VA: We don’t have ‘legal authority’ to require return of $400K in scam (Stars & Stripes)
The Department of Veterans Affairs will not try to recoup more than $400,000 from two senior VA executives who manipulated the hiring system to get their jobs of choice and received hundreds of thousands in extra money to relocate. The agency has remained silent on questions about its decision to demote and transfer but not fire executives Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves, and whether it would collect repayment of those relocation benefits. The original statement from the VA announcing the decision said the women had the right to appeal their reassignments. But Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said the VA’s top lawyer has determined that the agency does not have the legal authority to recoup the money, even after acknowledging that the women had abused their offices. “I am flabbergasted,” Miller said in a letter to VA Secretary Bob McDonald, released Tuesday. “How can it be that the law prohibits recouping benefits paid to, or on behalf of, employees who only received those benefits because they abused their positions of authority? To put it mildly, VA’s decision defies common sense.” On Sept. 28, 2015, the VA Inspector General’s office issued a report finding that Rubens and Graves had “inappropriately used their positions of authority for personal and financial benefit” by arranging the transfer of subordinates whose jobs they wanted and then volunteering to fill the vacancies.
Vets group: Latest debacle shows VA secretary part of the problem (The Blaze)
After the Veterans Affairs waiting list scandal last year, the Obama administration pledged to vastly improve the department, but the agency’s new leadership has done little to improve matters, a veterans advocacy group contends. Those advocates worry one problem was traded for another. Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald — brought in to clean up the mess after the waiting list scandal — has not acted swiftly enough, said John Cooper, spokesman for Concerned Veterans of America. “Secretary McDonald has done very little to demonstrate his commitment to accountability and reform,” Cooper told TheBlaze. He added, “Secretary McDonald has clearly shown that when it comes to reforming the toxic culture at the VA, he is part of the problem, not the solution.” The VA has more than 425,000 cases in the veterans appeals system, the Los Angeles Times reported. The report comes on the heels of the department’s recent claims that those waiting 125 days or more for treatment has plummeted from 600,000 in 2014 to 80,000. Cooper multiple criticisms of McDonald included the secretary’s inflation of the number of people who had been disciplined. The Washington Post Fact Check column gave McDonald “Four Pinocchios,” the worst ranking on the newspaper’s truth scale, for saying, “We have proposed disciplinary action against 300 individuals for manipulating scheduling.” Cooper also decried the secretary’s opposition to the VA Accountability Act, which would give the VA secretary the authority to fire employees who were unethical or incompetent. The key problems, according to veteran advocates, are occurring in the Veterans Benefits Administration, which provides financial and other assistance to veterans and their families, and the Veterans Health Administration, which oversees various claims such as disability.
Lawmaker calls on VA secretary to fire 2 former directors (The Denver Post)
U.S. Representative Mike Coffman on Tuesday called for the firing of two former executives in the Veterans Administration. Coffman, Chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, called on Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Alan McDonald to fire Diana Rubens, former Director of the Veterans Benefit Administration Philadelphia Regional Office, and Kimberly Graves, former Director of the VBA’s St. Paul Regional Office. Coffman, in a media release, said the pair were demoted Friday for fraudulently bilking U.S. taxpayers out for more than $400,000. Rubens and Graves both inappropriately used their positions to create vacancies, which they could then fill, for their own financial benefit, Coffman said. They collected the hefty sum through moving expenses when they relocated to fill the positions they created, the release said. “This continued tolerance of blatant fraud by VA leadership perpetuates the culture of corruption that now defines VA, a culture which ultimately harms our veterans and American taxpayers,” Coffman said. “I call on Secretary McDonald to explain why these officials received a minimal demotion and were not fired.”
Lawmakers respond to Salem VA Christmas tree ban (WSLS-Roanoke)
The Salem VA Medical Center’s Christmas tree ban caught the eye of lawmakers in Washington. WSLS first reported the letter sent to employees saying Christmas trees wouldn’t be allowed in public areas this year because trees were considered religious symbols. After a heated meeting with employees the medical center reversed the decision saying “After a lengthy discussion, it was determined that Christmas trees could be displayed in public areas so long as they were accompanied by the respective symbols of the two other faiths that celebrate holidays during this holiday season – namely the Jewish Menorah, or Hanukkah Lamp, and the Kwanzaa Mkeka (decorative mat) or Kinara (candleholder).” The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller wrote a letter to the VA Secretary Robert McDonald saying: “Though the medical center has since repealed this decision, the incident demonstrates the persisting confusion regarding Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) stance on religious symbols and celebrations among its employees.” Chairman Miller asks for a “detailed plan describing the steps VA is taking to improve employee training so that no further confusion or controversy will persist” by December 2. This isn’t the first letter Miller has written to the VA about confusion. In January 2014, Miller wrote to then Secretary Eric Shinseki about the need for change after he said there were reports of the following:
• VA officials in Iowa City, Iowa told American Legion representatives they could not hand out gifts to veterans fi the wrapping paper included the words “Merry Christmas”
• The Augusta, GA VA Medical Center banned carolers from singing Christmas songs contacting religious references in public patient areas, but approved caroling from a list of “government approved” secular songs
• Dallas VA Medical Center leaders prevented the delivery of handwritten Christmas cards from local school children to veterans because the cards contained phrases such as “Merry Christmas” and “God Bless You”
• VA personnel at the Montgomery, AL VA Medical Center prevented gift bags from being delivered to veterans because they included the words “Merry Christmas”.
Editorial: The VA keeps finding new ways to fail veterans (Washington Examiner)
“If you thought you had seen the full extent of perfidy at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, think again. This week, the Washington Examiner reported that the agency is once again stalling veterans who seek to claim the benefits they were promised, once again in an effort to game the metrics by which agency performance is measured. The agency is now refusing to answer Congress’s questions about its backlog of benefit applications from military veterans. It is unclear at this point how extensive this new problem is, but in just one office in Atlanta, the agency has put 1,833 applications from combat veterans in limbo. Veterans Affairs is claiming that these applications are incomplete because they do not include the applicants’ personal financial information. But combat veterans do not need to provide that information because they are eligible regardless. This is precisely the kind of sleight of hand that Veterans Affairs managers have been using for years to push the blame for the agency’s backlog on its victims. Last week, top Veterans Affairs officials were accused of deliberately failing to tell newly retiring veterans to include their discharge papers when applying for benefits. The reason? This plan, which agency employees described in internal emails, allowed officials to blame the applicants themselves for its ever-growing backlog of 800,000 applications. What is evident is that the bureaucracy at Veterans Affairs has failed to learn from the scandal that has roiled the agency since spring 2014.”
VA policy changes could limit help to some homeless vets (KOMO-Seattle)
Some homeless veterans could find safe homes just a little tougher to locate if the Veteran’s Administration changes a policy in the next few weeks. It’s part of KOMO’s ongoing coverage into veteran’s issues. On Tuesday, Senator Patty Murray visited a Seattle shelter that could be affected. Veterans from around the area stopped by Michael’s Place, a shelter for homeless vets. “I don’t know where I’d be if I didn’t have this house,” said Navy veteran Ernest Matthews. This day, they weren’t looking for a meal or a bed but, a chance to meet Senator Murray, to tell her about the shelter and thank her for her service. “It’s a wonderful program,” James Hemingway told the Senator, “and they deserve all the support, especially what you’re providing, something that gives you hope.” Michael’s Place is specifically for veterans, with a clean, secure place to live, and the support to move them back into permanent jobs and homes of their own. The staff figures 85% of the vets they help here, move on successfully. It’s been a lifesaver for over a hundred veterans. But, with changes of VA policy, some of those success stories might be cut short. Last summer the VA began to bar vets with less than two years of service or a less than honorable discharge from receiving homeless services. Senator Murray convinced the VA to hold off, but only temporarily. “They served our country,” said Senator Murray. “Things happened in their lives, they shouldn’t be told ‘well now we’re not going to help you out.’ ” Matthews is one of those vets who initially was turned away from Michael’s Place because of the VA change. He only got in after Seantor Murray’s actions. He’d been living in a temporary shelter and had just been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, so his regular jobs involving heavy lifting were no longer possibilities. He was in a tough position. “So when I finally got in here I was, it was like I could breathe a little bit,” he said. In October, the Senate unanimously passed Murray’s bill, preventing the VA change. It’s now up to the House and Murray said they need to act swiftly because within weeks, the VA is going to go ahead with the policy change.
Problem with surgical equipment causes Ann Arbor VA to halt surgeries (MLive.com)
The VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System had to cancel and move surgeries because of inorganic materials on surgical equipment caused by a water main break. Hospital workers noticed micro-particulates on surgical equipment the week of Nov. 9 and stopped all surgeries to find the cause of the particulates, said Derek Atkinson, VA public affairs officer. “There were never any veterans put in danger because of this situation,” he said. “The big thing is it’s been an inconvenience for our veterans.” The VA Ann Arbor investigated the cause of the inorganic materials with the help of national experts, he said, and in the meantime, offered veterans the opportunity to go to the University of Michigan Health System for their surgeries. Atkinson said the VA now is working on a limited caseload as it fixes the water main. Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, sent a letter dated Nov. 23 to the to VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System Director Robert P. McDivitt asking for a detailed look at patient safety. She also requested the status of construction of the new Sterile Supply Service area. Dingell said the situation is concerning even if the hospital has ensured no veterans are at risk, and said her office will work with the VA to fix the problem. “Our veterans have made numerous sacrifices for our nation, and we have an obligation to make sure they are properly cared for,” she said.
Vietnam vet’s lost dog tag returned after 46 years (ABC News)
A Vietnam War veteran has been reunited with his lost dog tag after 46 years. Retired Army Sgt. Donald P. Winterhalter of Brookline, New Hampshire, served in the 82nd Airborne Division in Vietnam for nine months in 1969, when he lost the ID. So he was surprised when a pair of Vermonters, Dinh Vu and Don Edwards, contacted him recently about the dog tag. After a series of emails and phone calls, he agreed to meet the two neighbors at Brookline restaurant Chrysanthi’s. “It was an incredible story, it really was. After 46 years, [the dog tag] wasn’t something I was thinking about,” Winterhalter, 69, said. In mid-July, Vu asked Edwards for help finding the owner of an old dog tag his mother-in-law had given him when he returned home four years ago for a visit to Vietnam. The dental lab assistant said his mother-in-law started her own business in Vietnam making suitcases and backpacks out of old uniforms in 1983. Seven or eight years later, Vu said, his brother-in-law and his wife stumbled across the dog tag in the backyard in Hoc Mon, Vietnam. “They were playing in the backyard and found the dog tag,” Vu told ABC News. “It was a reddish color and he told my wife it looked like blood so they showed it to my mother-in-law who thought the owner had died.” Vu’s mother-in-law then kept the identification tag for decades before giving it to Vu under one condition: “My job was to return the dog tags; that was my mission. I just did my part. Mission accomplished.”
VA embedding psychologists on college campuses (Military Times)
The Department of Veterans Affairs has deployed a contingent of mental health helpers to dozens of campuses across the country. Dubbed VITAL — short for Veterans Integration to Academic Leadership. The program is designed to make it easier for student veterans to get help. “VITAL focuses on supporting veterans to address any issues or barriers — internal or external — so they may meet their educational goals and be successful in school,” says Kai Chitaphong, VITAL’s national director. “All of our VITAL coordinators are licensed clinical psychologists or social workers who, depending on the student veteran’s preference, can provide clinical counseling on campus or refer them to our closest VA medical center or community-based outpatient clinic for care.” The program has grown from five locations its first year in 2011 to more than 100 colleges and universities, 23 medical centers and 16 Veterans Integrated Services Network locations.