Blumenthal calls for DOJ investigation of VA execs (Federal Times)
Sen. Richard Blumenthal is tired of tales of misconduct from the Department of Veterans Affairs, so he is asking the Department of Justice to do something about it. After a Sept. 28 OIG report found that two VA executives abused their positions in order to take jobs with less responsibility, while keeping higher salaries, Blumenthal, D.-Conn., has penned a letter asking Attorney General Loretta Lynch to investigate misconduct at the troubled department. “This scheme to defraud taxpayers and manipulate the system is, unfortunately, only the latest example of unacceptable misconduct by VA employees,” Blumenthal said in the letter. “This behavior is unacceptable for any federal employee, but it is particularly egregious in this case because it evinces a mindset that puts veterans last.” The report detailed how Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves allegedly pressured subordinates to accept position transfers only to volunteer for the vacated jobs while keeping their original salaries and having the VA pay them relocation benefits. The report recommended criminal charges for the pair, who collectively accepted $403,000 in moving costs from the VA and were shown to have actively created the position vacancies for their own benefit. The report is only the latest black eye in a series of scandals, Blumenthal noted as he called for the DOJ to investigate not only the two executives, but also a number of other cases brought by the VA’s inspector general related the manipulation of wait times for medical appointments.
Bill could overhaul military retirement system (KRIS-Corpus Christi)
Members of the military may not have to wait 20 years to earn retirement funds under a new bill being considered in Washington, but some local veterans have questions about how this would affect them financially. The Defense Bill for Military and Families could overhaul the military retirement system, allowing service members to start retirement funds similar to 401Ks, rather than waiting to earn retirement after two decades in the force. Some think the bill would help men and women in the military. “I’m like right there at 15 years or so, almost 15 years,” said veteran David Elwell of his time in service. “I would have liked to have gotten some retirement.” Others are wary of the bill’s financial impact. “They’re going to have to lay out a plan. Especially to explain to those veterans who have served, you know how does this benefit me if I’m not grandfathered in,” said Major Martin Longoria, U.S. Army retired. Under the current plan that has been intact for the past seven decades, 83 percent of service members have left the force without any retirement benefit because they didn’t serve the full 20 years. “The master chiefs, senior chiefs, and chiefs, they’re letting them stay for 30 years. And it’s the people that serve below them that are in and out,” Elwell said. If passed, the new plan would roll out in 2018 and those with less than 12 years of service would be eligible.
VA unaware of Prudential ‘profiteering’ off veteran insurance payments (Military.com)
The Veterans Affairs Department was not aware that Prudential Insurance encouraged its counselors to keep casualty pay-out monies in-house as a way to boost company profits, or that its agents were schooled to try to change the minds of surviving family members who sought a traditional lump-sum payment. Prudential’s practices came to light last week with the court-ordered release of internal company documents to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which joined in a class-action lawsuit against Prudential in 2010. Prudential is under contract to handle Sevicemember Group Life Insurance and Veterans Group Life Insurance policies. Among the documents was one detailing a plan to increase company profitability by retaining control of money that would normally be awarded to survivors in a lump sum. Another revealed the company trained personnel on how to deal with survivors who insisted on a lump-sum payout rather than leaving the money with Prudential in “Alliance Accounts” that provided the beneficiary with a fraction of the interest that Prudential would gain from it. VFW National Commander John A. Biedrzycki Jr. last week called for an independent investigation of the VA and the Alliance Accounts, saying the department turned a blind eye to Prudential’s profiteering off beneficiaries. “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,” he said at the time. “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.” On Monday, VA spokesman James Hutton told Military.com that VA knew nothing of Prudential’s financial strategy related to the accounts. “VA does not know how Prudential trained its employees to communicate with beneficiaries about the advantages of retained asset accounts prior to 2010 or whether the company believed that such accounts would improve its earnings,” Hutton said in a statement.
Veteran’s service dog is best man at his wedding (USA Today)
It wasn’t the best man, but the best dog that stood by U.S. Army veteran Justin Lansford’s side during his wedding ceremony over the weekend. Lansford was injured in 2012 when his truck hit an IED while he was serving in Afghanistan, ABC News reported. When he returned to the U.S., he was paired with Gabe, a golden retriever who had recently graduated from the Warrior Canine Connection, an organization that pairs wounded veterans with service dogs. On Saturday, Lansford married his long-time girlfriend, Carol Balmes, in Largo, Fla., and Gabe was by his side throughout the ceremony, according to Brad Hall, who photographed the ceremony. Hall said Gabe was one of the easiest bridal party members he has photographed. “[Gabe] was easy, quite frankly, a lot easier than we typically see with groomsmen at most weddings,” Hall told USA TODAY Network. And Lansford hasn’t let his prosthetic leg slow him down. “He out-danced half of the guests at the reception,” Hall said.
Federal hiring system out of balance because of vets, board says (FedWeek)
The emphasis on hiring veterans into federal jobs has put the government’s hiring practices out of balance, at the cost of non-veterans and in particular of women, MSPB said in the latest edition of a newsletter it issues several times a year. The comments in the “Issues of Merit” follow up on data MSPB has presented in recent times questioning the use of special hiring authorities, in particular those aimed at hiring veterans, as potentially in conflict with the basic principle that hiring must be merit-based, that there must be fair and open competition for jobs, and that the government should seek to have a workforce from all segments of society. In particular, it said, the Obama administration’s move to category rating to replace the “rule of three” rating system in hiring put veterans at an advantage through policies restricting passing over a veteran, even one whose qualifications do not match those of a non-veteran candidate. “In fact, when the HR office in one large agency determines that a significant number of disabled veteran applicants meet minimum qualifications for a position, it provides the selecting official with the veterans’ applications only. The applications of the non-veterans, no matter how impressive they may be, are never even seen by the selecting official . . . managers are not always allowed to hire—and sometimes not even allowed to know about—the best-qualified job applicants,” it said. Since the veteran population is overwhelmingly male, one result is that the female percentage of new hires, and thus of the entire workforce, is declining.
Former Navy pilot sues U.S. government over bipolar diagnosis (Navy Times)
A former Navy pilot has filed a $35 million lawsuit against the federal government alleging that a Veterans Affairs doctor misdiagnosed him with a mental illness that caused him to lose his ability to fly commercial airplanes and be wrongly treated for the disorder for a decade. William Royster, 53, of Kansas City, said in the lawsuit filed Friday that a doctor at the local VA medical center diagnosed him with bipolar disorder in April 2004 and said he could not work in any capacity. The doctor also said the condition was permanent, he contends. After he had been treated and medicated for more than 10 years for the disorder, Royster said a different psychiatrist at the medical center told him last November that he was not bipolar. “From the review of the records, he (Mr. Royster) never had any manic symptoms and he never met the criteria for the diagnosis of bipolar disorder. … Thus in my professional opinion, I do not believe that Mr. Royster has a diagnosis of bipolar disorder,” Dr. Shreeja Kumar wrote on Nov. 18. Royster was flying a fighter jet on a training mission associated with Desert Storm on June 4, 1996, when he was shot down, the lawsuit says. He was injured when he ejected from the jet and honorably discharged from the Navy that November. A Navy surgeon told him the injuries he sustained in the crash would not limit his ability to fly commercial airplanes, the lawsuit says. After his discharge, Royster continued to be treated for his injuries at the Kansas City medical center. He also completed flight training and was hired by United Airlines to fly Boeing commercial planes in January 1998. He held that position until the bipolar diagnosis in April 2004 grounded him. Royster’s attorney filed an administrative tort claim that the Department of Veterans Affairs denied in August, saying it found no negligent or wrongful acts on the part of VA employees.
U.S. Army warns against ‘romance scams’ (The Denver Channel)
If you’re looking for love and find it online wearing a uniform, you might want to use caution. “They’re blinded by love and it takes some convincing sometimes to realize that they’re being duped,” Chris Grey of the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command said. The Army has found hundreds of instances of people posing as military members online, asking for money and getting it, scamming victims out of more than $82 million last year alone. “There’s probably not enough bullets to take care of the people that are doing it,” Vietnam veteran and VFW leader Bruce Dolan said. “I think they’re a terrorist. They’re a threat to us, our veterans, and our country.” And it happened here in Colorado, in 2011, to Esther Ortiz Rodeghero. “I ended up losing close to $500,000,” she told 7NEWS back then. She lost it to a man named “Wayne,” whom she had met virtually on an Internet dating site. He said he was a Major General serving in Iraq. He eventually asked for money, and she sent it. Turns out, “Wayne” disappeared with the money, never meeting Esther in real life. The main warning is for everyone to be cautious online and never send money to anyone you’ve never met. There are no programs through the military to send money to soldiers to bring them home, like many of these scams claim, so don’t fall for it. The Army says the people behind these sorts of scams don’t usually live in the United States. They could even be operating from coffee shops anywhere in the world.
At Nashville VA, songwriting as therapy for military sexual assault (Nashville Public Radio)
The conference room inside a Veterans Affairs center in Nashville feels distinctly clinical: beige walls, gray carpet, creaky chairs. But on a Monday afternoon in August, there’s an energy that might be felt more often at an intimate Nashville club. Two dozen people, mostly women, are sitting on those creaky chairs in a circle. Some hold guitars. About half are veterans, and they’re waiting to debut their very personal songs about a shared experience: sexual assault. Thousands of women in the military report being sexually assaulted each year — and it’s a number that’s rising. When those women return to civilian life, some seek counseling at a local veterans affairs clinic. But Nashville’s VA now offers a supplemental therapy inspired by Music City: a program that pairs survivors of sexual assault with songwriters, who help put their stories to music. The program ends with this day of performances by the veterans and songwriters. Sarah Kelley, a 33-year-old Army veteran, explains the back story of her song to the rest of the room. “I was stationed in Korea, and it was my boss,” she says. “When I told my company commander, he told me, ‘Welcome to Korea, get used to it.'”… Bob Regan, a professional songwriter, is the founder of this whole program called Operation Song. He created it several years ago just for soldiers with PTSD — it expanded to female survivors of sexual assault last year. (Regan is the only male songwriter in Operation Song’s sexual assault program.) He got the idea while performing on military bases as part of an armed forces tour: He realized his decades as a songwriter had turned him into somewhat of a therapist. “It’s our jobs to make the person sitting across from us feel safe and encouraged to open up. That’s just a skill set you attain,” he says.
VA hospital nurse charged with tampering with medication (Military Times)
Federal officials say a nurse at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Albany tampered with pain medication given to patients. The U.S. Attorney’s Office says 30-year-old Nathan Baum of East Greenbush, New York, was indicted Wednesday for allegedly tampering with a consumer product and obtaining controlled substances by deception and subterfuge. Authorities say Baum is a licensed practical nurse who works at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center hospice ward in Albany. They say that during a five-week period in the spring of 2014 he removed the oxycodone hydrochloride from at least 25 syringes and replaced it with an anti-psychotic medication that’s used to treat certain mental disorders and uncontrolled movements or agitation. Baum was arraigned on Friday and released. It couldn’t be determined if he has a lawyer who could comment on the charges.
A call to action for our female veterans (Roll Call)
Commentary: “Female veterans shoulder a double dilemma in our society. They face all the same problems as their male counterparts when re-entering civilian life, including getting and keeping a job, accessing health care and affordable housing. But many do not identify themselves as veterans and as such don’t access available veteran supports and services. Those that do and seek assistance often find veteran systems and programs ill-equipped to address their needs. This is important because women are one of the fastest-growing groups within the veteran population, according to the Veterans Health Administration. In fact, they will soon reach one-fifth of the total veteran cohort. While many female veterans find success following their military service, far too many live in poverty, are unemployed or are homeless. Military service-connected experiences and transition challenges pose health and family threats to many female veterans. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, female veterans are more likely to be at risk for depression than their male counterparts, 11 percent more likely to be divorced than civilian women and nearly twice as likely to suffer from an eating disorder than male veterans. The numbers jump significantly for female veterans under 35 years old. The growing number of female veterans has placed new demands on an already strained VA system, leaving policymakers, veteran groups and others to seek additional approaches to meet the needs of female veterans, including the 200,000 women expected to leave the military over the next four to five years. So what works best in helping veterans, particularly females, excel during their transition?”
Veterans Affairs inventory system to stay in place (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)
Officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs say they have no plans to abandon a controversial new inventory control system at its health facilities despite complaints from its own employees. VA spokesman Henry L. Huntley said in an email response to questions that implementation of the Shipcom Wireless system is not being halted. “The point-of-use program office is not considering abandoning the VHA point-of-use inventory site in any live site or discontinuing the program,” Huntley wrote, adding that it is in use in 17 locations, including Pittsburgh. The announcement marks a reversal for Pittsburgh-area VA employees who had earlier been told the system would be put on hold, at least temporarily. They were told Friday that the Shipcom system would be in use starting this week. Huntley acknowledged that the program, called Catamaran, was on an “administrative pause” at some locations. The comments follow the disclosure of an internal email from an inventory control official in Pittsburgh in which he acknowledged widespread complaints about the new system and told workers that an old inventory system would be put in place.
VA delays Los Angeles park closure (KNBC-Los Angeles)
On the brink of shutting down a Los Angeles city park located on Veterans Affairs property, the agency has agreed Monday to meet first with Los Angeles city officials hoping to keep the park open. The VA posted signs last week at Barrington Recreation Center, including its popular dog park, notifying users the park would be closed last Friday. But before doing so, the VA retreated and agreed to allow the facility to remain open until the new master plan for the VA’s West LA campus is adopted. The draft was due the following week. “This land belongs to veterans,” said Bob Rosebrock, an Army veteran, activist and longtime VA critic who contends its response to the problem of homelessness among veterans has been inadequate. Rosebrock calls for temporary shelter to be built on VA property as a stopgap measure until additional permanent housing can be built. Opened decades ago atop land once used as a dump, Barrington Rec Center has athletic fields, and for 15 years, has been host to what is believed to be the city’s largest and most-used dog park. “I’m all for doing things for the VA,” said Lisa Miller who walks her dog at the park. “But this is an important park.” How VA property came to be used for a city park is to be found in a decades-old policy of the VA that it only recently it has renounced: leasing VA land to outside interests, both public and commercial for uses not necessarily connected to the VA’s mission of caring for veterans. Uses have ranged from rental car parking, to hotel laundry services, to athletic fields. Brentwood School and UCLA’s Jackie Robinson Stadium are among the tenants.