VA buried in backlog of unlimited veterans disability appeals (The Los Angeles Times)
It’s a veteran disability case that never ends. In 1985, Ivan Figueroa Clausell filed a claim for a variety of conditions he said stemmed from a car accident while training with the Puerto Rico Army National Guard. The Department of Veterans Affairs ruled that he wasn’t disabled. He appealed and lost. He appealed again and lost again, and again and again. In all, the VA has issued more than two dozen rulings on his case over the years. Still, he continues to appeal. Even after he won and started receiving 100% disability pay, he pressed on in hopes of receiving retroactive payments. “I’m never going to give up,” said the 66-year-old Vietnam veteran. “I don’t care how long it takes.” Figueroa’s is the oldest case among the more than 425,000 now swamping a veterans appeals system that advocates and government officials say is badly broken. The appeals system does not have enough staff to handle the record number of veterans — from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as Vietnam — filing for disability payments over the last decade, then appealing when all or part of their claims are denied. But experts point to a more fundamental problem. Unlike U.S. civil courts, the appeals system has no mechanism to prevent endless challenges. Veterans can keep their claims alive either by appealing or by restarting the process from scratch by submitting new evidence: service records, medical reports or witness statements. They have everything to gain and little to lose by continuing to fight. The backlog has occurred as the VA has celebrated its success in whittling down delays in processing new claims. Fewer than 80,000 veterans have currently been waiting more than 125 days for initial decisions, down from a peak of more than 600,000 two years ago. The number awaiting appeals, however, climbed from 167,412 in September 2005 to 425,480 this October. Veterans’ advocates say the VA has simply traded one problem for another, having shifted many of the agency’s workers from appeals to initial claims. “They’re robbing Peter to pay Paul,” said James Vale, director of benefits for Vietnam Veterans of America. “Congress doesn’t give the VA enough money to hire the staff to do the job.”
2 high-ranking VA officials demoted (Military Times)
Two high-ranking officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs were demoted Friday in response to allegations that they manipulated the agency’s hiring system for their own gain. The VA said in a statement that Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves were demoted from senior executives — the highest rank for career employees — to general workers within the Veterans Benefits Administration. Rubens was paid $181,497 as director of the Philadelphia regional office for the VBA, while Graves earned $173,949 as leader of the St. Paul, Minnesota, regional office. The VA’s acting inspector general said in a report this fall that Rubens and Graves forced lower-ranking regional managers to accept job transfers against their will. Rubens and Graves then stepped into the vacant positions themselves, keeping their pay while reducing their responsibilities. Rubens and Graves refused to testify to Congress earlier this month, telling lawmakers they were asserting their Fifth Amendment rights to protect themselves against self-incrimination. Before taking the regional jobs, Rubens was a deputy undersecretary at the VA’s Washington headquarters, while Graves was director of VBA’s 14-state North Atlantic Region. Rubens and Graves kept their top-level salaries in their new positions, even though they had less responsibility and a lower pay range than their previous positions. Rubens grew up near Philadelphia, while Graves has family in Minnesota, the IG’s report said. In addition to naming themselves to vacancies, Rubens and Graves obtained more than $400,000 in questionable moving expenses through a relocation program for VA executives, the IG’s report said. The two face possible criminal prosecution.
VA, Pentagon take small, but expensive step on medical records (The Fiscal Times)
The Defense Department recently informed Congress it has reached a technical milestone that only took millions of wasted taxpayer dollars and years of constant berating from lawmakers to achieve: It can now provide limited sharing of electronic health records with the Veterans Affairs Department. Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s acquisition chief, recently sent a letter to the leaders of the powerful House Appropriations Committee notifying them that the agency had achieved “interoperability” with the VA’s electronic medicals records, as required by the fiscal 2014 defense policy bill, according to Politico. The agency’s new Joint Legacy Viewer web-based software allows both military and VA health care providers to read health records from multiple sources. Health care providers cannot, however, update or alter records through the system. While significant, the announcement represents just one step in a long process that has infuriated political leaders and veterans throughout the country for years. The two lumbering agencies have been trying since 1998 to integrate medical data so that VA health care providers can access and modify military records in the Pentagon’s medical network. In 2010, the departments created an interagency program office that spent an estimated $564 million on planning to create a joint electronic record before determining in 2013 that the VA should keep using its own system and the Pentagon should find a separate, commercial solution. Last year the Pentagon selected Cerner to be its primary electronic health record provider in a deal that could be worth roughly $9 billion over its 18-year span. Meanwhile, the VA launched a modernization effort dubbed the VistA Evolution Program. Congress provided $182 million for the effort in fiscal 2015, though the upgrade’s final price tag remains unknown. The Pentagon’s announcement is “certainly a step forward,” according to Carlos Fuentes, senior legislative associate for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. While “interoperability is great” because it helps smooth the transition for active duty service members from the Pentagon to the VA, “ultimately what would be best is if there was an integration of DOD and VA records,” he added.
Combat experience is factor in death penalty cases, experts say (Military Times)
Over 22 days in October 2002, John Allen Muhammad and an accomplice terrorized residents of Washington, D.C., shooting 13 people while they shopped, dined, or stopped for gas. Known as the “D.C. Sniper,” Muhammad was an Army veteran who had enlisted in the National Guard at age 18, transferred to the regular Army in 1985 and served three months as a combat engineer in the Persian Gulf War. By his ex-wife’s account, Muhammad was once the “life of the party,” and a good soldier. But he returned home from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait a changed man, “moody, confused, diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder,” Mildred Muhammad said during a speech on domestic violence at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in 2012. Shortly after Muhammad left the Army in 1995, his life began to unravel. He began abusing and threatening his wife, kidnapped his children, and in 2002, systematically began killing people across the U.S. At his trial, Muhammad represented himself. He lost and was sentenced to death. In his final appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court before he was executed in 2009, medical experts said he lacked rational understanding to represent himself, was delusional and actually had three lesions in his brain. Now a new report from the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center argues that Muhammad’s military experience and mental health condition should have been considered as part of his defense and he should not have been allowed to represent himself. In a broader context, the report also charges that the veterans on death row in more than 35 states face a legal system that poorly understands the trauma of war and the significant impacts that combat can have on the human psyche. Few states keep tabs of the number of veterans on death row, but extrapolation of data from several states, including California and Florida, which have the highest known numbers, indicate that 275 to 300 of the nation’s 3,057 death row inmates have served in the military.
VA ignores problem keeping thousands of vets from getting benefits (Washington Examiner)
Thousands of combat veterans are still waiting to learn if they will receive health care benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs, but the agency is refusing to answer Congress’s questions about the backlog. The waiting list includes nearly 2,000 applications that are sitting at just one office in Atlanta, but that the VA refuses to acknowledge as actual applications, according to an agency whistleblower. Scott Davis, a program specialist at the Health Eligibility Center in Atlanta, said the VA is attempting to downplay the number of veterans waiting to be enrolled by ignoring the fact that those 1,833 veterans already applied. Instead, he said, the agency plans to send out letters asking them to apply again in a poorly-timed outreach campaign set for the week of Thanksgiving. “VA should have processed these applications, and this is how the backlog gets started,” Davis told the Washington Examiner. “These applications sit and sit and sit.” “If you’re not enrolled, you cannot get an appointment,” he added. “They’re acting as if it’s the veterans’ burden to correct this issue.” Davis noted the agency has refused to change the way it handles applications from combat veterans, even after a waiting list of 34,000 applications was exposed in July. “The significance is that VA still is not paying attention to combat veteran applications for healthcare from Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. “You would think that the recent exposure from the media would have made them more aware.” Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, asked the VA on Nov. 2 to provide the committee with a list of combat veterans on the health care enrollment waiting list. Although the VA was supposed to provide the list by Nov. 13, it had not done so a week later, a committee aide confirmed.
Salem VA backs down, will allow Christmas trees after all (Daily Caller)
The Salem Veterans Affairs medical center in Virginia has reversed its ban on the display of Christmas trees in public areas at the facility. The ban initially was put in place to avoid giving off the impression that the federal government promotes Christianity over any other religions associated with the holiday season, NBC affiliate WSLS 10 reports. “Trees (regardless of the types of ornaments used) have been deemed to promote the Christian religion and will not be permitted in any public areas this year,” the email sent to employees read. After major backlash from both employees and the public, management convened an employee meeting Friday afternoon and quickly caved. According to the original email sent to employees at the center, NBC affiliate WSLS 10 reports. Salem’s position seemed strange, since even the White House is putting up a Christmas tree. Christmas trees can now be displayed in public areas, provided those public areas also feature symbols from other religions. Those symbols include the Jewish Menorah and the Mkeka, a decorative mat for Kwanzaa.
Ex-VA doctor concerned about vets’ surgeries in Phoenix (AZCentral.com)
A physician formerly at the Department of Veterans Affairs medical center in Phoenix says he was harassed and fired from his job two years ago after he complained that the hospital was improperly supervising the training of surgical residents. Dr. Maher Huttam said he raised concerns that numerous veterans had suffered medical complications from operations performed by student physicians who were insufficiently trained or monitored. In retaliation, Huttam said, he was falsely accused of endangering patients, subjected to religious discrimination and finally dismissed after a “sham” investigation. He also said his medical records were repeatedly compromised by VA staffers. During interviews, and in documents provided to The Arizona Republic, Huttam said he was hired by the Phoenix VA hospital in August 2012. He previously had been in private practice in Virginia after finishing his advanced training at the University of Illinois Medical Center in Chicago. He said he immediately perceived that physicians in training, known as residents, were doing minor surgeries without oversight and taking part in complex operations beyond their ability. Huttam said he also observed supervisory physicians performing advanced laparoscopic procedures without required certification, in violation of VA policies. An Office of Medical Inspector review of Huttam’s allegations did not substantiate them, according to a draft, but the Veterans Health Administration said findings of that review are under review and the issue remains open. Huttam, a specialist in robotic laparoscopic surgery, said he identified instances in Phoenix where mistakes caused complications such as blocked colons, spilled intestines, and abscesses. In some cases, he said, re-operations added to patient danger and suffering.
New director appointed at Phoenix VA hospital (AZCentral.com)
The Department of Veterans Affairs has named a new boss for its troubled Phoenix medical center, appointing social worker Deborah Amdur to a position that has been through a series of fill-in leaders for the past year. “My No. 1 priority is to regain the trust of the veterans we serve,” Amdur said in a telephone interview. “And the way to do that is to deliver high-quality care that is timely.” Amdur previously served as director of the VA hospital in White River Junction, Vt., where she did not escape being caught up in the nationwide scandal over health care for veterans. In April, a newspaper report said she misled a congressman about conditions at her Vermont hospital. Amdur will replace Glen Grippen, one of several interim directors to oversee the Phoenix hospital since former director Sharon Helman was fired last year amid allegations of wait-time manipulation, whistleblower retaliation and conflicts of interest. The Phoenix VA was the ignition point for a nationwide agency crisis over mismanagement, corruption and delayed care for veterans. Amdur, who met recently with some members of Arizona’s congressional delegation, will oversee a system with about 82,000 enrolled veterans who obtain services at the Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center on Indian School Road, as well as several satellite clinics. The medical center has been in constant turmoil, and most of its leadership team has turned over since the VA controversy began 19 months ago.
Advocates look to put more vets to work on Capitol Hill (Military Times)
After years of concerns about the shrinking number of veterans on Capitol Hill, advocacy groups are redoubling their efforts to bring more to the nation’s capital next year. The networking coalition HillVets is planning its first “HillVets House” next summer to bring a contingent of would-be veterans policy staffers into congressional offices. They’ll follow the Veterans of Foreign Wars second class of legislative fellows this spring and the first class in the Vet Voice Foundation’s newly announced fellowship program, set to launch in January. The theme behind the varied programs is identical: Putting more veterans in and around Congress helps better inform veterans policy decisions. HillVets’ own surveys have shown only about 3 percent of lawmakers’ staff members are veterans, despite increased focus among many of those office in recent years on defense and veterans issues. Their new program will provide free housing for at least eight veterans interested in working as unpaid interns in congressional offices. Group officials are hoping to expand the program in coming years to include a stipend and up to 20 fellowships. Costs for the effort are covered through grants from the Atlantic Council and the Bob Woodruff Foundation, with additional fundraisers planned in coming months. Three lawmakers already have signed on as potential landing spots for those internships: Reps. Tim Walz, D-Minn., Don Young, R-Alaska, and Mike Thompson, D-Calif. All three have close ties to HillVets and several congressional caucuses focused on veterans.
University of Maryland alum pledges $1 million for veterans scholarship (Fox 5-DC)
A University of Maryland alum has pledged $1 million to help the school’s veterans. Bruce Richards and his wife Avis, class of 1980, donated the money to provide scholarships to veteran students at the school. To date, it is the largest gift in support of student veterans at the University of Maryland. Although the Post 9/11 GI Bill has provided more than $30 billion in educational funding to veterans, there was a funding gap of around $6,000 per student on average at the university last year. A total of 111 veterans’ needs went unmet. The goal of the Richards’ fund is to help fill that gap by supporting tuition, room and board, and other related expenses for veterans pursuing high education. The Richards have also started a fundraising challenge for veterans’ education, called the “Veterans’ Education $1 Million Matching Challenge.” Every dollar donated between Veterans Day 2015 and 2016 will be matched dollar-for-dollar by the Richards, up to $1 million total.