January 11 Veterans News

January 11 Veterans News

VetsHQ News UpdateAfter botching 1st attempt, VA demotes 2 senior executives (Miliatry.com)
The Department of Veterans Affairs has demoted yet again two senior executives who’d been found manipulating the hiring system for their own financial gain, after the agency botched the disciplinary action the first time. In December, the VA rescinded its demotions of Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves, saying it had inadvertently omitted one of five evidence binders that the agency had provided to the two officials. The move turned back the clock on not only the punishments but also their appeals process, which had already begun, adding to outrage over the VA’s handling of the case. Lawmakers and veterans advocates had been critical of the VA for not firing the women and charged the agency’s inability to handle the demotions further demonstrated a need for accountability reform. The VA Inspector General’s Office released an investigation in September concluding Rubens, the director of Veteran’s Benefits Administration’s Philadelphia Regional Office, and Graves, the director of the VBA’s St. Paul Regional Office, 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 for the vacancies. This enabled each of the women to transfer out of more demanding jobs while maintaining senior executive salaries, and to receive special relocation pay totaling more than $400,000. The relocation program, which had been created to provide incentives for filling less appealing posts, has been suspended. Graves and Rubens were demoted in November and reassigned to new posts as deputy directors in different cities at lower pay, though both apparently maintained five-figure salaries. Those transfers were delayed after both women appealed. It was during the appeals reviews that VA counsel discovered the administrative errors. As the process wore on, lawmakers lost patience. Even before this case, the VA was shrouded in scandal over revelations that facilities had been doctoring patient wait-lists times to make it look like it was improving its services while veterans were languishing for months and sometimes years without care. As the case of Rubens and Graves unfolded, the chairmen of the Senate and House Veterans Affairs Committees issued sharp rebuke of the VA for its failure to hold corrupt officials accountable. Critics were further incensed when the VA’s top lawyer determined the organization did not have the legal authority to recoup the hundreds of thousands in relocation bonuses that the women had obtained through abuse of their offices. … A VA statement said the employees can now submit new appeals of their reassignments to the Merit Systems Protection Board. VA officials did not respond to questions about whether this has taken place, but both women had appealed their demotions the first time around, and they could take similar action now that the demotions have been formalized.

Suspended VA bosses to return to agency jobs next week (azcentral)
Two Department of Veterans Affairs administrators in Phoenix who were suspended at the outset of a crisis over delayed patient care will return to work Monday, 19 months after they were put on paid leave and given termination notices. Lance Robinson, associate director of the Phoenix VA Health Care System, will be assigned as a strategic planner at the VA’s southwest regional office in Gilbert, known as VISN 18, according to spokeswoman Jean Schaefer. Brad Curry, the system’s chief of Health Administration Services, will serve as a health systems specialist. The two men have been focal points in a controversy over the VA’s perceived failure to hold leaders accountable for mismanagement and misconduct that caused a breakdown in care for veterans in Arizona and nationwide. In recent weeks, members of Congress assailed the VA and interrogated Undersecretary David Shulkin at an Arizona field hearing of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, demanding to know why no action has been taken. Under questioning from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Shulkin testified that the VA has been unable to complete internal investigations of the two men because the U.S. Attorney’s Office prevented interviews with key witnesses amid a criminal investigation. But in a letter this week to the committee chairman, Robinson’s attorney, Julia Perkins, said Shulkin’s testimony was inaccurate. Perkins said federal prosecutors turned down a criminal referral months ago, and her client has been through more than 12 hours of internal VA interviews. She said VA bosses realize they cannot make a legal case to fire Robinson. Shulkin and other officials at VA headquarters have refused to comment on those assertions. McCain said Friday he was not aware Robinson and Curry were returning to work until informed by The Arizona Republic. “I hadn’t heard that, but it’s another compelling argument that we have a long way to go before we reform the VA,” McCain told The Republic. “It also, to me, authenticates the need for the Choice Card. The only way that we’re going to reduce the size and bureaucracy of the VA is to have veterans going to other places to get their health care.” … U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz., said she would push VA Secretary Bob McDonald to “fix this outrageous situation.” “It’s beyond frustrating to see this situation drag out for so long, cost taxpayers so much, and fail to provide any accountability in the end,” Kirkpatrick said.

House passes asbestos bill over veterans’ objections (Stars and Stripes)
The Republican majority in the House passed a bill Friday that provides millions of asbestos victims’ confidential information to industry attorneys despite opposition from veterans groups. The bill sponsored by Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, opens up the injury records of victims – many of them veterans — to companies defending against asbestos-poisoning claims in separate lawsuits, and calls for publishing their medical and work histories, as well as partial Social Security numbers, on the Internet. The White House said it will veto the bill and at least 16 national veterans groups came out strongly against it prior to the vote, warning it would allow companies to delay the claims of terminally ill veterans while exposing their sensitive personal information to identity theft. House Democrats unanimously opposed the bill and tried unsuccessfully to sink it with nine amendments. “Folks have said the FACT Act hurts veterans. I say it helps veterans,” Farenthold said. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and companies that once produced asbestos have lobbied for years to pass the legislation as new poisoning lawsuits and claims continue to be filed. The Government Accountability Office found the changes could give industry defense attorneys an advantage in court. A similar bill has been filed in the Senate by Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona. Veterans comprise up to 30 percent of deaths from asbestos-caused lung cancer, which can occur decades after exposure. The flame-retardant material was widely used in Navy ships and buildings until the 1980s. Companies that produced it – and sometimes hid its dangers – were forced to set up trusts over the years that have paid out at least $17.7 billion to more than 3 million victims who were sickened. Farenthold and the chamber said the legislation would help veterans by giving the companies facing new lawsuits in civil court the information of all those victims as well as any future victims in order to root out fraudulent claims. Those records are now widely considered to be private and not accessible by the public. Unscrupulous victim attorneys are draining the trust accounts, leaving nothing for veterans who might become sick in the future but remain unable to sue the Defense Department over exposure, Farenthold said. “Under sovereign immunity they have nobody to turn to but these trusts … so it is important that we have the FACT Act to preserve these trusts,” he said. In a letter to House leaders Thursday, veteran groups called the bill an “offensive invasion of privacy to the men and women who have honorably served, and it does nothing to assure their adequate compensation or to prevent future asbestos exposures and deaths.” It was signed by the Military Officers Association of America, American Veterans, Vietnam Veterans of America, Association of the United States Navy, Military Order of the Purple Heart and others. Democrats including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, of California, derided the legislation as a ploy by big business to gain an advantage in asbestos suits. “These provisions claim to serve transparency. Indeed, the representative’s efforts to support asbestos companies and intimidate victims could not be more clear,” she said.

IG report: VA botched care of marine who committed suicide (Military.com)
An internal investigation by the Department of Veterans Affairs has found that the San Diego VA system botched its care of former Camp Pendleton Marine Jeremy Sears, who killed himself at an Oceanside gun range in October 2014. After Sears’ suicide at age 35, his family, friends and some veterans advocates have questioned how the VA handled his case. The combat veteran waited 16 months to hear that he would receive no disability pay after serving multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and being diagnosed with a brain injury. Critics said the VA’s medical and benefits divisions let Sears fall through the cracks and more could have been done to save his life. The investigation, by the VA’s own inspector general, provides an official measure of confirmation. It’s another black mark against the VA, a sprawling agency that has been under fire in recent years for a massive national claims backlog followed by whistleblowers exposing that administrators concealed long waits for medical care, mainly to pocket performance bonuses. Sears’ story has attracted attention at the highest levels. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, along with VA Secretary Bob McDonald, requested a review after her office learned of the suicide from coverage in The San Diego Union-Tribune. Her office plans to highlight the report in a public statement. The investigation’s conclusions show the VA is “still too often falling short in its mission,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. The report reveals that San Diego VA doctors continued to prescribe a narcotic painkiller — hydrocodone, commonly known as Vicodin — for 22 months without any oversight, even though studies warn that chronic pain elevates risk of suicide attempts. And high suicide risk makes use of hydrocodone less appropriate. During Sears’ use of hydrocodone for knee pain, he didn’t get a suicide risk assessment. VA guidelines call for one to be completed when starting pain therapy and during regular installments afterward. Also, Sears told VA screeners about being near two roadside bombs when they detonated — and once losing consciousness — but physicians never gave him a follow-up plan for treatment of traumatic brain injury, or TBI. Research has drawn a link between TBI and suicide. “If the patient had regular follow-up with his [primary care physician], the provider may have identified signs and symptoms of [post-traumatic stress disorder] and depression, and the need for follow-up of TBI and post-traumatic headaches,” the investigation said. … Overall, the VA inspector general’s analysis said the San Diego VA erred in several ways during the nearly two years Sears was under its care. That office issued five recommendations in response to those mistakes, including two designed to have impact at the national level.

Deported veterans inspired by Bernie Sanders (San Diego Reader)
“I will expand the use of humanitarian parole to ensure the return of unjustly deported immigrants, including our veterans,” Bernie Sanders said in an address posted to YouTube the day before Thanksgiving. “The United States must do the right thing and guarantee the swiftest possible reunification of these broken families.” Sanders’s declaration gives Hector Barajas, the director of the Deported Veterans Support House in Tijuana, hope that 2016 could be a big year for their cause. Last year, he worked with Sanders’s national Latino outreach strategist, Cesar Vargas, to shine a light on the struggle of deported veterans. This year, he has myriad events planned. On January 6 at Tijuana’s IMAC cultural center, the deported veterans read children stories they wrote for their children as part of a Dreamers’ Moms USA event. Books such as Lili and the King of Iceland, Mi Sueño, and Mamá Leona Contra El Muro were read aloud, with most revolving around the theme of family separation. The books will be sent to university and school libraries in the U.S. On January 23, the ACLU will spend a day at the Deported Veterans Support House in east Tijuana. “We’re going to try and figure which veterans are eligible for humanitarian parole, asylum citizenship, post-conviction relief, and so on,” Barajas tells me. “It’s a big visit for us because they’re going to work on veterans here in Tijuana, and anyone who wants to call in on Skype…all pro bono.” In 2016, the deported veterans group hopes to bring forward legislation to alleviate their plight. A major action they’ve planned for May involves turning themselves in to Customs and Border Protection. “We want to turn ourselves into Customs and Border Protection as a group,” Barajas explains.  “Before that, we want to have some cases with the ACLU. That’s the big event we’re prepping for. We hope to bring in the media and to get people to come across and support what we’re doing.” The group will continue exploring in 2016 what benefits deported veterans are eligible to receive without having to attend doctors’ appointments, which they can’t do because of their deportee status. “For one of our 72-year-old veterans, Andreas Rodriguez De Leon, we’ve filed for a low-income pension through the VA,” Barajas said. He doesn’t think there is a reason to deny him his benefits. “For Vietnam-era vets like Andy, they qualify for a pension, so he should be eligible,” Barajas believes. “If so, he can go travel the world.” Barajas has also set up what he terms “virtual bunkers” — Facebook groups such as Deported Veteran Support House Jamaican Bunker and Deported Veteran Support House Reynosa Bunker — designed to bring deported veterans closer together in places other than Mexico. So far, says Barajas, no U.S. politician has visited the Deported Veterans of the U.S. (one Mexican politician has visited), but, “I think this year will be a good year for us.”

Privacy violations on the rise at Minnesota’s VA facilities (Star Tribune)
With chronic pain in his neck and back and a brain injury from his days in the service, it wasn’t a surprise that Air Force veteran Ben Kraus had a huge file at the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs offices: more than a thousand pages of confidential and sensitive information dealing with medical issues, vocational rehab and disability compensation. What was a surprise is what happened when Kraus requested copies of his file last year. The VA sent them to someone else. The VA had used an outdated address. Kraus never found out who received his file, which contained medical information, his Social Security number and information about his daughter. After the VA was told about the problem, it offered Kraus a year’s worth of credit protection. With that, Kraus became a member of what appears to be a widening club: the number of veterans whose privacy has been breached by employees and contractors at VA hospitals, community clinics and benefit centers. “They delivered them to somebody who was not me, who signed for it, then I never got them, and VA’s response was, ‘whoops,’ ” Kraus said. Since 2011, there have been 240 cases of reported privacy violations at VA facilities in St. Paul, Minneapolis, St. Cloud and various clinics around the state. From 2011 to 2015, the number of violations has more than doubled. The violations include one veteran receiving a photo in the mail of another veteran’s colonoscopy, one provider discussing a patient’s diagnosis with the patient’s real estate agent, VA workers snooping into the records of patients whose names have appeared in the news, and some widows receiving discharge papers and awards belonging to unrelated vets. The disclosures are contained in a database built by the investigative journalism organization ProPublica and shared with the Star Tribune. Working with data obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, ProPublica’s national investigation found that employees and contractors at VA medical centers, clinics, pharmacies and benefit centers commit thousands of privacy violations each year and have racked up more than 10,000 since 2011. The VA said the challenges it faces in keeping patient information secure are similar to those experienced by others in the private and public sectors. It said it takes its patients’ privacy seriously and its policies and guidelines go beyond what is required by law.