October 23 Veterans News

October 23 Veterans News

VetsHQ News UpdateSenator calls for overhaul of VA Choice program (Military Times)
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said veterans in her state continue to wait weeks or months for needed medical care, unable to make timely appointments at the VA or through the Choice program. Speaking on the Senate floor Thursday, Murray proposed an overhaul to Choice that would include strict guidance and clear eligibility rules designed to help veterans fully understand the program. She said a revision also should streamline the process for doctors and medical personnel and the system itself, which suffers from duplication of contracts to provide non-VA care as well as mismanagement. “I hear frequently from veterans … about how difficult the Choice program has been,” Murray said. “I hear how frustrating some of the bizarre rules and restrictions are — for example, an authorization for care only lasts 60 days. If you’re a woman veteran and you’re pregnant, you’re going to need more than 60 days of care.” A Murray aide said many other lawmakers are hearing similar complaints from veterans who are having trouble accessing medical care through Choice. The aide described Murray’s announcement as an “opening salvo” for Congress to improve the program. “Senator Murray voted for the program and she believes in the intention of it,” the aide said. “But implementation has been difficult. It’s not working as well as it should for the veteran.” Murray’s proposal comes a month after VA released the findings of an independent assessment of the VA health system that concluded it is plagued by bureaucracy and leadership challenges and fails to provide uniform services to veterans across the country. The assessment said that without a complete overhaul, the VA’s health care problems will continue, with the department “following an unsustainable trajectory of capital costs” and veterans failing to receive proper care. The $10 billion VA Choice program was launched earlier this year to help ease medical appointment wait times and improve access to care for veterans who don’t live near a VA medical center. From January through June, the VA authorized 115,645 appointments for veterans, and 84,385 appointments were made. But the rollout has had its challenges: Veterans who live within a 40-mile radius of a clinic often still must travel long distances to reach a VA facility that provides specialty care. Veterans in rural, sparsely populated areas also face challenges finding doctors who know the program. VA Choice also often overlaps with legacy programs that provide non-VA care, creating administrative confusion. “The system is so complicated, it’s impossible to just get good health care,” Murray said. “It is time for VA to implement one non-VA care program for the future.”

Lack of oversight on primary care staffing puts veterans at risk: GAO (Military.com)
The Government Accountability Office on Thursday warned a House of Representatives panel on veterans’ health that a lack of oversight in ensuring veterans hospitals have the right number of professional and support staff to provide primary care may be putting patients at risk. Randall Williamson, director of health care for the GAO, told the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Health that six of seven Veterans Affairs Department medical centers reviewed recently provided flawed, incomplete or erroneous information reflecting how many patients its teams of doctors, nurses and support staff serve. “Determining how many patients to which each primary care team can reasonably deliver care — referred to as panel size — is critical ensure our nation’s veterans receive timely quality care that is delivered in an efficient manner,” Williamson told the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Health.At one hospital, he said, the vacancy rate of primary care providers was 40 percent. “The situation is too reminiscent of veterans’ access issues arising at other VAMCs [Veterans Affairs medical centers] in the past,” he said, doubtless referring to the wait-times scandal that broke last year in Phoenix, Arizona. The Phoenix VA hospital sought to conceal the fact it could not meet patient demand with its staff by keeping a secret list of veterans seeking care. Delays in care contributed to the deaths of some patients there, VA concluded. The VA Inspector General report also found that the Phoenix practice was systemic across the VA.

VA’s new tuition program stung by $416 million of overpayments (The Fiscal Times)
The Government Accountability Office has just blown the whistle on the embattled Department of Veterans Affairs for $416 million of post-9/11 GI bill overpayments that were granted for education in fiscal 2014. Roughly one in four veteran beneficiaries and about 6,000 colleges and schools received overpayments that were eventually ferreted out by the VA. All but $152 million of the overpayments were recovered. The GAO criticized the VA for shoddy oversight and management of the tuition program and noted that the agency was still trying to collect an additional $110 million of overpayments from prior years – primarily owed by veterans or the schools themselves. And the potential for even greater overpayments or wasteful spending is considerable in light of the size of the overall program. The VA provided $10.8 billion in Post-9/11 GI Bill education benefits to almost 800,000 veterans in fiscal year 2014. The GAO was asked by Sen. Tom Carper (D-DL) to investigate overpayments for the program, which according to the GAO “can create financial hardships for veterans who are generally required to pay them back and which can result in a significant loss of taxpayer dollars if they are not collected.” “VA does not monitor the full extent of Post-9/11 GI Bill overpayments and collections,” the GAO report stated. “For example, VA does not regularly track the number of overpayments or the amount of uncollected student debt. Although VA was able to provide the information in response to our data request, it is not something the agency actively monitors on a regular basis.” Overpayments increased by nearly 20 percent between 2013 and 2014, the only two years for which data was available.

Funding for veterans services on Guam questioned (KUAM)
Concern is being raised over the handling of federal grants for veterans affairs on Guam. Rodney Cruz, Jr. is the founder/president of the Iraq-Afghanistan and Persian Gulf Veterans of the Pacific organization and recently wrote to the secretary of veterans affairs calling for an inspector general investigation. The letter concerns the handling of a $3.2 million federal grant to be used for improvements to Veterans Cemetery in Piti, specifically the lack of documentation as noted by the Guam OPA. “Most importantly it’s at the end of the day, those federal funds are to support the veterans out here on the island, and when there’s no continuity or transparency then getting or acquiring or applying a federal grant through the VA will be a lot harder in the future,” said Cruz. In the meantime, Guam VA director Martin Manglona says while he wasn’t the director at the time, he is an open book and welcomes any investigation, telling KUAM News, “I want to let the investigation run its course because I’m not in purview to see everything that’s done because this thing happened before I came in. I talked to the public auditor this morning and she’s going to be send me a letter next week or two weeks from now.” Manglona adds he has the contracts and will cooperate to help find any documents. He adds part of the issue may involve a public law that allows the VA administrator to have a separate account when it comes to funds or donations for Veterans Cemetery. Governor Eddie Calvo in the meantime says he had his fiscal team work with the Manglona to look into the questioned costs of the grants. In a release he said, “I don’t want unresolved costs on my watch. We’re getting to the bottom of this.”

New regulations will make it harder to qualify for VA long-term care help (Elder Law Answers)
The Veteran’s Administration (VA) offers a pension benefit to low-income veterans (or their spouses) who are in nursing homes or who need help at home with everyday tasks like dressing or bathing.  The pension, called Aid and Attendance, is currently underused, but impending regulations will soon make it available to even fewer veterans. The new regulations will for the first time specify asset limits for qualification and impose a look-back period and transfer penalties similar to Medicaid’s. The looming changes mean that those considering applying for Aid and Attendance should act quickly. Currently, to be eligible for Aid and Attendance a veteran (or the veteran’s surviving spouse) must meet certain income and asset limits. The asset limits aren’t specified, but $80,000 is the amount usually used. However, unlike with the Medicaid program, there are no penalties if an applicant divests him- or herself of assets before applying. The proposed regulations will set an asset limit of $119,220, which is the current amount a Medicaid applicant’s spouse is allowed to retain. This number will include both the applicant’s assets and income. It will be indexed to inflation in the same way that Social Security increases. An applicant’s house will not count as an asset, but there is a two-acre limit on the lot-size that can be excluded. The regulations also establish a three-year look-back provision. Applicants who transfer assets within three years of applying for benefits will be subject to a penalty period that can last as long as 10 years. To avoid the penalty, applicants will have to present clear and convincing evidence that the transfer was not made in order to qualify for Aid and Attendance benefits. Under the new rules, the VA will determine a penalty period in months by dividing the amount transferred by the applicable maximum annual pension rate (MAPR). The MAPR for surviving spouses is almost half the MAPR for veterans, which means the penalty period for a surviving spouse would be almost twice as long as a veteran’s penalty period would be for the same transferred asset. It isn’t clear yet when the new regulations will take affect, but they could be in place as early as January 1, 2016, and some VA offices are reportedly already processing applications under the new rules. If you are considering applying for Aid and Attendance benefits, you should start the process immediately.

Senate committee dismisses ethics complaints against Baldwin (Wisconsin Public Radio)
Three ethics complaints filed against U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, over her firing of a top-level staff member have been dismissed. Baldwin on Thursday released a letter from the Senate’s ethics committee notifying her that the complaints related to the firing of her former deputy state director Marquette Baylor had been dismissed. Baylor, the Republican Party of Wisconsin and the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust earlier this year had requested an investigation into Baldwin’s handling of abuse allegations at the Tomah Veterans Affairs hospital and Baylor’s firing in January. The committee told Baldwin in a letter dated Aug. 14 that the complaints lacked substantial merit. Baylor’s attorney Todd Graves did not immediately return messages seeking comment. Baldwin spokesman John Kraus calls the complaints frivolous and “nothing more than political smears.” 

San Bernardino County awards $248,000 to help home veterans (San Bernardino County Sun)
County supervisors have approved $248,000 of discretionary general funding to reinforce existing resources for homeless veterans. In July, the board conducted a study session focused on the county’s system to combat homelessness among the county’s military veterans. The board directed staff to work with community partners and other agencies in a coordinated effort to house all of the county’s veterans by Dec. 31. Since that time, interested partners, including LightHouse Social Service Centers, Loma Linda University, Goodwill, United Way, California Apartment Association, Faith Advisory Council, Inland Valley Hope Partners, and National CORE, along with representatives that include the San Bernardino County Sheriff, Behavioral Health, Veterans Affairs, Workforce Investment Board and the County Office of Homeless Services, and Housing Authority of San Bernardino County have been working diligently to leverage sources, align services and eliminate impediments to achieving this goal. “We have been successful in housing 224 of our 401 homeless veterans,” said Frank Guevara, county director of Veterans Affairs. “All of our partners have been a crucial part of this accomplishment. I thank them for their continued support and commitment to our homeless veterans.” Through this process, the lack of temporary, or bridge housing, has been identified as a significant impediment to housing our homeless veterans. Access to additional bridge housing resources, along with essential moving costs, will be critical to house the remaining 177 homeless veterans by the end of the year. Chairman Ramos commented, “Homelessness is an issue that is very real. We see it every day in our community. In July we set the goal of housing 100 percent of our identified homeless veterans by the end of this year, the approval of the additional funds will help us get closer to our goal of completely eradicating homelessness in our County.” The approval occurred at a meeting of the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

Veterans Affairs employee arrested in Louisiana state investigation (WBRZ 2)
A state employee was arrested on a warrant from the Office of State Inspector General Thursday. Todd Price is accused of deleting public records dealing with a patient who fell out of a bed at the Louisiana Veterans Home. Price was the director of nursing at the facility. Earlier in October, it was revealed the IG was investigating the Department of Veterans Affairs over how patients are treated. Auditors recently found people in the care of the five homes where veterans live were allowed to drink on medication and drive, patients had been injured in various ways or were not being properly supervised. “This is particularly egregious because these are veterans and many of them are very elderly who are essentially in a nursing home setting and their entire care is in the hands of these people who do something like what we are alleging… i think it Is pretty offensive to all of us,” Greg Phares of the Inspector General’s Office said. When news of the investigation broke, David LaCerte resigned as veterans affairs secretary. Thomas Enright was appointed interim secretary. A search warrant associated with the IG’s investigation alleges officials at higher levels of the agency were involved in a cover-up.

New Arizona organization getting Valley’s homeless veterans on their feet (KPHO)
A local organization called Veterans on Patrol aims to protect and help homeless veterans. For the past few weeks, the group has set up camp near 16th Avenue and West Hatcher Road in Sunny Slope.  From the camp, they head out on foot into troubled areas to try and locate homeless vets. Eric Smaltz, one of the organization’s co-founders, says it’s all about lending a helping hand.  “Our mission is to go out and extract our homeless veterans from challenging situations they are facing on the streets,” Smaltz said. They bring the vets back to their camp and provide food, shelter, medical care and safety from criminals. The group even goes a step further and helps the homeless vets get back on their feet.  “We provide resources throughout the city so they can get the cure they need for some of their addictions – alcohol and drug addictions,” Smaltz said. The organization just started over the summer and has already helped over 50 veterans. They have set up operations in Phoenix and Tucson with plans to expand across the state and hopefully to other states. Organizer and veteran Jason Smith said the work is vital to help so many who are in need.  “Some just lost their way. You go into the military, and if it was peacetime army it’s a lot different, but during wartime you feel lost when you walk out,” Smith said.

Veterans cemetery coming to Colorado Springs (KKTV 11News)
A national veterans cemetery is finally in the works for southern Colorado. The earliest the cemetery could be up and running would be 2018. Colorado has such a huge military community, and right now the closest Veterans Affairs cemetery is in the Denver area. The VA held a public meeting Thursday night to update area veterans and their families about the cemetery’s progress. The proposed cemetery would be just east of Colorado Springs in El Paso County, at Marksheffel Road near Drennan Road. The land was purchased in January 2014 for $4.49 million. The VA says they have funding for the planning and design stage of the cemetery, which has already begun, but they are waiting on construction funding, which would have to be approved in the 2017 budget. The hope is that the cemetery would accommodate veteran burials for the next 160 years. “The El Paso County area is really qualified in terms of the number of veterans that are here,” Steve Best with the National Cemetery Administration said. Veterans told 11 News they are happy to see progress. “Glad to see that they are now considering doing it for that they will now build one it’s about time,” Army veteran Jay Bowen said. … There is no word yet on exactly how many vets the cemetery will be able to accommodate. That won’t be released until the final design plans are complete.