VA pays $142 million in bonuses amid scandals (USA Today)
The Department of Veterans Affairs doled out more than $142 million in bonuses to executives and employees for performance in 2014 even as scandals over veterans’ health care and other issues racked the agency. Among the recipients were claims processors in a Philadelphia benefits office that investigators dubbed the worst in the country last year. They received $300 to $900 each. Managers in Tomah, Wis., got $1,000 to $4,000, even though they oversaw the over-prescription of opiates to veterans – one of whom died. The VA also rewarded executives who managed construction of a facility in Denver, a disastrous project years overdue and more than $1 billion over budget. They took home $4,000 to $8,000 each. And in St. Cloud, Minn., where an internal investigation report last year outlined mismanagement that led to mass resignations of health care providers, the chief of staff cited by investigators received a performance bonus of almost $4,000. As one of his final acts last year before resigning, then-VA secretary Eric Shinseki announced he was suspending bonuses in the wake of revelations that VA employees falsified wait lists to meet wait-time targets — ostensibly as part of efforts to secure the extra pay. But he only curtailed them for a sliver of VA executives — those in senior levels of the Veterans Health Administration, which oversees health care. The agency has continued to pay performance-based bonuses to nearly half of agency employees, including in health administration, according to data provided to USA TODAY by the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. In all, some 156,000 executives, managers and employees received them for 2014 performance. … VA spokesman James Hutton said the vast majority of agency employees are committed to serving veterans. “VA will continue to review tools and options in order to ensure the department is able to attract and retain the best talent to serve our nation’s veterans, while operating as a good steward of taxpayer funds,” Hutton said. That’s not good enough for Florida Republican Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House VA committee, which has been investigating questionable VA bonuses for years. Miller says the most recent awards reflect a “disturbing trend of rewarding employees who preside over corruption and incompetence.” He noted the agency paid more than $380,000 in 2013 performance bonuses to top officials at hospitals where veterans faced long delays in receiving treatment, including those under investigation for wait-time manipulation. “Rewarding failure only breeds more failure,” he said Tuesday. “Until VA leaders learn this important lesson and make a commitment to supporting real accountability at the department, efforts to reform VA are doomed to fail.”
Why hasn’t a single living Iraq vet received the Medal of Honor? (CNN.com)
Commentary: “On March 25, 2003, 1st Lt. Brian Chontosh and his platoon drove into an ambush of mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons fire while traveling on a highway toward Baghdad. Realizing the road ahead was blocked and taking heavy fire, Chontosh ordered his vehicle to drive directly at the enemy position. According to his Navy Cross award citation, Chontosh exited the vehicle and began to engage the enemy with his rifle and pistol. He repeatedly exhausted his ammunition but continued to press forward using discarded enemy weapons and eventually led his platoon through the ambush. “When his audacious attack ended, he had cleared over 200 meters of the enemy trench, killing more than 20 enemy soldiers and wounding several others,” Chontosh’s Navy Cross citation reads. Several years have passed since Chontosh returned home from Iraq, but the fight on Capitol Hill continues over whether he and several other U.S. soldiers who served during Operation Iraqi Freedom deserve consideration for the Congressional Medal of Honor. The Medal of Honor is the nation’s highest military honor, signifying extraordinary acts of valor. But to date, no living veteran of the war in Iraq has been presented the medal and only four have been awarded posthumously — and some of those who served in the conflict are asking why. World War II, Korea and Vietnam brought hundreds of Medals of Honor: 472, 146 and 258 respectively. Twelve Medals of Honor have been given to veterans of the war in Afghanistan and the 13th will be awarded on Thursday.”
Veterans drop hundreds of empty pill bottles at White House (The Washington Post)
A couple dozen servicemen and women marched to the White House this Veterans Day and dumped a large box of empty pill containers, calling on the president and other federal officials to make medical marijuana accessible to veterans. “Here’s what the over-medication of our veterans looks like,” they said as they spilled the canisters onto the floor. “We don’t want it.” The veterans and protesters — affiliated with various veteran and marijuana advocacy organizations — argued that Veterans Affairs hospitals are over-medicating veterans, prescribing them a large number of psychoactive medications to treat PTSD. They marched from McPherson Square to the Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters, then to the White House, some smoking joints along the way, which is illegal in D.C. VA health-care providers can’t talk to their patients about medical marijuana options, even in states where there are legal medical marijuana programs. A bill in Congress, the Veterans Equal Access Amendment, would allow doctors to provide recommendations about participating in such state programs. “There’s something seriously wrong going on. It’s disgusting,” said Jose Martinez, 27, a triple amputee who stepped on a bomb while serving in Afghanistan in 2012. Martinez, who lives in California and works with the Weed for Warriors Project, said he was prescribed a cocktail of pills and had a debilitating pain pill addiction. Organizers said that about 50 people slept in tents in McPherson Square on Monday and Tuesday as part of the rally. The participants outfitted McPherson Square for the rally, selling cannabis products, giving away samples and displaying photographs of veterans using marijuana.He now uses marijuana and says he no longer takes those prescribed pills.
At VA, same old story for vets facing long wait times (U.S. News & World Report)
It’s been a year and a half since a Veterans Health Administration center in Phoenix, Ariz., was revealed to have been keeping secret lists to disguise its lengthy appointment wait times. Despite investigations pointing to widespread mismanagement, the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, the installation of his successor, Robert McDonald, and the passage of a $16-billion law that promised to expand care and make it easier to fire errant employees, little has changed for veterans still forced to wait for months for care. In honor of Veterans Day, the Obama administration will roll out a series of new actions, including improved access to education, expanding initiatives to end veteran homelessness, and pressing Congress to pass legislation to fix the health benefits appeals process. The White House boasted of the reforms and improvements to the system his administration has taken since August 2014, directly aimed at targeting the problems uncovered last year: increased staff and facility space, efforts to identify and reduce inefficiencies in the system and a program to help veterans to seek care outside the system. Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Kristie Canegallo, the White House deputy chief of staff for implementation, acknowledged the gulf between the promises made and the pace of real reform. “A lot of really important progress has been made with respect to delivering more care for the veterans,” she said. “But gosh, we’ve got a lot more work to do.” In Phoenix, where reports that at least 40 veterans died while waiting for care touched off the scandal, evidence of change is hard to come by. Veterans staged a protest outside the beleaguered hospital on Monday, complaining that they still struggled with “delayed appointments, denied appointments and falsification of veterans’ medical records.” “If you’re putting individuals in positions who are not concerned about the veterans, then veterans are going to continue to receive the lower level care that they’ve always been receiving,” Ricky Barnes, the protest organizer, told the local ABC affiliate.
Thousands of Texas vets wait a month or more for VA visits (WFAA-Dallas)
More than two years after the Department of Veterans Affairs pledged to improve access to health care, thousands of Texas veterans still wait a month or more for doctor’s appointments at local VA hospitals and clinics. In 2014, veterans in Arizona were revealed to have waited weeks to see a doctor. It was widely reported that some even died before they could get in for care. Now — two years later — a more humbled VA said reforms continue on this Veterans Day. “In the 12 months following the news about Phoenix, we completed 7 million more appointments both inside VA and in the community through VA community care — a dramatic increase and improvement in access to care for veterans,” said Sloan D. Gibson, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs. Not so fast, said Merrill Matthews of The Institute For Policy Innovation. “They have achieved really nothing, other than going out there and saying they’re doing a better job but the statistics and waiting times show they have not solved this problem system-wide,” he said. Indeed, the VA’s own records show Dallas has 2,446 vets still waiting one month or longer for appointments as of November 1. For perspective, that figure is only 3.41 percent all appointments at the Dallas VA. The Fort Worth VA Clinic has 1,038 waiting 30 days or longer, which is about 6 percent of its total appointments. But San Antonio ranks worst in the state. At the city’s Audie L. Murphy Memorial Veterans Hospital, 9,394 veterans — one out of every four — wait a month or more to see a doctor.
Cleveland VA Medical Center opens first vets’ transgender clinic (Breitbart News)
On Thursday the Cleveland VA Medical Center is opening the nation’s first VA clinic dedicated to providing for the healthcare needs of transgender veterans. The Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center will provide transgender veterans with primary care, hormone therapy, mental health care, and social work services, says local NBC affiliate WKYC. A calendar of events from the VA states the medical center will celebrate the opening of the transgender clinic on Thursday, November 12. According to a directive from the Department of Veterans Affairs published in February of 2013: “VA provides health care for transgender patients, including those who present at various points on their transition from one gender to the next. This applies to all Veterans who are enrolled in VA’s health care system or are otherwise eligible for VA care, including those who have had sex reassignment surgery outside of VHA, those who might be considering such surgical intervention, and those who do not wish to undergo sex reassignment surgery but self- identify as transgender. Intersex individuals may or may not have interest in changing gender or in acting in ways that are discordant with their assigned gender.” All providers who work in the new transgender clinic have a “special interest in transgender care and will create an environment that celebrates and welcomes these veterans,” says the news report. Dr. Megan McNamara serves as the lead clinician in the transgender clinic. Currently, the Cleveland VAMC treats approximately 20 transgender veterans.
Established veterans groups fight to attract the next generation (NPR.org)
At American Legion Post 87 in High Point, N.C., the bar is jumping, even though some of the patrons are almost 70 years old. “The sad part is, some of the older vets, the World War II, the Korea vets, they’re passing on,” says Fred Iannone, the post’s commander. “The Vietnam veterans so far, we’re holding our own.” Veterans organizations, like the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, are losing their older members and struggling to attract the younger veterans of more recent wars. Around the country, more than 2,000 American Legion and VFW posts have closed. Those same posts — with their baseball leagues and scholarships — were once deeply woven into the fabric of their communities. Post 87 won’t shrink this year, partly because it’s absorbing the members of a nearby post that shut down. Like many leaders of these established veterans groups, 68-year-old Iannone believes young veterans will join when they’re older and have more free time. But attracting those members now is crucial. “We need the younger blood, there’s no doubt, to carry on the fight,” Iannone says. “I tell them: ‘The American Legion is the one that got you the right to go to the VA to get benefits.’ ”
What’s needed — beyond the GI bill — to help vets succeed (The Hill)
Commentary: “Seventy years ago, Congress made a transformational step in preparing veterans to excel after military service by passing the GI Bill, which provided veterans unprecedented access to education beyond high school. As we celebrate our nation’s veterans on Nov. 11 – and the millions of student veterans who have benefited from the program – we must also take a careful look at what more should be done to equip our former service men and women for success in the next era. The GI Bill alone is no longer sufficient to provide veterans a pathway to thrive in a fast-changing economy and with an increasingly costly and complex higher education system. As a proud veteran who served three tours of duty in Iraq and as the leader of a Student Veterans of America campus chapter, I can attest to this. Earning a degree wasn’t easy. Despite the help of the GI Bill, I was left with significant debt and wishing I’d had better support throughout my journey. These struggles are common among veterans trying to earn a postsecondary credential. Three key changes at the federal level would help address the challenges and enable us to maximize assistance to students like me. Such common-sense reforms would benefit not just veterans, but the growing number of older, working, first-generation, immigrant and minority students who are quickly becoming the new college majority. First, we need to ensure greater flexibility in how student aid – including GI Bill benefits and other federal aid – is delivered. As an example, the GI Bill offers generous support for tuition, housing, textbooks and supplies, but because its delivery is moored to when veterans are enrolled in courses, students can be left with gaps in coverage.”
Why veterans struggle with student loan debt (MarketWatch.com)
Whether they are serving our country abroad or adjusting to life back home after tours of duty, many of our nation’s veterans and servicemembers are battling a more private foe: Student loan debt. Despite the most generous veterans education benefit in history — the post-9/11 GI Bill passed in 2008 — more than 40% of active duty servicemembers have student loan debt, according to government data. And 26% of undergraduate students that used veteran education benefits in 2012 alone also took out student loans, according to an analysis of Education Department data from the Los Angeles Times. The reasons for the prevalence of debt among veterans vary. Some may not qualify for the GI Bill’s generous benefits and even those who do often have families to support, which may require them to take on debt to finance their living expenses, according to William Hubbard, the vice president of government relations at Student Veterans of America, a student veteran advocacy group. The fact that Americans are increasingly attending college and are more likely to borrow for it also plays a role in the abundance of student debt among veterans. Servicemembers who enter the military now with some college or a full bachelor’s degree under their belts are much more likely to have loans than they would have in the past. But one of the major reasons so many veterans are holding student loans is, counterintuitively, the increased availability of federal money to pay for education, which has attracted bad actors looking to lure veterans to enroll so they can capture some of those dollars, critics say. In some cases these schools cost more than what the benefit covers — up to $19,200 a year for four years — forcing students to take on loans.
Vets urge U.S. military to remove barriers preventing Sikhs from serving (Vice News)
A band of retired military leaders and religious advocates are rallying this Veterans Day to call for devout Sikhs be allowed to serve in the military while keeping their beards, unshorn hair, and turbans, which are worn for religious reasons. Twenty-seven retired commanders from the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps have signed a letter addressed to U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter encouraging him to remove barriers that effectively prevent observant Sikhs to serve without being forced to violate their religious obligations or undergo a long exemption process. “On Veterans Day, we honor Americans who have served our country, but it’s also a time to understand there are some Americans who still struggle for the basic right to serve,” retired US Army Lieutenant General Mark Hertling said in a statement. The signatories of the letter called the military out for its “presumptive ban” on Sikhs. Imposed in 1981, the ban restricts service members from wearing articles of faith, citing “the importance of uniformity and adhering to standards,” although occasional exceptions have been made. But in the last six years, the military has made temporary accommodations for only three Sikhs. While Sikhs are relatively rare in Western militaries, Canada’s new defense minister, Harjit Sajjan, is a decorated Sikh soldier who was applauded for his intelligence-gathering efforts in Afghanistan. He also patented a gas mask that was designed to fit over his beard and turban.
Obama’s Veterans Day message focuses on jobs (The Washington Post)
President Obama focused his Veterans Day remarks on the growing ranks of former troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan and are now searching for new ways to serve their country at home. “We’re in the midst of a new wave of American veterans,” said Obama, referring to a generation of men and women who have weathered the longest stretch of war in U.S. history. Those veterans have struggled in recent years to get care from an overwhelmed Department of Veterans Affairs. They’ve faced a higher unemployment rate than their civilian peers and an increase in suicides. At Arlington National Cemetery on Wednesday, Obama spoke of progress in reducing wait times for veterans and a plummeting unemployment rate among vets. He stressed the country’s continuing obligation to do more to improve the Department of Veterans Affairs and help veterans find work. The tenor of the president’s visit to the cemetery this Veterans Day offered a striking counterpoint to past trips. On his first Veterans Day as president, Obama made his way somberly through Section 60 of the cemetery, where the dead from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are buried. Clad in a black overcoat, he spent time with families of the deceased who had come to stand vigil in the cemetery despite a cold rain. The president made the case that the country must continue to do more to help veterans find steady jobs. “They’re exactly the kind of people we need to keep America competitive in the 21st century,” Obama said. “That’s why more and more companies are hiring veterans. Not out of charity, not out of patriotism or some moral obligation — although they do have those obligations — but because they know it’s good for their bottom line.”
How an Alabama WWII vet convinced Eisenhower to create Veterans Day (Yellowhammer News)
Americans all over the country Wednesday celebrated the United States’ 61st annual Veterans Day. In Birmingham, as in countless other cities and towns around the the state and nation, citizens headed downtown to enjoy a parade in honor of the men and women who serve our nation in the Armed Forces. Veterans Day parades are always memorable events, often showcasing American heroes who are an inspiration to us all. But in Alabama, parade attendees are carrying on an incredible legacy, whether they realize it or not. In 1945, a World War II veteran from Birmingham named Raymond Weeks led a delegation to Washington, D.C. to urge then-Army Chief of Staff General Dwight Eisenhower to support their efforts to create a national holiday honoring all U.S. veterans. Since 1919, Americans had celebrated Armistice Day each Nov. 11, the anniversary of the end of World War I. President Woodrow Wilson declared it a day of remembrance and reflection to honor the bravery and heroism of World War I vets. Weeks hoped to expand the holiday to honor all U.S. veterans, but while Eisenhower was receptive to his idea, he was not in a position to unilaterally make the change. Undeterred, Weeks set out in 1947 to organize a “National Veterans Day,” to include parades and other festivities. That year, Birmingham held the nation’s first ever Veterans Day parade. Seven years later, with Dwight Eisenhower now occupying the White House, U.S. Representative Ed Rees from Eisenhower’s home state of Kansas pushed a bill through Congress establishing Veterans Day. Eisenhower signed it into law almost a decade after Weeks had first come to him with the idea. In 1982, then-President Ronald Reagan honored Weeks at the White House with the Presidential Citizenship Medal and declared him the “Father of Veterans Day.” From 1947 until his death in 1985, Weeks organized Birmingham’s famed Veterans Day parade.
Secretary Vilsack: USDA has hired 11,000 veterans (AgWeb.com)
On Nov. 11, 2015, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack let his staff at USDA know a few things about Veterans Day, starting with the fact that USDA has made a concerted effort to hire more than 11,000 veterans to date. “In recent years, we’ve expanded our commitment to bringing on board more former service members, participating in a wide variety of veterans’ hiring efforts coordinated with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense,” he says. Vilsack also made note of the formation of the USDA Veterans Employment Program office, wherein veterans can access counseling, career help and employment consideration. Other outreach efforts include helping more than 6,500 veterans secure more than $400 million in farm loans for farmland and equipment purchases and upgrades. A separate “microloan program” has provided more than $24 million to 1,154 veterans to grow their farming operations. “When Service members return home, we want them to know that rural America has a place for them and that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has tools and resources to help them follow their dream of starting a farm or ranch business-no matter where they’re from,” Vilsack says.
George W. Bush surprises vets visiting the Bush Center (DallasNews.com)
A group of veterans were in for quite a surprise Tuesday while touring the George W. Bush Presidential Center. As the group toured the Oval Office exhibit on Veteran’s Day, former President George W. Bush made a surprise entrance, speaking and taking pictures with the group of veterans. “One of the things I’m dedicated to, for the rest of my life, is helping vets,” Bush said. “I miss saluting those who wear the uniform. And the reason why is after we got attacked on 9/11, I made it clear that we were going to defend ourselves and millions of people volunteered, not thousands but millions, such as you all.” Bush also made a surprise appearance at the Daughters of World War II “Celebration of Heroes Among Us” at the Hilton Anatole, where he talked about his father, former President George H.W. Bush, who served in the Navy in World War II. “He never talked about the war,” Bush said, adding his father was like many World War II veterans who were “short on words and long on action.” The former president has made veterans’ well-being and their re-entry into society one of the Bush Institute’s priorities. The institute hosts two annual events — the Warrior Open and the Warrior 100K mountain bike ride — to honor the veterans and encourage them to incorporate sports into their recovery. The events are one way the Bush Center is working to address the many issues facing veterans, such as the high rate of unemployment. The center also hosts summits and researches the transition back to civilian life.
Texas governor calls for improved veterans’ health services (Texas Tribune)
Calling on the federal government to improve health care services for veterans, Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday said that decreasing the wait times for veterans seeking medical attention should be a national priority. “Those who have served in the United States military on the front lines should get to go to the front of the line when it comes to accessing health care,” Abbott said during a Veterans Day address on the south steps of Texas Capitol. “America must do a better job of addressing [veterans’] health care needs.” The governor’s speech followed a Veterans Day parade through downtown Austin, which featured several veterans associations, groups clad in colonial-era garb and several high school marching bands. Veterans were welcomed to come up the Capitol steps to join Abbott and other officials, including U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, and state Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin, during the ceremony. Abbott said he was glad to see the large crowd, which included veterans from every war involving the U.S. since World War II. But he emphasized a need for veteran-friendly policies — not just parades. “We know that a single day of pomp and parade is inadequate to truly repay the debt of gratitude we owe,” Abbott told the crowd.
Arizona prisons launch new program for veterans (Tucson.com)
The Arizona Department of Corrections is launching a new program aimed at helping incarcerated veterans successfully re-enter society and avoid returning to prison. The “Regaining Honor” program announced Tuesday will be based at the state prison in Tucson but may be expanded to other prisons if it is successful. The program will initially serve about 125 minimum security inmates who are within two years of their release date. They must adhere to strict code of conduct and will be allowed to participate in community projects, flag handling ceremonies and physical training. They also will be offered veteran-specific classes, workshops and release planning supported by government and community groups. The program will be open to inmates who earned honorable, general, or medical discharges from the military.