Veterans have 9/11-linked diseases, advocacy groups say (Military Times)
A veterans advocacy group is calling for the Veterans Affairs Department to grant a presumption of service connection for 13 illnesses recognized in victims and first responders of the Sept. 11, 2001, World Trade Center attacks. Burn Pits 360, a group that represents former service members who developed chronic illnesses after serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, argues that chemicals released during the 9/11 terrorist assault in New York City are the same as those encountered by troops exposed to open-air burn pits and other environmental toxins in the Middle East. The group argues that the Defense Department and VA should provide the same specialized health care and compensation to sick combat troops as the World Trade Center Health Program and Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund do for 9/11 veterans. “We are asking DoD and VA to acknowledge the pulmonary disease, cancers, and other illnesses identified through lung biopsy and symptoms reported by those exposed to deployment-related toxic chemicals,” Burn Pits 360 executive director Rosie Torres wrote in a letter to the Pentagon, VA and the Institute of Medicine in October. DoD and VA need to develop a list of presumptive illnesses and centers of excellence, conduct research and update the national registry to include death entries, she added. More than 45,000 veterans have joined the VA Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, a VA-sponsored, voluntary inventory of veterans who want to be counted as having been exposed to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 28,000 veterans in the registry report higher rates of respiratory illnesses like asthma and emphysema, and some have been diagnosed with rare lung disorders. Veterans also say they have developed cancer and other illnesses related to working at or living near open-air trash pits or being exposed to environmental toxins such as chemical munitions, fine particulate matter and other contaminants in Iraq and Afghanistan. Torres said reports generated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the World Trade Center pollutants, as well as environmental assessments conducted by the U.S. military, show that samples contained such chemicals as benzene, toluene, styrene, anthracene and more. The chemicals are linked to a variety of illnesses, including, anemia, cancer, kidney and lung disease, rashes, mental health conditions and nerve damage.
Survivor benefit offset needs fix, family advocates say (Military Times)
Advocacy groups still have hope that Congress can fix a longstanding problem with survivor payouts to some military families, despite the fact that it rejected the newest proposal circulating on Capitol Hill as “no solution at all” earlier this week. On Wednesday, members of The Military Coalition, an umbrella group of defense and veterans advocacy groups, lobbied members of the House Armed Services Committee to end the offset in the Defense Department’s Survivor Benefit Plan payouts and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Dependency and Indemnity Compensation program. It’s the latest round in a nearly three-decade fight by the groups over what they see as a fundamental unfairness in the two programs designed to help survivors of deceased veterans who thought their families would not face financial woes. “Our widows are already suffering,” said Chris Kinnard, co-chair of the Government Relations Committee for Gold Star Wives of America. “We need to have the offset repealed or adjusted.” Survivors of veterans or troops who die of service-related causes are eligible to receive DIC payouts of around $15,000 a year, designed to help cover the costs related to an unexpected loss. Families of military retirees who enroll in the SBP can receive up to 55 percent of their loved ones’ retirement pay upon their death. The life insurance-type payouts are subsidized by DoD, but require enrollees to pay-in 6.5 percent of their retirement benefit. But under federal rules, when a deceased veteran (or active-duty service member, in certain cases) qualifies for both programs, for every dollar paid out in DIC, payouts under SBP are reduced by one dollar. The result: A loss of up to $15,000 for families already dealing with the loss of a spouse or parent.
Why does the VA own a 5-star luxury hotel in Paris? (The Fiscal Times)
Congress thinks it’s time the scandal-plagued Department of Veterans Affairs got out of the Parisian luxury hotel business. Pershing Hall is a five-star boutique hotel in the heart of Paris, where rooms cost $500 to $900 a night. The building, which once housed a brothel among other unsavory businesses, was purchased by the America Legion in 1928 to honor World War I general John “Black Jack” Pershing and his troops. The U.S. government acquired the property in the 1930s after years of neglect and in 1991 transferred authority for the site to the VA, which almost immediately started looking for ways to sell the place. The agency found a solution in 1998 when it signed a 99-year-lease with a French firm. The extraordinarily long lease, due to expire in 2097, was required under French law so the firm could invest millions to renovate the building, eventually turning it into a fancy little hotel a few blocks from the Seine. … How much VA would actually get for the property is unclear, since most of the price estimates were done before the building was rehabbed. In 1990 agency officials estimated the value between $80 and $100 million. In 1993 the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office assumed the department could sell it for about $14 million.
VA exec finds no reason to fire 2 in $400K jobs scheme (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)
A Veterans Affairs official this week defended the department’s decision to demote but not fire two senior executives who collected $400,000 in a relocation scheme, and pushed back sharply against lawmakers for pressing for punishment rather than accountability for the VA workforce. … Exhibit A at a hearing called to press VA officials on why they have had limited success firing or disciplining employees accused of misconduct was the case of Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves. The senior executives were demoted one rank down to GS 15 on the General Schedule in November in response to allegations that they manipulated VA’s hiring system for their own gain. The agency’s deputy inspector general found in a report this fall that Rubens and Graves forced lower-ranking regional managers to accept job transfers against their will. The women then took the vacant positions themselves, keeping their pay but reducing their responsibility as regional managers in the Veterans Benefits Administration. But Gibson, reading from prepared testimony, said the inspector general’s office exaggerated the actions, which the watchdog’s office has referred to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution. “We won’t administer punishment based on IG opinions, referrals to the Department of Justice, recycled and embellished media accounts, or external pressure,” Gibson said. “It’s simply not right, and it’s not in the best interest of the veterans we serve.”
Senate bill would keep Social Security benefits for federal debtors (The Hill)
Senate Democrats introduced a bill Thursday that would shield Social Security payments for Americans with federal debts, such as veterans with unpaid VA home loans. The bill, introduced by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), would change a law that allows the government to seize earned benefits from people with unpaid student loans, Veterans Administration home loans, food stamp overpayments and other federal debts. “Americans are getting hit by a wrecking ball of increasing college costs, and the last thing they can afford is to have their Social Security benefits reduced to pay off student loans,” said Wyden, the Senate Finance committee’s top Democrat. “Students and their families in Oregon and across the country who have worked to earn their benefits should not be penalized for trying to improve their lives and keep up with the climbing price of higher education.” “These modest benefits put food on the table, pay for prescriptions, and help with monthly bills. When Americans are crushed by student loan payments, they should be able to count on Social Security benefits,” added Brown, who chairs the Finance committee’s sub-panel on Social Security.
Officials: Wichita VA investigating allegations by surgical trainees (The Wichita Eagle)
Allegations by surgical trainees at the Robert J. Dole VA Medical Center in Wichita are under investigation, officials said Thursday. Those allegations have led the KU School of Medicine-Wichita to remove the trainees from a surgical service involving a surgeon at the VA center, school officials said. The action was taken to protect the learning environment for surgical trainees, officials said. The VA is investigating the allegations, officials said. The action stemmed from allegations by surgical residents in post-graduate training, said school spokeswoman Denice Bruce. The surgical residents were removed from the service Tuesday morning to protect the quality and integrity of the training program, said Paul Callaway, associate dean for graduate medical education at KU School of Medicine-Wichita. The removal will remain in effect until the allegations can be substantiated or refuted, Callaway said. Callaway stressed that the removal applied only to a surgical service involving one surgeon at the Wichita VA center. Neither Bruce nor Callaway knew the number of surgical residents affected. They said that any specific information about the nature of the allegations would have to come from Veterans Affairs. In a statement Thursday evening, John Orrell, public affairs officer for the Wichita VA center, said: “If there is a personnel matter that has to do with any staff member … we will not discuss it for the sake of privacy.”
De Blasio signs bill to create NYC’s first Department of Veterans Services (Capital New York)
Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a bill on Thursday to create the city’s first Department of Veterans’ Services, abolishing the current Mayor’s Office of Veterans’ Affairs and expanding the city’s role in serving the needs of its 225,000 veterans. The bill, originally sponsored by councilman Eric Ulrich — a Republican from Queens — and a majority of the city council, will create an independent department with an increased budget, subject to oversight from the council during the budget negotiation process. “The newly created department of veterans’ services will improve our ability to help and empower throughout the five boroughs,” Ulrich said at a signing event with the mayor and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum. “It will strengthen relationships between veterans and the elected officials who represent veterans, put into proper place the checks and balances to make us all just a little bit more accountable and most importantly it’s the right thing to do.” It took Ulrich more than a year to negotiate the bill, which de Blasio initially refrained from supporting, arguing he did not believe creating a department would necessarily help meet the needs of veterans. During the bill signing ceremony, de Blasio invoked the memory of his father Warren Wilhelm, a World War II veteran who lost a leg in Okinawa and came home with mental health issues. De Blasio often talks about his father in citing the importance of mental health services for veterans. “It’s very personal for all of us,” de Blasio said. “My father’s war time service in the Pacific was foundational to everything that came thereafter. I certainly learned from him the most powerful values, in terms of courage, bravery, sacrifice and service.” Wilhelm became an alcoholic after fighting in the war. After being diagnosed with cancer, he committed suicide in New Milford, Conn. in 1979.
New transportation law has provisions for veterans (Military.com)
On December 4, 2015 President Obama signed Public Law 114-94, better known as the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) act, or the the long-term highway funding bill. Buried deep into the law is a provision that may be of interest to many veterans seeking employment as truck drivers. The new law can save veterans thousands of dollars of CDL training that may not be covered by the GI Bill if they have military experience driving similar commercial-type vehicles and want to get a civilian CDL. Also veterans can save the cost of the annual medical exam required for some commercial driving licenses if they visit VA medical facilities. Section 5401 of the law contains a provision that exempts veterans from the driving test for a CDL license if that veteran had experience in the armed forces or reserve components driving vehicles similar to a commercial motor vehicle. This exemption is good for one year after separation from active duty. The law also directs states to credit military training and knowledge “for purposes of satisfying minimum standards for training and knowledge.” Currently, all 50 states offer skills test waivers to veterans who have been out of the military for 90 days or less.
Rubio vows to clean up VA, says veterans deserve better (The Washington Times)
Sen. Marco Rubio said Thursday that the Department of Veterans Affair needs to fire not just the top managers but also the lower-level employees involved in blocking treatment of veterans, as he laid out his own plans to clean up an agency that has become a public symbol of Obama administration dysfunction. The Republican presidential candidate said the VA’s ineptitude touches him personally, as he introduced his older brother, Army vet Mario Rubio, on the campaign trail in Iowa. Mario Rubio served in special forces from 1968 to 1971 and had his teeth knocked in during a training mishap. He still needs dental work, but the VA is resisting his claim and is putting him through a bureaucratic nightmare, the Florida senator said. Marco Rubio said that if he wins the White House, he will demand VA officials be more transparent in their work, will give more veterans the choice of going to private doctors and will impose accountability on the agency by making it easier to fire poor-performing employees. “Those who are not doing a good job will be fired when I’m president,” Mr. Rubio said. The VA has become an unlikely issue on the campaign trail this year, after the agency faced embarrassing reports last year that many of its facilities maintained secret waiting lists, denying veterans the timely care they need while department executives collected bonuses for appearing to manage their caseloads.
Air Force twins receive French Legion of Honor for WWII service (Military.com)
Seventy-one years after their World War II service in the Army Air Forces, identical twin brothers — retired Air Force Reserve Majs. Raymond “Glenn” Clanin and Russell “Lynn” Clanin — received the French government’s highest distinction, the Legion of Honor medal. During an intimate award ceremony Dec. 2 with family and friends at the Schriever Space Complex of the Space and Missile Systems Center, the brothers were honored by Maj. Gen. Robert D. McMurry, Jr., the SMC vice commander, and Christophe Lemoine, the French consul general in Los Angeles. “On behalf of Los Angeles Air Force Base, I’m particularly proud for our ability to host this event,” McMurry said. “The Legion of Honor has been bestowed upon quite a number of World War II veterans. It’s a reminder of the service that they performed and a reminder of the ties that we have between our countries that go back to the Revolutionary War with our first ally. “We have here two identical twins who married twins. At times, piloted the same aircraft, ‘Flak-Bait,’ which currently is being restored by the Smithsonian, and today, over 70 years later, they are getting identical medals … which seems appropriate to me,” McMurry said. “We’re proud to be a part of the ceremony.” The Clanin brothers flew the Martin B-26 Marauder named Flak-Bait on several missions with the 449th Bombardment Squadron, 322nd Bomb Group, known as “The Annihilators,” while stationed in Beauvais, France. Glenn completed 26 missions while Lynn completed 21 missions in the twin-engine medium bomber.
Former VA nurse face prison in patient records fraud (The Washington Times)
A former Department of Veterans Affairs nurse is facing prison time for falsifying records of a patient who died at the Miami VA medical center. A federal judge is scheduled in February to sentence 37-year-old Enrique Martinez, who could get a maximum of 20 years behind bars. Martinez pleaded guilty Thursday to falsification and fraud involving VA computer records. Court records show that Martinez damaged a VA computer and falsified medical records of a 76-year-old veteran in an attempt to hide the poor care provided to the patient. The veteran who died was under direct responsibility of Martinez.