VA officials dodge questions over relocation bonuses (Military Times)
House Veterans Affairs Committee members on Monday evening finally got the five VA witnesses they demanded last month, but they didn’t get many new answers on the department’s ongoing relocation bonus scandal. Two officials at the heart of the latest department embarrassment refused to answer any committee questions on their alleged schemes to game the bonus program for personal gain, instead invoking their Fifth Amendment rights against self incrimination. Three other department witnesses also subpoenaed by the congressional panel painted a picture of a flawed employee reassignment process but not the systemic, corrosive corruption that several lawmakers have accused top department officials of allowing to fester. “If I could go back in time, I still would have made all the moves,” said VA’s acting Undersecretary for Benefits Danny Pummill. He blamed the “second and third order” problems of the bonus program on the department moving too quickly to get the right people in posts that needed immediate improvements, to better help veterans. The VA inspector general sees the problems differently. At issue are findings from an IG investigation that senior executives misused interoffice moves to bump up their pay while reducing their job responsibilities, at a significant cost to taxpayers. The Veterans Benefits Administration spent more than $1.5 million on 21 questionable senior executive reassignments over the past three fiscal years. The investigation was spurred by two specific cases. Philadelphia VA Regional Office Director Diana Rubens stands accused of getting more than $288,000 in moving expenses compensation to switch from a job in nearby Washington, D.C., and St. Paul, Minnesota, VA Regional Office Director Kimberly Graves received nearly $130,000 in a similar job switch scheme. Both women were forced to appear before the committee, and both refused to answer any questions on the advice of their lawyers. Pummill said both women have been informed of punitive actions the department intends to take against them, but exactly what that entails won’t be made public until the end of the week.
VA doesn’t know why more than 2,500 employees were on paid leave (Stars & Stripes)
More than 2,500 employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs were placed on paid leave for at least a month last year, and the agency acknowledges it didn’t track the details and the reasons they were sent home, according to newly released information. The tab in salary for these absences — ranging from 30 days to more than a year for 46 employees — came to $23 million, according to a report provided to several congressional Republicans. VA, responding earlier this year to requests from Congress to account for why so many federal workers linger on paid leave, often when they are accused of wrongdoing, said it was reviewing its policies on what is known as administrative leave. Officials acknowledged that in the absence of government-wide guidance on the issue, they do not have a consistent policy for recording and tracking paid leave and why it occurs. But a top Senate Republican who is examining the use of paid leave throughout the federal government last week called VA’s response “largely vague, incomplete, or incoherent” in a letter to Secretary Robert McDonald. Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, writing of VA’s “troubled record with respect to the use of administrative leave,” suggested that many employees who are sent home have come under internal investigation for whistleblowing about long wait times for medical appointments and other problems with veteran care and benefits. Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, asked McDonald to provide details by next week on every VA employee placed on administrative leave for more than one year, including why the incident mandated a lengthy leave period, and any policies on how leave is tracked. His letter comes on the heels of a similar demand for data from the Department of Homeland Security, which had 88 employees on paid leave in fiscal 2014 for more than a year. The Government Accountability Office, in the first accounting of paid leave across the government, found last year that VA had put 6,000 employees, or 2 percent of its workforce, on administrative leave for one to six months from 2010-2013. The audit, first made public by The Washington Post, found that 53,000 civilian employees were kept home for one to three months during the three fiscal years that ended in September 2013. About 4,000 of them were idled for three months to a year and several hundred for one to three years. The tab for these workers exceeded $700 million in salary, auditors found.
Veterans not applying for discharge status upgrade; Pentagon blamed (Hartford Courant)
Very few veterans take advantage of a Pentagon policy designed to make it easier for veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to upgrade their discharge status and become eligible to apply for veterans’ benefits, according to a Yale Law Clinic report. At a news conference Monday, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., veterans, and Yale law students, blamed the Department of Defense for not adequately publicizing the policy to veterans with less than honorable discharges. Since new guidelines were announced last year, just 201 of tens of thousands of eligible veterans applied for a PTSD-related service upgrade, according to the report. Blumenthal called the statistic “a staggering, outrageous fact.” “Veterans on the streets of New Haven or Connecticut or the rest of the country have no idea about this,” Blumenthal said. “It takes a vigorous and rigorous effort, which the DOD committed to and they have failed,” he added. Sundiata Sidibe, a student in the law school’s Veterans Legal Services Clinic, called the number of applicants “miniscule.” In previous years, an average of 39 veterans applied annually for status upgrades in connection with PTSD, the report states. Blumenthal, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, had asked the Pentagon to give the committee a progress report by August 2015 on its efforts to inform veterans about the policy. A report was never submitted, he said. The DOD did not respond to a request for comment. “There’s a lot of unfinished business here,” said Garry Monk, a founder of the National Veterans Council for Legal Redress. Blumenthal said that former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel gave a “firm commitment” that applicants with PTSD who sought service discharge upgrades “would be reviewed with liberal consideration. That means nothing if there are no applications.”
VA: Tomah chief of staff fired without settlement (Military Times)
The psychiatrist at the center of a prescription drug scandal at the Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Wisconsin, was fired without any settlement or negotiation, VA officials said Monday. Medical center Chief of Staff Dr. David Houlihan had been on administrative leave since Jan. 16 while VA officials looked into allegations he improperly prescribed painkillers and other medications to the extent he had earned the nickname “Candy Man” by some veterans. The Associated Press broke news of Houlihan’s termination Friday afternoon; VA officials later released a statement confirming his relief effective Nov. 9 and added Monday that he was fired and not allowed to retire, as other VA administrators embroiled in scandals, including another at the Tomah VA, previously have been allowed to do. His clinical privileges also have been revoked, VA officials said. “The letter communicating [the employee’s] removal specified a future effective date because, by VA policy, Title 38 employees are not subject to immediate termination, but are generally entitled to receive notice of the decision to terminate at least five days prior to the effective date of the action,” a VA spokesman said. Houlihan is the second official to be fired from the facility; medical center director Mario DeSanctis left in September, but he entered into a settlement with VA that allowed him to resign in lieu of removal, according to House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla.
VA team blasts Phoenix personnel office (AZCentral.com)
A task force sent by the Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters to launch reforms at the Phoenix VA medical center wound up being stymied and sent away by local hospital leaders this year, according to internal records obtained by The Arizona Republic. “Our hands were tied at every decision point,” says a March 30 report by the panel of national experts. “Instead of our expectation to work with a leadership team that genuinely desired positive change, we were met with a leadership team that displayed obstructionist attitudes, and clearly lacked integrity.” The Human Resources Restoration and Revitalization task force, known as HR³, was sent to Arizona in mid-2014 and again early this year to study and repair a “broken” personnel system that contributed to under-staffing, delayed appointments and abusive practices in the Phoenix VA Health Care System. Its mission: to improve hiring processes, record-keeping and oversight in an organization that serves about 80,000 veterans. Upon arrival at Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center in May 2014, the team determined that Phoenix’s Human Resources Management Service was “severely under-resourced.” Nearly a third of the HR staff had quit, and those who remained were using antiquated data systems. “But perhaps the most glaring find of the assessment was the poor state of the office culture,” according to the team’s report, which is marked “Pre-decisional — Not for Publication.” “There were widespread allegations of employee mistreatment, retaliatory tactics, illegal hiring practices, veteran discrimination, nepotism, bullying and an overall abuse of power. The work environment was clearly toxic, and having a negative impact upon HR operations, which ultimately impacted their core mission of hiring those who could provide access to care.”
Were you or your relatives exposed to mustard gas? (NPR.org)
NPR has compiled the first public database of American veterans who were secretly exposed to mustard gas in military experiments conducted during World War II. Officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs told NPR that since 1993, the agency could only locate 610 test subjects, to offer compensation to those who were permanently injured. NPR’s database, compiled over six months, includes more than 3,900 individuals and information about the last known location of more than 1,700 of them. Information in the database comes from records NPR obtained in the course of reporting on the secret experiments. Our investigation found that the VA denied compensation to veterans who qualified for it, and that in addition to evaluating protective suits and gas masks, some of the tests were conducted to look for racial differences that could be exploited in combat. You can search the database by clicking in the headline link above.
VA: Data validates Hampton ‘Veteran X’ program (Newport News Daily Press)
Inspirational stories are common at Veteran X, a program started at the Hampton VA Medical Center to help homeless former service members, but advocates lacked data to measure its effectiveness. That is no longer the case. Initial research on Veteran X has been completed, and the numbers look good, VA officials said Monday. “The results are very significant and unequivocal,” said Sarah Magnes, deputy chief mental health officer for the regional network that includes the Hampton VA. The findings should bolster support to further expand Veteran X throughout the national VA network. The Department of Veterans Affairs has cited the Hampton program as a best practice. “Now there is scientific evidence,” she said. “It’s a tool we can use to support the growth of Veteran X in the country … and in Hampton.” Programs are already up and running in 22 VA medical centers across the country, said David Shaw, team leader on the Veteran X Program Dissemination and Implementation Project. While it was challenging to develop training materials for other VA centers, the concept has gained traction. From an initial focus on veteran homelessness in its early stages, the Veteran X approach has been adapted to deal with PTSD and other issues. That’s not bad for a program that began with a meeting of just four veterans at Hampton in 2009. Today, the average group size in Hampton is in excess of 45 veterans. Veteran X is the brainchild of Tom Pratt, a peer support specialist at Hampton who was once homeless. He developed a unique form of peer counseling that involves role playing.
SVA, VA begin Phase 2 of ‘Million Records Project’ (Military.com)
The Department of Veterans Affairs, the Student Veterans of America (SVA), and the National Student Clearinghouse have signed a Memorandum of Agreement to track and measure the academic outcomes of student veterans using the Post-9/11 GI Bill. The program is known as the National Veteran Education Success Tracker and it builds upon the SVA Million Records Project. The Million Records Project is a public-private partnership which began in 2013. The Million Records Project initally studied a random sample of approximately 1 million student veteran records based on their use of the Montgomery and Post-9/11 GI bills from 2002 to 2010. The research examined:
- the rate of degree completion among veterans
- the amount of time it takes veterans to receive a degree
- the highest degree veterans attain
- a breakdown of degree fields that veterans are enrolled in
The data gathered from the first phase of the Million Records Project allowed comparisons of how different schools serve veterans, and how veterans fare in comparison to the general student population. This second phase of the project, which is set for release in April of 2016, will look at veterans using the Post-9/11 GI Bill in a more detailed light, measuring such factors as:
- how often veterans transfer among schools
- when in their academic careers veterans withdraw from school
- how long veterans remain enrolled in school
The National Student Clearinghouse will compare data provided by the VA with its own higher education data, which tracks graduation rates for 98% of all postsecondary students in the country. The detailed data gathered in both phases of the Million Records Project should help government policymakers, the VA, veterans’ service organizations, and schools develop solutions about how best to support veterans in higher education, and help tailor existing services and products to make them more efficient and effective.
Hiring initiatives, networking efforts aim to place vets in jobs (U.S. News & World Report)
A veteran hiring initiative that already has placed hundreds of thousands of returning U.S. soldiers into the civilian labor force over the last several years is expanding its goal and scope of operations, now aiming to find work for 1 million veterans. The initiative – formerly known as the 100,000 Jobs Mission – on Monday rebranded itself as the Veteran Jobs Mission and is among a host of efforts cropping up across the country aimed at helping military personnel more seamlessly transition back into civilian life. “I will tell you, it is hard to take off the uniform. Even for theoretically mature old guys, it’s just a hard thing to do,” says retired Col. Walter Herd, director of the Army’s Transition Assistance Program. “In most cases, soldiers define who they are by being a soldier. When you no longer have that as your definition, it can shake your foundation if you’re not careful.” The Veteran Jobs Mission was started in 2011 by 11 major U.S. corporations, including Verizon Communications, AT&T, Cisco Systems and JPMorgan Chase. As its original title suggests, the coalition first set out to find jobs for 100,000 returning service members by 2020. “There was a tremendous groundswell of support in terms of hiring veterans that led to more and more companies to join the coalition,” says Ross Brown, director of military and veterans affairs at JPMorgan Chase. He says the coalition has grown in size from the initial 11 firms to more than 200. That influx of support allowed the program to surge past its initial hiring goal early last year, so officials later raised the target to 300,000 veterans. But by the end of September, it had nearly surpassed that mark as well, and the initiative’s name clearly no longer did it justice. “Cognizant of the fact that each year, over 200,000 service members transition from their military service and become veterans, we said that we need to put a mark on the wall of a million,” Brown says, noting that the program will continue pushing its goals higher until “all veterans are effectively employed.”