Lawmakers want to help the VA fire poor-performing workers (Military.com)
Members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee on Wednesday said they could support amending 1978 Civil Service Reform Act in order to make it easier for the Veterans Affairs Department to fire employees who are mismanaging or not performing on the job. “The American public wants accountability. They want accountability from us as members of Congress,” Rep. Tom Walz, D-Minnesota, said when asked the question during a discussion about the difficulties the VA has faced terminating problem executives, including those linked to the patient wait-times scandal. “These [executives] had protections that went well over and above what needed to be done. I’m certainly open to it.” Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, who chairs the House veterans committee, said he also would favor amending the 1978 reform legislation prompted by various federal abuses of the 1970s, including Watergate. The legislation abolished the Civil Service Commission and divided up responsibilities among the Office of Personnel Management, the Merit Systems Protection Board and the Federal Labor Relations Authority, all of which now figure into the termination and appeals process. “The times they are a’changing,” Miller said. “People are angry because they don’t think the federal government is serving them well. … They want people who want do the right thing [for veterans] but people who won’t or can’t do their job? They’ll do something somewhere else, because there are a lot of people ready to come inside the VA … they want to come in and go to work.” The difficulty in firing officials for poor performance and mismanagement prompted Congress last year to pass the VA Accountability Act, which is supposed to make the termination process simpler by speeding up the times of notification and appeals. Miller said that while VA Secretary Bob McDonald claims to have fired about 2,200 employees since he took over the department last year, about half were let go while still in their probationary period. That means they did not have the protections that regular, full-time employees, including executives, have. “I don’t count those as firings, though technically they may be,” he said. He also pointed out that only three executives were fired in connection with the wait times scandal that contributed to the deaths of some veterans. But the former director of the Phoenix, Arizona, VA Medical Center – ground zero for the scandal – was fired for accepting gifts from a would-be vendor, he said. … Miller said it is not only Phoenix, and that the current organizational structure across VA allows for senior executives at the various regional networks to set up their own systems of operation. “There are too many health care networks. Each of these becomes its own fiefdom, even the [individual] medical centers in some places, where the directors surround themselves with their lieutenants and those lieutenants are focused outward to protect the leader. That’s just not the way to help the veterans.”
VA’s small business program still faces ‘serious problems’ (Federal News Radio)
Despite improvements to its verification process and customer service, the Department of Veterans Affairs remains behind in efforts to improve its program for helping veteran-owned small businesses. Testifying before a joint House subcommittee hearing Nov. 4, Tom Leney, executive director of the VA’s Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization, shared a status update on what’s been done to address problems with the Veterans First contracting program —but lawmakers were critical of the amount of progress that’s been made since the last report. “VA has made substantial progress in improving the verification program since the last [Government Accountability Office] report of 2013,” Leney said. “In February 2015, GAO began its newest audit of the program. In short, by the end of [fiscal] 2015, applications were being processed within the regulatory time frame 99.8 percent of the time with an approval rate of 94 percent. Initial applications were processed in an average of 41 days, well below the regulatory target of 60 days.” VA has also started conducting post-verification audits to monitor ongoing compliance, Leney said, and the Center for Veterans Enterprise has established a process for responding to fraud allegations and conducting investigations. Leney said the agency has also “expanded efforts to communicate with veterans about the program.” The agency has provided business owners access to more than 300 counselors, as well as expanded its website for online help and hosting pre-application town hall meetings. Leney said a transformed verification process is scheduled to be fully implemented by the end of April 2016. The Veterans First contracting program was created in 2006 with the goal of using veteran-owned small businesses and service-disabled veteran-owned small businesses for government contracts. VA was responsible for verifying the ownership of these businesses in order to participate in the program. CVE, according to a federal documents, “is responsible for verification operations, such as processing applications.” … William Shear, director of financial markets and community investment at GAO, said that based on some of these changes and actions, “VA has made significant improvements,” but what GAO’s preliminary observations also show, he said, is that the program “lacks a comprehensive operational plan to guide its efforts.” While VA replaced its outdated case management system and intends to restructure its verification process and hire a director, no plan is in place that includes a schedule of actions, goals or milestone dates, Shear said. … Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, said the lack of an operational plan “is a serious problem, especially for an agency that runs most day-to-day businesses through contract employees rather than those within the federal civil service system.” “It is important the CVE get this right,” he said. But Coffman did share with the committee and witnesses that according to an OIG report for 2015, VA procurements total $91.5 billion, of which $3.9 billion went to veteran-owned small businesses, and $3.5 billion of that money went to service-disabled, veteran-owned businesses. While that number is good news, said Rep. Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Small Business Committee Subcommittee on Contracting and Workforce, the Veterans First program “is still in turmoil.”
Report cites Florida VA office for errors on veterans’ disability claims (Law Firm Newswire)
A new report shows that although the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has improved its processing of veterans’ benefits claims overall, the office that processes disability cases for Florida has failed to handle claims properly. The VA regional office in St. Petersburg, Florida, is either overpaying or shortchanging the state’s veterans in some cases. The St. Petersburg office processes disability claims for all of Florida. The report was part of the inspector general’s ongoing review of regional offices throughout the United States. “In recent years, the VA has been experiencing high backlogs and error rates. More oversight is needed to ensure the VA processes claims correctly and in a timely manner,” said David Magann, a Florida veterans attorney. “Veterans deserve to be worry-free when it comes to receiving their disability benefits,” said Magann. The findings reveal that the office inconsistently processed 19 percent of two types of disability claims — 100 percent disability claims and claims for traumatic brain injury. The former is what certain veterans are entitled to after surgery or other treatment. At the end of treatment, however, the VA is supposed to adjust the veteran’s status depending on whether they still qualify for the higher monthly benefit. The mistakes resulted in 54 improper monthly payments being made to seven veterans, totaling almost $45,000. However, the office said the VA has calculated its accuracy rate to be around 90 percent, which correlates with national averages. Despite the errors, the inspectors noted improvement in claims processing by the office since the last inspection in 2012. In light of the inspector general’s report, the St. Petersburg office and the VA’s central office said the necessary improvements would be made to its processing system. If veterans were overpaid due to a VA error, they do not have to pay the money back. “Although the number of errors is not large, the inspector general’s report highlights the ongoing problems with claims processing at the VA. Even with the VA’s recent progress in reducing its backlog, the department still has a long way to go,” said Magann.
NYC council vote could establish Dept. of Veterans Services (New York Daily News)
The (New York) City Council is set to vote to create a new Department of Veterans Services next week, after Mayor de Blasio did an about face and agreed to support the bill. Advocates have been fighting for two years for the bill, sponsored by Eric Ulrich (R-Queens), which would replace the current Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs with a full-fledged city agency. “Whether it’s finding affordable housing to securing good paying jobs and quality healthcare, far too many veterans struggle to transition back into civilian life. Far too many of them feel helpless or ignored,” Ulrich said Wednesday night in a joint statement with Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. “We fundamentally believe we have a moral obligation to help those New Yorkers. This agency is going to listen to the veterans community and be more responsive to their needs.” The de Blasio administration had opposed the bill, and his veterans affairs commissioner Loree Sutton wrote in a Daily News op-ed in May that creating a department “would lead to costly duplication of city services and put it at a greater remove from City Hall.” But Council members and advocates mounted a push to get it passed before Veterans Day. Sources said the mayor was personally lobbying members to kill the bill as recently as Monday, but it retained the support of the vast majority of the Council who considered forcing it through without his support. “We share the Council’s goal of helping our veterans and their families access the services and support they need and deserve in their return to civilian life,” de Blasio said in a statement Wednesday. “The brave men and women who put their lives on the line to protect us deserve access to every opportunity, and we look forward to continuing our support through this new City agency.” The bill gained momentum when Mark-Viverito lent her support, and Ulrich spent Wednesday in meetings with the mayor, he said. … Creating the agency will boost the budget and number of staffers dedicated to housing and jobs for veterans. Advocates argued the previous office was too small and powerless to serve the city’s 225,000 vets. The deal came after de Blasio hosted a ceremony at City Hall Wednesday morning posting the flags of each branch of the armed forces. “This is a tremendous victory for the veterans community,” said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a frequent de Blasio critic. “We’re glad the mayor came around … it’s a great moment. It shouldn’t have been this hard.” The Council plans to vote on the measure Tuesday, the day before Veterans Day.
Veterans’ service dogs trained to wake them from nightmares (Mashable)
We already knew dogs did double duty as friends and heroes, but it’s always nice to get a reminder. Purina’s Better With Pets Summit on Tuesday featured an exhibit from America’s VetDogs focusing on the service canines assigned to assist American veterans. VetDogs provides trained service animals for veterans with low hearing and deafness, low vision and blindness, physical disabilities and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The organization also provides dogs for use in military hospitals and VA recovery programs. At the summit, several service dogs demonstrated a few of their helpful skills, including nightmare interruption — a procedure in which the service dog pulls bed covers off the sleeping veteran if it detects that he or she is having a nightmare. Dogs are also trained in item retrieval. U.S. Army veteran Kent Phyfe, who served in the military for 15 years, received his service dog, Mike, after a recommendation from his VA doctors. Mike assists with, among other tasks, nightmare interruption and pushing buttons — including a 911 button in times of emergency. Phyfe also has neurocardiogenic syncope, a condition that can cause him to faint without warning. Mike is trained to activate a loud, high-pitched alarm should Phyfe pass out. “He is such a large dog — his bark is so loud that it’s not a good thing. It might scare people off,” Phyfe said in a VetDogs video. “So he pulls an alert.” VetDogs reps were pleased with the reaction to Tuesday’s Better With Pets demonstrations. “I believe everyone who stopped by the VetDogs service dogs demonstrations left with a greater understanding of the work that goes into training service dogs, the variety of tasks these dogs are trained to do to mitigate veterans’ disabilities and the strong bond between veteran and dog,” communications manager Bill Krol told Mashable.
Expressive writing may improve functioning among combat vets (News-Medical)
In a study of nearly 1,300 returning veterans reporting reintegration problems, those who completed online expressive-writing sessions showed more improvements than peers who had not written at all or who had engaged only in factual writing. The effects of the intervention, which involved four 20-minute writing sessions, were small. But the researchers say it nonetheless could be a worthwhile step in helping returning veterans, given its low cost and high accessibility. They say it could be used as a stand-alone therapy or as an add-on to formal treatment. The study appears in the October 2015 issue of the Journal of Traumatic Stress. “Online expressive writing, a simple, resource-efficient intervention that can be implemented online without clinician involvement, may be a promising strategy for improving symptoms and functioning among combat veterans who experience reintegration difficulty,” write the authors. Study leader Dr. Nina Sayer points out that the low-tech activity is easily accessed by veterans from all backgrounds. “It has the potential help a large number of people, even if the effect is small,” says Sayer. “Because of this reach to a wide population of veterans, it could make an important difference.” Sayer is with the Center for Chronic Disease Outcomes Research, based at the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Healthcare System, and with the departments of medicine, psychiatry, and psychology at the University of Minnesota. She collaborated with VA and university researchers from several other sites. VA and the Department of Defense funded the work. … Past studies on expressive writing have shown that it generally does have mild therapeutic value for people with various health conditions and adjustment problems. This was the first time it was studied specifically as a way to help veterans cope with reintegration. Some of the study volunteers had a PTSD diagnosis, and others did not, but all had reported at least “a little” difficulty adjusting to civilian life. Veterans with severe depression were excluded, as other research has shown that people in this category do not benefit from expressive writing. Sayer says the findings suggest that veterans with a range of mental health or emotional difficulties–whether or not they have any formal diagnosis, and whether or not they are getting treatment–could benefit from expressive writing. “You don’t need to be clinically diagnosed,” she says. “You don’t need a clinician to refer you to a specialist. You don’t need to wait for an appointment with that specialist. And you don’t need to leave work or travel to a clinic.” She adds that some veterans may think about starting psychotherapy as a result of their writing, and some may bring issues from their writing into their therapy sessions. “It could be that for some people, the experience of writing about their reintegration issues may lead them to think about trying therapy, when they hadn’t thought about doing so before.”
Groups want spotlight on services for homeless vets (Denver Post)
This Veteran’s Day, veteran services organizations in Lakewood want to shed a brighter light on a troubling reality: veteran homelessness. There are a multitude of services in the area, though they may seem out of reach. “It’s quite a myriad maze,” said Scott Hefty, chief probation officer for the city of Lakewood. “It’s really hard to navigate the system, especially if you have a medical condition, which a lot of the veterans do.” Hefty heads a program to assist veterans in finding the care they need, whether it be housing, health care, substance abuse services, transportation, etc. But for each veteran, there are hurdles. The difficulty of the process leaves some veterans discouraged. “It can be overwhelming,” said Hefty. To alleviate some of the hurdles, the Lakewood Municipal Court System holds veterans’ court at 10 a.m. every other Tuesday morning. At court, Hefty offers services to the veterans. The program is strictly voluntary, but the court provides an incentive to participating. “The vets coming into contact with us are ones being charged with shoplifting, trespassing and those types of charges. If they participate, we give them an incentive to dismiss their charges,” said Hefty. Currently, there are seven veterans in the program; five of them are homeless. Hefty and his team have found housing for four veterans in the past six months. Hefty wants to put a focus on homeless veterans this Veterans Day because he feels they’re often left in the dark. “The homeless veterans are the most vulnerable and the most forgotten,” said Hefty. “There’s so much we can offer to the people enduring these hardships. We’re constantly out there rattling the bushes and getting people houses, and that time that they’ve unlocked that door for the first time in three years, the look on their face is unbelievable.” … “Veterans Day means to me a time to reflect back to those who served and made the ultimate sacrifice, I like to include all veterans in that — those who served in times of peace and times of war. And what better way to serve them than by helping them get back on their feet and off the streets?”
City of Boston holds first-ever “Housing Surge” for homeless veterans (City of Boston)
Mayor Martin J. Walsh announced today that as part of Boston’s “Homes for the Brave” initiative, the City this morning hosted its first-ever housing surge for veterans at Pine Street Inn. Representatives from 11 partner agencies gathered for the first time in one place to efficiently assist veterans in connecting with housing and housing resources. “One of the biggest barriers for a returning veteran is finding safe, affordable housing,” said Mayor Walsh. “We must do all that we can to honor the men and women who have served our country, and I thank all of the partners who stepped forward to make this event a success. No veteran should be homeless – and in Boston, we are working to make that a reality.” At today’s event, 60 homeless veterans met with representatives from various agencies to better understand the resources available for them to become housed. Veterans were able to speak to the Veterans Administration (VA) to apply for benefits; to the CORI board to learn about their CORI status and how to make appropriate changes to their criminal records; to housing search experts from HomeStart, and work with the VA and the Boston Housing Authority to become certified for housing vouchers that will enable them to afford apartments in the private market. “We at Pine Street Inn were honored to host today’s event,” said Lyndia Downie, President of Pine Street Inn. “We were thrilled at the overwhelming response, with veterans lining up at the door before the event started. To see all the partners working together, and to know that many of these veterans are on their way to being housed, is so very gratifying.” To prepare for the event, the City compiled a list of unhoused veterans, and undertook significant outreach to the city’s shelters and outreach workers to ensure that homeless veterans were aware of the event. Pine Street Inn provided transportation from the city’s shelters so that veterans could easily reach the event, and provided breakfast and coffee to all attendees. Of the approximately 100 homeless veterans on the list, 60 homeless veterans attended today’s event. Thirty-eight personal criminal records were ordered, so that veterans could begin to clear their records to prepare for housing search; 21 veterans were able to order proof of veteran service so that they could become eligible for veterans’ benefits. Twenty-eight veterans were enrolled in rapid rehousing programs, and will now be eligible for help with finding housing, supportive services, and short-term funds to help them get into private market housing, such as rental assistance and security deposit assistance. Fourteen veterans left today’s event with Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) vouchers, which will enable them to immediately begin looking for permanent housing. Nine additional veterans applied for permanent supportive housing programs that do not require VA eligibility.
West Virginia schools commit to increased support for student vets (West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission)
West Virginia’s public two-year and four-year colleges and universities are pledging increased support for student veterans during events to be held this week through the State’s ‘5 Star Challenge’ initiative, which launched earlier this fall. The Challenge, which calls on institutions to adopt a set of exemplary standards for supporting student veterans, is a tribute to the military tradition of issuing “challenge coins” to service members who embody the values and standards of their military units. College and university presidents from across West Virginia will participate in ceremonies pledging their commitment to fulfilling the goals of the Challenge. During each ceremony, student veterans representatives will present the presidents and other campus leaders with a ‘5 Star Challenge Coin.” All public undergraduate institutions in West Virginia have committed to accepting the challenge, which calls for 1) signed commitments from college and university presidents to adopt best practices and standards, 2) a focus on increasing access and affordability to higher education for student veterans and military service members, 3) increased academic support including priority registration for classes, 4) enhancing social networks for veterans and military service members on campus and 5) greater collaboration with community organizations working to meet the needs of military service members. A detailed outline of the Challenge and a list of challenge coin ceremonies can be found at www.cfwv.com, the state’s free college and career-planning website. According to 2015 spring enrollment data, more than 2,700 students are enrolled using Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits within West Virginia’s two-year and four-year public higher education systems. “We are proud to announce that all public four-year institutions in West Virginia have accepted the ‘5 Star Challenge,’” Dr. Paul Hill, Chancellor of the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission (Commission) said. “Their participation in this effort not only acknowledges a sincere commitment to meeting the unique needs of our student veterans, but also results in real policies that will provide tangible benefits to military service members who are pursuing higher education. By providing student veterans with services such as priority registration and building stronger support networks on campus, we are honoring their service to our country and equipping them with the resources they need to succeed.” “Our two-year public colleges are fully committed to providing resources and support to ensure the success of our student veterans,” Dr. Sarah Tucker, Chancellor of the West Virginia Community and Technical College System (WVCTCS) said. “Student veterans contribute so much to our campus communities through their service to our country and their leadership in the classroom. Accepting the ‘5 Star Challenge’ is a way for us to acknowledge their contributions and sacrifices — and to assist them in balancing both their educational pursuits and their unique experiences as past or present military service members.” The 5 Star Challenge is an initiative of the Office of Veterans Education and Training Programs within the Division of Student Affairs at the Commission and WVCTCS. In addition to issuing the challenge to campuses, the Commission and WVCTCS are committing to providing more resources to help student veterans navigate the higher education system and find support on campus and in the community.
GM named top automotive employer for veterans (CNN Money)
The Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency today awarded its first-ever Gold-Level Veteran-Friendly Employer Certification to an automaker, recognizing General Motors for its ongoing efforts to hire and train U.S. military veterans. “The Veteran-Friendly Employer program recognizes companies committed to veteran hiring and allows former service members to identify those employers that best understand their skills and experience,” MVAA Director Jeff Barnes said. “GM has been a longtime ally for Michigan veterans, and I am proud to recognize their ongoing efforts today.” MVAA recognizes employers that commit to military veteran recruitment, training and retention practices by awarding those employers Gold, Silver and Bronze level status as Veteran-Friendly Employers. MVAA’s Veteran-Friendly Employer program helps qualified organizations recruit and retain top veteran talent while providing a guide for others to improve their recruitment efforts. “Veterans bring a unique perspective and strong work ethic – and make us a better, stronger company,” said Ken Barrett, GM chief diversity officer and a former U.S. Navy captain. Earlier this year, GM was also the only company in the auto industry named a Best for Vets Employer by Military Times and a Top 100 Military Friendly Employer by G.I. Jobs and Military Spouse. “We always appreciate being recognized for our efforts, but there is certainly more work to do to help transitioning vets,” Said Steve Hill GM vice president of U.S. sales and service. “Through our national partnerships with Building for America’s Bravest, Hiring Our Heroes and Shifting Gears, we hope to do even more to hire and help America’s veterans.”
The best places for careers for veterans (Forbes)
Oklahoma City has the National Cowboy Museum, a thriving neighborhood of converted warehouses called Bricktown, a rock climbing wall inside a grain elevator and some of the juiciest steaks in the United States. It’s also the best place for veterans to move if they want to pursue a career that makes the most of their experience in the armed forces, according to a new list released today in anticipation of Veterans Day by USAA, a San Antonio financial services company that caters to members of the military, veterans and their families. USAA worked with a Chamber of Commerce Foundation program called Hiring Our Heroes, an initiative started in 2011 to help veterans and their spouses find jobs. This year USAA is releasing three different lists. One has a focus on entrepreneurship, a second on education and a third on careers. We’re highlighting the careers list since many vets struggle to find work after they leave the service. Eighty percent of veterans leave the military after just one term of duty lasting four to six years, and many join the service right out of high school. Among vets under 24, the unemployment rate is 14.2%, compared to 10.5% for non-veterans, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (the numbers are not seasonally adjusted). Vets aged 25-34 have an unemployment rate of 6.1%, compared to 4.9% for non-vets. The transition to a career in civilian life can be tough. “In the military, commanders tell you where to go and what to do,” says Eric Eversole, executive director of Hiring Our Heroes and a member of the navy reserves. “What can be challenging for service members and their families is now they have a choice.” To help veterans make the best choice for their careers, USAA assessed 401 cities to come up with its top 10. For the careers list, it looked for the presence of these criteria:
- Military skill jobs
- Government jobs
- Presence of defense contractors
- Veteran-owned businesses per capita
- Certification/license transfers
- Veteran wage growth
- Small businesses per capita
- Small business pay per employee
- Veteran unemployment
- Recent job growth
- Airport nearby
- Health resources
The cities also had to meet three thresholds. The unemployment rate had to be no more than 1% above the national average, the crime rate had to be below the top 5% for all metro areas and the median cost of living had to be less than 20% of the national average. These lists are especially timely now, given expected cuts in the armed sources. According to Eversole, in the next five years, the Army is expected to cut 40,000 troops on top of the “normal transition of a quarter of a million.” Though increasing numbers of companies have adopted veterans’ hiring programs and the falling unemployment rate has helped veterans, finding work after the service remains a challenge.