Obama taps D.C. lawyer Michael Missal as new VA watchdog (USA Today)
President Obama is nominating Michael Missal, a Washington attorney who specializes in government enforcement and internal investigations, to be the new chief watchdog at the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs. “The president selected Missal because he has a distinguished legal background and a proven record of expertly leading prominent, sensitive, and extensive investigations,” said a White House official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not have permission to speak publicly about the nomination. The move comes after months of criticism from Congress that the post has gone unfilled so long. The previous inspector general at the VA stepped down in December 2013. It also comes after VA whistleblowers repeatedly blasted the inspectors who have filled in since then, accusing them of overseeing shoddy investigations of veteran health care and of targeting whistleblowers rather than the problems they are reporting. They have also criticized the office’s secrecy following a USA TODAY report in March that showed the VA inspector general had failed to publicly release the findings of more than 140 investigations of veteran health care, including cases of harm and death. The inspector general is responsible under federal law for unearthing and exposing mismanagement, fraud and abuse at the agency. The VA is the largest civilian federal agency, with 300,000 employees responsible for administering benefits and providing health care to veterans. The White House official said Missal has extensive management and leadership experience. He is a co-leader of his company’s policy and regulatory practices overseeing 200 lawyers and a member of the firm’s management committee that governs 2,000 attorneys. Missal was appointed by the Justice Department to look into negligence in the bankruptcy of subprime lender New Century Financial Corp and he was lead counsel in an investigation of the meltdown of WorldCom, which was the No. 2 long-distance phone company in the country.
Clinton: Change military records for gay veterans (The Washington Post)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton proposed Saturday that military records be amended to upgrade dishonorable discharges imposed on gay, lesbian and transgender military veterans. People drummed out of the armed services in years past for being gay should be able to get their records changed to reflect an honorable discharge, Clinton said. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is over, but that doesn’t change the fact that more than 14,000 men and women were forced out of the military for being gay, some long before Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell even existed,” Clinton said, referring to the 1993 law that allowed gays and lesbians to serve in the military if they did not reveal their sexual orientation. “They were given less than honorable discharges,” Hillary Clinton said. “I can’t think of a better way to thank those men and women for their service than by upgrading their service records.” Addressing the influential gay rights organization Human Rights Campaign, Clinton thanked gay rights activists for their strong support over her political career and was frank about her own change of heart about gay marriage. “You helped changed a lot of minds, including mine,” Clinton said to applause. “I personally am very grateful for that.” Politically active gay and lesbian people are an important constituency for Democrats, in no small measure because of strong financial support for Democratic candidates. Clinton has held several lucrative fundraising parties at the homes of gay supporters this year.
Commentary: Making the case for VA transformation (Military Times)
By Bill Frist: “It was over a year ago that the public learned of unacceptably long wait times and false record keeping at the Department of Veterans Affairs, resulting in shoddy care for our service men and women. Since then, instead of progress, we have been met with ongoing reports of delayed care, wasteful spending, and poor management. This June, the New York Times reported that “[t]he number of veterans seeking health care but ending up on waiting lists of one month or more is 50 percent higher now than it was a year ago…” And this past July, a whistleblower came forward with claims that the VA purposely delayed action on the benefit applications of 34,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, some until their eligibility expired. Some have suggested we solve the VA’s shortfalls by throwing money at the problem, but we’ve already seen the results of that strategy. From 2006 to 2015, the VA budget nearly doubled, from $31 billion to $59 billion per year, yet performance has only deteriorated. The VA is desperately in need of transformation, but we have yet to see meaningful action to repair what’s broken. We must do better. As a first step, I collaborated with several other leaders in the field of veterans’ health to publish a comprehensive report last February, presenting an array of concrete and actionable proposals for VA health care reform. The report, “Fixing Veterans Health Care,” was the product of a six-month process of careful study and deliberation through which our bipartisan task force identified key challenges in the VA health care system and developed workable solutions.”
VA audit: Seattle incorrectly told vets they’d lose benefits (KIRO-Seattle)
Auditors say the Department of Veterans Affairs office in Seattle incorrectly sent letters to dozens of military veterans saying they would lose their unemployment benefits. The Tacoma News Tribune reports hat a VA Inspector General report released this week says the overworked Seattle office lost track of records the veterans had submitted. The mail audit was conducted after a complaint implied that about 1,000 pieces of unread mail from veterans were being stored indefinitely in a yellow bucket. Auditors visited the office in April and did not find such a bucket. But they say employees seemed familiar with what they called the “yellow bucket project.” They took a sampling of 132 employment questionnaires and found that a fifth of veterans had been notified of an incorrect reduction or cancellation in benefits.
Legionnella bacteria found in 3 Pittsburgh VA hospital fixtures (WTAE-Pittsburgh)
Authorities say three water fixtures at the Pittsburgh Veterans Affairs hospital have tested positive for bacteria that causes Legionnaire’s disease. Veterans Affairs officials said Friday that the affected fixtures at the Oakland hospital include a patient shower, a staff sink and a public sink, but the type of Legionella bacteria found in the sinks rarely causes illness in people. Officials are investigating whether the shower bacteria could have contributed to any patient illness. Officials said the Oakland hospital diagnosed the deadly form of pneumonia in three veterans last month, all of whom have recovered. Dr. Brooke Decker, director of infection prevention, said the fixtures are closed and will be cleaned and retested. Legionnaire’s disease killed at least six Pittsburgh VA patients and sickened 22 others in 2011 and 2012.
Lawmakers call on Minnesota VA to fix billing issues (KTTC-Minneapolis)
Minnesota representatives in Washington are calling on the VA to make a fix to problems with its billing system. Senator Amy Klobuchar and Representative John Kline, penned the bi-partisan letter, which was co-signed by Senator Al Franken, Congressman Tim Walz, and six others. The letter asks the VA to fix issues that resulted in the VA billing Minnesota Veterans for thousands of dollars of co-pays from as long as five years ago. Lawmakers wrote that the sudden debt was caused by “the VA’s inability to properly track, record, and bill for services.” Co-pays ranging from one to three thousand dollars are expected to appear on veterans’ upcoming monthly statements because they were not charged at the time of care.
Project Journey offers temporary shelter for women veterans (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
Starting this week, the number of homeless female veterans and their children will be reduced by a rental house in Crafton Heights — four bedrooms, two bathrooms and a container of brownies at a time. Project Journey of the Veterans Leadership Program of Western Pennsylvania has been working since 2013 on what it says is a growing problem of homeless female veterans — this in a state with the seventh-largest population of female veterans. Female veterans are estimated nationally to be about 10 percent of the roughly 50,000 veterans who are homeless on a given night. Since it started, the local project — funded by the United Way of Allegheny County, Newman’s Own Foundation and other donors — has provided emergency shelter for 40 female veterans and support services to 210 of them for employment and other specific issues they face. But previously, the women with children had to be squeezed into one-bedroom apartments or turned away. This new house will allow the project to serve larger families. It’s the second house the project is leasing, along with five single-unit apartments, all of which are given to veterans rent-free, with paid utilities and completely furnished. “When this family moves in, there will be food for them,” said Project Journey coordinator Trudy Friend as she gave a tour of the house last week that included a peek in the nearly full freezer of the refrigerator, which was topped with three boxes of cereal. Today, she is to help celebrate the house — and the project’s two-year anniversary — at a ribbon-cutting ceremony there. As early as Tuesday, it is to get its first temporary vet-family tenants, which could be a single woman and her two young children or another single woman with two teenagers. Ms. Friend says she has to decide on the fly, depending on who has the greatest need. “I always have a waiting list,” sometimes including women in distant states, she said. This home was a group effort with several other nonprofits. It was furnished by Uptown’s PA Furniture Warehouse and stocked with household goods — from bedding and the “Welcome Fall” dish towel to coffee mugs and china — by Operation Troop Appreciation. Another partner, First Step Recovery Homes, helps move everything in.
Minnesota’s Fort Snelling opens veterans housing (Stars & Stripes)
In buildings meant to house troops, officers and their horses, veterans now reside. Although some veterans moved in months ago, Upper Post Veterans Community officially opened its doors Friday at 6210 Bloomington Road, next to Historic Fort Snelling. The center, which began to transform five historic military buildings from barracks and stables to community and stable homes over a year ago, hosts 58 furnished apartments for veterans. “I would stay here forever if I could,” Navy veteran Judy Ganino said. Ganino, 59, served from 1975 to 1983, during which time she said she incurred post-traumatic stress disorder. Over the past decade her troubles recurred, coupled with other health problems that left her unable to work more than 20 hours a week. She sought help in 2012, and that help brought her to Fort Snelling. Ganino moved just over a month ago. Now, in a fittingly named studio apartment, Ganino can focus on her passion, art. Past old brick walls and under historic wooden rafters, tucked away down long halls of brand-new wallboard, Austin Poons, 62, lives behind a door with a warning. “Beware: Guard Golden Retriever on Duty.” Poons, a U.S. Army veteran, and his therapy dog Dutchess moved into their one-bedroom apartment in June. They have loved the sense of community and the stability of their new abode ever since, Poons said. “I’m at peace,” he said. Veterans Ganino and Poons now live in a fort an active soldier hasn’t seen since October 1946, said Tom Pfannenstiel, the site manager for Historic Fort Snelling.
Palo Alto mayor commits to eradicating veteran homelessness (Palo Alto Online)
Citing the deaths of two unhoused women in Palo Alto parks two years ago as emblematic of the need to ending homelessness in the city, Palo Alto Mayor Karen Holman announced on Friday that as a first step she will sign the White House Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. Holman spoke at the Palo Alto Human Relations Commission’s Homeless Veteran Summit on Oct. 1, which brought together U.S. Veterans Affairs officials, nonprofit service providers, county and city officials, residents and White House officials to discuss housing for Palo Alto and Santa Clara County homeless veterans. Santa Clara County has the highest number of homeless veterans in the nation despite Silicon Valley’s vast resources and wealth, said Col. Nicole Malachowski, director of Joining Forces, an initiative to support military families started by First Lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden. An estimated 718 veterans are homeless in Santa Clara County, according to a 2013 county study. The initiative seeks to work with local and county government and agencies to bring services, jobs and affordable housing to those in need. So far 629 mayors and nine governors have signed the Challenge. “Everyone who has worn a uniform has a right to have a home. How we treat our vets is a readiness issue. How we treat them affects our ability to recruit people,” said Malachowski, a 24-year active-duty U.S. Air Force colonel who flew combat missions in Iraq. Holman spoke to the broader issue of homelessness. The deaths of two women in city parks two years ago was deeply affecting, she said. “It’s just not acceptable. It’s not acceptable,” she said emphatically. “There’s no issue, there’s no concern that we together cannot solve.”
University of Illinois opens center for wounded veterans (The Washington Times)
The University of Illinois has opened a center to help wounded war veterans earn college diplomas. The Chez Family Foundation Center for Wounded Veterans in Higher Education opened Friday in Urbana. Gov. Bruce Rauner attended the ribbon-cutting along with donors, university officials and veterans. The (Champaign) News-Gazette reports that Rauner apologized for the difficult times faced by the university and other institutions because of the state government’s budget impasse.
Vintage military vehicles commemorate 1920 Army convoy (Dallas Morning News)
In 1920, an Army convoy visited Dallas as it traveled the 3,300 miles of the Bankhead Highway, the second transcontinental U.S. highway. Ninety-five years later, another convoy of military vehicles will make its way through the city. About 50 vintage military vehicles with a police escort will arrive at the State Fair of Texas before 11 a.m. Sunday, line up in parade formation and follow the parade route to the Hall of State. A flag-raising ceremony, assisted by the U.S. Marines Drum & Bugle Corps, will follow. The Military Vehicle Preservation Association is roughly tracing the Bankhead Highway in the re-enactment of the Army’s 1920 convoy in what is being called America’s longest veterans parade. It left Washington, D.C., on Sept. 19 and is halfway to its destination, San Diego. “These veterans keep getting it wrong. They keep thanking us,” said Terry Shelswell of Clarkston, Mich., the convoy’s commander. “We’re supposed to be thanking them.” A 1918 Dodge Brothers command car is involved, but there’s also evolution in the convoy. Jeeps, large tractor-trailer rigs and a mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle will also be featured. The host organization is made up of collectors, historians and military vehicle enthusiasts. The vehicles are privately owned, but they’re not museum pieces. As in Garland on Saturday, visitors and kids are welcome to touch — but beware. “They’re dirty because they’ve been running now for quite a few days,” said Shelswell, who drives his own 1952 Willys Jeep. “Oil drips, because, they do. Canvas is weathered. These are working collections.”