOMO News on-going investigation into the local VA. It initially began with a tip to the VA’s Inspector General alleging that more than 1,000 mailed-in forms necessary for veterans to get benefits were left sitting in a bucket for months. What that meant for disabled veterans who relied on the local VA is that some of them were told their unemployability benefits were going to be cut off. As the KOMO Investigators showed in an earlier report, a denial or delay of either monetary or medical benefits can put some veterans and their families into a tailspin. “You don’t know what to do, you scream,” said Chris Seidler, the mother of a disabled vet. “Where do you turn?” In looking at the mishandled Seattle VA mail, the Inspector General report only reviewed a fraction of the mail that had allegedly been left sitting for months. The IG found that staff mismanaged unprocessed mail and unnecessarily proposed to veterans that they would “discontinue their individual unemployability benefits.” That was in spite of having “received the questionnaires on average 66 days earlier.” With only a fraction of the mail to investigate, it’s impossible to know how many veterans beyond the initial 27 were affected. But the IG determined 20 percent of the mishandled mail fell into that category. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) says she is shocked by the situation, and in a letter to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs said, “This is exactly the type of mismanagement and negligence that further complicates the benefits process for veterans, leading to unnecessary stress and unacceptably delaying benefits.” The local VA says it has cleared up the backlog of mail and initiated an audit process to ensure this won’t happen again.
2 VA hospitals marked appointments complete before doctors saw patients (Fierce Government)
Two Veterans Affairs Department hospitals marked appointments as complete even before patients were seen by a doctor, according to a Sept. 29 VA inspector general report. The report examined the John Cochran and Jefferson Barracks VA Medical Centers, both of which are in St. Louis, between October 2013 and June 2014. The audit took place after the IG received allegations that the hospitals marked mental health appointments as complete even before the patients were seen. The allegations were founded, the report says, since the IG’s investigation revealed that 12 of the 20 mental health consults it reviewed were marked complete before the doctor saw the patient. That means a veteran can slip through the cracks if an appointment is marked complete, but the patient hasn’t actually shown up. The clinic nurse told the IG that there is no automatic tracking in the system to ensure it reschedules the veteran for his appointment if the patient does not show up for the appointment or if the appointment is canceled by the clinic. “This practice increases the risk that veterans may become lost in the system if they missed their consult appointment,” the report says. The problems don’t end there. Doctors also racked up an average of $2,920 for meeting or exceeding productivity goals based on the faulty appointment information, the report says.
Congress to VA: $1.6 billion hospital will be funded … this time (The Washington Post)
Despite a last minute fight over funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs vastly over budget hospital in Denver, Congress agreed to fund the rising sticker price of the $1.6 billion medical facility, thought to be one of the most expensive hospitals in the world. Throughout the week, tensions increased over whether Congress would fund the last $625 million needed to finish the complex, whose price tag has ballooned to nearly three times the $604 million the VA originally budgeted for. The project is widely known as “the biggest construction failure in VA history.” The project was riddled with errors, mismanagement and problems ranging from hospital doors that were supposed to cost $100 each but ended up running $1,400 to entire rooms that had to be refashioned because requests for medical equipment changed at the last minute. Last week, the Senate agreed to a bill that would allow the VA to spend the additional $625 million. The Senate measure includes a provision that would put the Army Corps of Engineers in charge of any VA project expected to cost $100 million or more. But the measure was opposed by Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) chairman of the House veterans committee and an outspoken critic of the agency. Miller wanted the VA to cover part of the $625 million with $200 million used to pay VA employee bonuses. VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson, recently tapped to get the Denver project back on track, called that suggestion “a lousy idea,” saying it would take money out of the pockets of hard-working employees. On Wednesday, Miller said he would “reluctantly” support the Senate bill. The 184-bed hospital is expected to replace an outdated World War II-era facility in Denver. But the project is already $1 billion over budget and includes what even the VA’s leadership has called “extravagant features,” including a $100 million atrium and concourse that veterans groups say is a waste of resources.
Asbestos reforms needed to protect first responders and veterans (The Hill)
Commentary by Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas): “Billions of dollars set aside for veterans, firefighters, industrial workers and other Americans who were exposed to asbestos are being drained from trust funds that Congress authorized in the mid-1990’s. Mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases often appear decades after an individual is exposed to asbestos. Without increased transparency in the system, asbestos trusts may be fleeced into nothingness and left unable to pay the veterans, first-responders, workers and other Americans who will become sick over the next ten, twenty, or even thirty years. That’s why seniors groups and veterans support the Furthering Asbestos Claim Transparency (FACT) Act, including a coalition that represents more than 600,000 veterans in my home state of Texas. The funds were supposed to provide fair compensation to past, present and future asbestos victims. Instead, 23 asbestos trusts have reduced their payments to victims since 2008. Some more than once. These decreases appear to be driven, at least in part, by fraud and abuse. A Wall Street Journal investigative report uncovered hundreds of inconsistencies between claims with trusts and in-court cases, as well as thousands of implausible claims that alleged children were exposed to asbestos while working in industrial settings. There’s also strong evidence of fraud and abuse in asbestos lawsuits. Last year, a federal judge in North Carolina found that plaintiffs’ lawyers regularly withhold and manipulate essential evidence in asbestos cases. Other judges agree. A Delaware judge explained that lying and non-disclosure “occurs a lot” in asbestos litigation. That’s concerning in and of itself, but the same lawyers involved in asbestos lawsuits are filing claims with asbestos trust funds. Many even sit on special “advisory committees” that influence trusts’ payment decisions and audit procedures. Who makes sure that lawyers aren’t cheating the trusts? The Government Accountability Office studied the trusts and found they operate without meaningful federal oversight. It also asked the trusts if their audits uncovered fraud. Their response? Although they have received hundreds of thousands of claims and paid out more than $20 billion, they haven’t been able to find any fraud. That’s unbelievable. As witnesses before the House Judiciary Committee have explained, asbestos trusts are not “magically different” from other compensation funds. Fraud against the 9/11 Victims Compensation fund, for example, was detected and prosecuted. Because the trusts are unable to adequately police themselves, Congress needs to act.”