December 9 Veterans News

December 9 Veterans News

VetsHQ News UpdateVeterans denied benefits due to improper medical testing (KARE-Minneapolis)
A ruling by a state medical board suggests that veterans nationwide may have been denied brain injury treatments and disability benefits because the Department of Veterans Affairs is using an improper test, according to a new investigation by KARE 11 News. Traumatic Brain Injuries – known as TBI’s – are often invisible, but they are considered the signature wound of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The findings by the Montana Board of Psychology in the case of Army Captain Charles Gatlin indicate that a test commonly used by the VA to diagnose TBI’s is missing too many brain injuries. “I think that that’s a very likely reality,” said Dr. Dr. Stuart Hall, a member of the Montana Board which ruled on the Gatlin case. As a result, wounded warriors coming home are being forced into a new battle. This time with the agency sworn to take care of them. Captain Gatlin’s fight for VA benefits is an example of how difficult the battle can be. Gatlin was a platoon leader in Kirkuk, Iraq in 2006, when a car bomb detonated in front of him. Knocked down by the blast and flying debris, he was evacuated and subsequently diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury. A final Army exam in 2009 concluded that since it has already been “3 years post injury” Captain Gatlin’s neurological deficits “are likely stable and permanent.” The Army retired Gatlin with a 70 percent disability because of his TBI. But the Army’s finding of a “permanent” injury apparently wasn’t enough for the Department of Veterans Affairs. In order to qualify for veterans benefits, Gatlin says he was told to report to the VA facility at Fort Harrison, Montana for a re-evaluation. Records show that Dr. Robert Bateen, a VA staff psychologist, apparently ignored the Army’s more thorough tests and used a brief screening tool called an RBANS to evaluate Captain Gatlin. “I saw this man for 20 minutes,” Gatlin recalls. “And a decision was made.” Based on that short RBANS test, Dr. Bateen concluded that Gatlin’s so-called “permanent” condition had seemingly vanished. He wrote, “If Mr. Gatlin had a cognitive impairment in the past, it is likely that this has resolved.” As a result, the Department of Veterans Affairs dropped Captain Gatlin’s TBI disability rating dramatically: from 70 percent down to just 10 percent. Frustrated by the VA’s findings, Charles Gatlin filed a complaint with the Montana Board of Psychologists, the state medical board that licenses psychologists. The state board sanctioned the VA psychologist. It ruled Dr. Bateen had violated “accepted standards of practice” when he based his diagnosis on the RBANS. The state board wrote: “The RBANS is not an appropriate tool for determining the effects of mild TBI.” In his defense, Dr. Bateen stated he was just following VA policy. At a hearing, he said the RBANS evaluation he conducted during the Compensation and Pension exam “is the same one that’s conducted at VA centers throughout the United States.” What’s more, he said during his VA career he’d performed “about 9,000 of these C&P exams.”

VA accountability problems to be focus of hearing (Military Times)
When the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Office of the Inspector General accused two senior department executives of gaming internal systems to gain promotions and relocation bonuses, agency leaders responded by demoting, rather than firing, them. When the employees appealed that action, VA lawyers admitted they mishandled case files and were forced to postpone all punishment against the pair. Now lawmakers are wondering when or if those executives will face any discipline, in what has become the latest episode in an ongoing saga regarding accountability and reform at VA. On Wednesday, members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee will grill VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson about “a continued and pervasive lack of accountability for corrupt and incompetent employees,” a recurring complaint among lawmakers since the fall of 2014. That’s when Gibson and then-new VA Secretary Bob McDonald promised to repair the department’s reputation in the wake of the patient wait-times scandal that forced the resignation of several top leaders. McDonald has said that more than 300 individuals were subject to disciplinary action for that scheduling manipulation, but Hill staffers say only a few senior executives actually faced firing, and most of them retired without any adverse employment action taken against them.

Army to stop putting Social Security Numbers on dog tags (Army Times)
Soldiers’ Social Security numbers will no longer be part of their dog tags, the Army announced Tuesday. The change, which some have argued is long overdue, is the first update to the ubiquitous identification tags in more than 40 years. A soldier’s Social Security number will be replaced by a 10-digit, randomly-generated number. The change will be implemented on an as-needed basis, Michael Klemowski, Soldiers Programs branch chief at Army Human Resources Command, said in a statement released by the Army. “This change is not something where soldiers need to run out and get new tags made,” he said. “We are focusing first on the personnel who are going to deploy. If a soldier is going to deploy, they are the first ones that need to have the new ID tags.” The change is in accordance with new Defense Department guidelines calling for less use of Social Security numbers. It also comes on the heels of several data breaches that compromised the personal information of millions of service members, government employees and veterans. Removing Social Security numbers from dog tags is one of the ways the Army is trying to safeguard personal information, Klemowski said. “If you find a pair of lost ID tags, you can pretty much do anything with that person’s identify because you now have their blood type, their religion, you have their Social, and you have their name,” he said. The Army has been working on making this change for years; it was first outlined in the DoD Social Security Number Reduction Plan and the President’s Task Force on Identity Theft Strategic Plan in 2007, according to the Army.

Sudden dropoff in VA Hepatitis C treatments alarms veterans community (The Hill)
Commentary: “The Veteran Service Organization (VSO) community has been pleased and even relieved to see several new drugs come onto the market over the past two years that can now cure most veterans who were unknowingly infected with hepatitis C virus (HCV) during the course of their military service. Congress responded quickly and generously to the Department of Veterans Affairs’) (VA) requests for emergency supplemental appropriations to allow the department to offer these new life-saving and long-term cost-saving treatments to veterans infected with HCV. In fact, the Senate Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs (MilConVA) provided $200 million above and beyond the VA’s initial request for FY2015 supplemental funding for veterans’ HCV treatments, and we remain highly optimistic that the final VA appropriation, whether as a stand-alone bill or as part of an omnibus, will now reflect an even greater level of investment in treating and curing veterans with HCV in light of the recent budget deal. Throughout the course of 2015, the veteran community has been pleased to see VA patient data reflect an increasingly aggressive approach to treating HCV within the veteran population. In fact, as we neared the end of the fiscal year in September, the VA was treating up to 1,700 new veterans each week for HCV infection. However, as encouraged as we were by this trend, we are equally dismayed and alarmed now by the trend we saw reflected in VA treatment data immediately following the start of the new fiscal year. Despite the fact that Congress appropriates VA’s medical services account a full year in advance precisely to avoid a slowdown in VA services and treatment should there be any fiscal uncertainty with the rest of the government at the start of a new fiscal year, VA’s treatment of veterans with HCV dropped astoundingly to less than 400 for the first week of October, and has remained alarmingly low since then.”

Top VA watchdog resigns after being caught masturbating on job (Fox News)
Jon Wooditch, the Department of Veterans Affairs’ former top watchdog, resigned after being caught masturbating in the agency’s all-glass conference room in full view of people across the street, including school teachers at an education conference. Wooditch, whose job as acting inspector general and deputy inspector general was to police waste and fraud cases at the notoriously troubled federal agency, resigned in 2008 after lying to investigators. Those investigators confronted him with detailed instances of public masturbation in multiple states, according to a previously undisclosed report by the Department of the Interior inspector general and obtained by The Daily Caller News Foundation. It was during Wooditch’s tenure as deputy inspector general that the VA IG first uncovered — then all but ignored — dozens of clues of the widespread patient wait-list manipulation that contributed to the deaths of dozens of veterans. In July 2005, with Wooditch as acting IG, his staff released a national audit of outpatient scheduling that mentioned false appointment dates were being entered and that secret waiting lists existed, but merely recommended better training and monitoring.

Report: Feds could save $6 billion with more DoD civilians (Military Times)
Federal officials could save almost $6 billion a year by shifting tens of thousands of military jobs to civilian employees, according to a new report from the Congressional Budget Office. Researchers estimate that up to 80,000 retail supply jobs across the services could be performed as effectively and likely cheaper by nonmilitary personnel, whose benefits and training demands add significantly to overall costs. “On average, a civilian in DoD’s commercial positions costs the federal government … about 30 percent less on an annualized basis than a military service member in similar occupations,” the report said. “Total costs to the federal government would decline if DoD transferred commercial positions to civilians and cut military end strength by that same number.” CBO officials estimate the typical civilian federal employee costs about $96,000 annually. Troops’ pay, benefits and training total closer to $135,000 on average. The proposed savings come not just through military offerings — GI Bill benefits, retirement payouts, family support programs — but also through long-term reductions in Department of Veterans Affairs benefits and changes to other agencies with veteran-focused programs. The report also said that for some positions, a shift to civilian employees “can offer more stability and experience than military personnel, who must periodically change jobs.” But CBO officials warn that such a move “could reduce (the Defense Department’s) ability to rapidly increase the number of troops when it is engaging in combat operations.”

U.S. Senate plans VA hearing in Arizona (
The U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs has scheduled an oversight hearing next week in Arizona to take testimony on the continuing crisis of medical care and accountability at a federal agency that each year serves about 9 million former military personnel. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, will preside at the hearing, according to Mike Anderson, a spokesman in Sullivan’s office. Anderson said Arizona was picked because it was the ignition point for a national scandal over VA delayed patient care and mismanagement. The hearing at 9 a.m. Dec. 14  in Gilbert Town Hall is expected to include Republican Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, who are not committee members. A final list of witnesses has not been released. Katherine Mitchell, a whistleblower and physician in the Phoenix VA Health Care System, confirmed that she was invited to testify. Others mentioned as prospective panelists include David Shulkin, undersecretary of health; Darren Deering, chief of staff at the Phoenix hospital; and David McIntyre Jr., president and chief executive officer with TriWest Healthcare Alliance, which arranges care for many veterans outside the VA system. Testimony is expected to center on management and accountability at the Phoenix hospital, exploring topics such as patient wait times, quality of care and the so-called Choice program that allows some veterans to get private care at the VA’s expense.

You’re hired: Jobless rate for veterans hits record low (Fox News)
New statistics show employers are realizing what Uncle Sam has always known:  U.S. veterans know how to get the job done. The unemployment rate for all U.S. veterans of working age dropped to 3.6 percent in November, the lowest it has been since the federal government began tracking it. While officials say more needs to be done to help younger veterans, they are encouraged by a figure that compares to an overall jobless rate of 5.4 percent. “Hiring a veteran can be one of the best decisions a company can make,” said Kevin Gardner, a spokesman for Walmart, which two years ago mounted a high-profile campaign to hire veterans. “They’re quick learners, team players, leaders with discipline, training and a passion for service. They help us to build a better business.” The rate was down from 3.9 percent for October and substantially lower than the 5.3 percent veteran unemployment figure for all of 2014. The national Bureau of Labor Statistics began sorting the jobless stats for veterans in November 2006. A bureau spokesman said the numbers are positive, but added that veteran unemployment should be lower than overall unemployment. “The issue is that veterans, overall, are older, and overall, older people have a lower unemployment rate,” said Gary Steinberg, of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Perhaps this is not a fair comparison.”

U.S. veterans who firebombed Japan in WWII meet with survivor (ABC News)
Five American veterans who took part in the firebombing of Japan during World War II saw photos of charred bodies and leveled homes Wednesday at a museum dedicated to the victims, and said the outcome on the ground of their missions was awful. Fiske Hanley of Fort Worth, Texas, was an engineer on a B-29 bomber in the March 10, 1945, firebombing of Tokyo that killed about 100,000 people — more than the Aug. 9 atomic bombing of Nagasaki — and destroyed much of the eastern part of the city. On the ground, Haruyo Nihei was a schoolgirl running for her life. Hanley and Nihei, now 95 and 79, met at the museum on Wednesday and celebrated their survival. “I was up there,” Hanley said, pointing his finger upward as he explained to Nihei that he was flying that night. “Awful.” Hanley stopped in front of each photo on exhibit, studying the damage and shaking his head. “Terrible,” he repeated. Nihei, who survived under layers of people who fell on top of her, said she was happy the men had taken the time to see the damage of the firebombing despite their suffering during their captivity. “I wonder if they had thought of the people on the ground when they dropped the bombs,” she said. “But I’m more thrilled by the fact that we, who were witnesses of that moment in history, are reunited at this place 70 years later. They must have had mixed feelings about coming here, so I’m so glad they came.”

Navy veteran honored nearly 74 years after his death (
Seventeen-year-old Thomas Rudolph Miller enlisted in the U.S. Navy only days after the Pearl Harbor attack. But Miller, an Arkansas native who later moved to Phoenix, Arizona, with his family, never saw his 18th birthday. He was killed May 8, 1942, when his ship, the USS Neosho, an oiler, was attacked and sunk during the Battle of the Coral Sea in the South Pacific. Miller was forced to abandon ship in a life raft with 67 other shipmates. Only four of those men survived the ordeal and Miller’s body was never recovered. Now, nearly 74 years later, a headstone was placed at the Northern California Veterans Cemetery and a memorial service with military honors was held there Monday to honor him on what would have been his 91st birthday. “I feel like a justice has been done,” Redding’s Jim Wilson, Miller’s 58-year-old nephew and only surviving relative, said as he gazed at his uncle’s headstone.

Army vet sentenced for scamming military aid groups (Military Times)
A Chesapeake, Va., man will spend 10 months in prison for scamming charitable organizations that aid military members. The Virginian-Pilot reports that 29-year-old Sterling Orlando Scott was sentenced on Monday in federal court in Norfolk on a felony charge of stealing more than $11,000 from military aid groups. According to court documents, Scott received an “other than honorable” discharge from the Army in November 2014 amid allegations that he tried to scam Army Emergency Relief. He used his old military ID to scam other aid groups after he was discharged. Scott told the court that he plans to seek psychological and medical help from the Department of Veterans Affairs after he serves his sentence. He also plans to petition the Army to grant him an honorable discharge.