VA to request more money for $1.3-billion electronic benefits management system (Stars and Stripes)
The Department of Veterans Affairs was hit again Tuesday with concerns over the mismanagement and ballooning costs of its new paperless system for processing disability claims. Department officials told the House Committee on Veterans Affairs that it expects to request more money from Congress for its $1.3-billion electronic benefits management system, which has helped decrease a backlog of paper disability claims but also increased in cost by 122 percent since it was set up in 2009. The cost overruns are due to poor VA oversight including numerous unplanned changes to the system and inefficient contracting, according to federal audits by the VA inspector general and the Government Accountability Office. Congress made a substantial investment in the Veterans Benefits Management System that “is still not functionally operational after six years — I’m sure that can be argued — but there is certainly going to be more money needed,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House panel. Miller said some claims still cannot be fully processed through the electronic system, as auditors pointed out last year. Dawn Bontempo, director of the VA’s Veterans Benefits Management System, said the electronic system was designed to be regularly updated and improved, which is the reason for the continuing costs. “We will never stop looking for ways to improve service to our veterans,” Bontempo said. “We will be turning our attention to new innovations as part of the 2018 budget.” The paperless filing system has helped to reduce the number of veterans waiting a long time to hear back on their disability claims. The backlog reached a high point in 2013, when 611,000 were waiting more than 125 days for a VA decision. The department has dramatically reduced that number to slightly more than 75,000, though the number of veteran appeals to those decisions stands at about 433,000, the department reported. The VA had a goal of eliminating the backlog by 2015 but was unable to reach it, and now says that some more complex veteran claims will always take longer. “There are some things that are harder to do and we can’t do it within 125 days,” said Beth McCoy, VA deputy under secretary for field operations. Despite the progress, the VA inspector general found in September “costs continue to spiral upward and final end-state costs remain unknown,” all while the department cannot guarantee an adequate return on the investment. The VA recently weathered a scandal after its mismanagement led to the largest construction project failure in its history. A Denver hospital project ballooned from $328 million to nearly $1.7 billion. … Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., told the VA it should have made it clear to Congress in 2009, when it began the new paperless disability processing system, that it would require more money in the future. “You say you have a never-ending project with a never-ending price tag and never-ending goals,” he said.
House lawmakers press VA on $624-million scheduling system (Stars and Stripes)
Two House lawmakers say the Department of Veterans Affairs is preparing to overspend by unnecessarily creating its own $624-million scheduling system to ease persistent delays in veteran health care. The VA project has been underway for more than a year but systems that could schedule vets for doctor’s appointments and other care through the department – on site and via the Internet – are already commercially available for what is likely a smaller price, said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., and Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass. They introduced a bill this month that requires the VA to test out a commercially available system for 18 months as part of a pilot project. The VA’s electronic scheduling system was designed in the 1980s, an antique by technology standards, and was thrust into the spotlight in 2014 when it was revealed the department was manipulating it to hide long wait times for veterans seeking health care. “It is really encouraging the VA to look at off-the-shelf products that are available in the private sector,” said McMorris Rodgers, who is a cofounder of the House’s military family caucus. She said wait times at VA hospitals and clinics increased in 2015 instead of going down following the scandal two years ago and employing available technology would lead to faster appointments and better results. McMorris Rodgers and Moulton said they were recently briefed by VA officials on plans for a new $624-million scheduling system. But they were left concerned it will not cut down on department bureaucracy or increase transparency in scheduling, two obstacles to veterans getting care. For example, the VA’s planned system does not integrate the Veterans Choice card, which was created to ease long waits for care by giving veterans access to outside providers, McMorris Rodgers said. Moulton, a freshman lawmaker and former Marine Corps infantry officer who served in Iraq, still uses the VA system since being elected to Congress and has had his own bad experiences trying to get needed care. “Just getting through to speak with someone is almost impossible,” he said. Moulton said it is “unbelievable” that the VA is contemplating building its own system instead of purchasing it from a commercial seller. VA spokeswoman Walinda West said the department has already made “significant progress.” In August, the VA awarded the $624-million contract for creating its new medical appointment scheduling system to Systems Made Simple, a subsidiary of the major defense contractor Lockheed Martin. “With the award of this contract, VA will be able to acquire and provide user-friendly tools intended to make it easier for veterans to schedule an appointment, receive reminders about upcoming appointments, and help clinicians see all of a veterans’ upcoming appointments,” West wrote in an email.
VA watchdog can’t prove Calif. facility sat on thousands of claims (Government Executive)
The watchdog for the Veterans Affairs Department could not prove that the Oakland, Calif., regional office sat on more than 13,000 informal claims for benefits, delaying payments — an allegation that emerged during an April 2015 congressional hearing. While the inspector general didn’t find evidence to substantiate an allegation that such a list existed, the watchdog in a new review found errors in other informal claims processing that led to $26,325 in improper payments to vets – mostly overpayments – as well as some significant delays in getting benefits to veterans. One veteran who filed a claim for post-traumatic stress in 2006 waited nearly eight years to receive proper compensation. IG staff looked at 60 informal claims out of 1,308 claims, finding problems with six of them. House lawmakers had asked the inspector general during an April 2015 congressional hearing to look into an allegation claiming management at the Oakland facility maintained a list of 13,184 unprocessed informal claims for benefits. That hearing featured disturbing stories from whistleblowers at VA’s Oakland regional office and its Philadelphia facility, ranging from abusive work environments to some employees’ constant fears of being fired for not processing claims fast enough. A February 2015 IG report found that Oakland staff had not processed thousands of informal requests for benefits dating back years, and had improperly stored formal claims. Vets can file what are known as informal claims, which before March 2015 could be as simple as a handwritten note indicating their intent to formally apply for benefits. The idea behind the informal claims process is to allow vets to receive benefits backdated to when they first indicate a desire to seek compensation. VA however last year announced it was going to tighten up the informal claims process and require standard documentation. Vets’ groups have sued the department saying the change burdens veterans, particularly older vets. The IG’s latest report, like its February 2015 investigation, blamed poor training and a lack of management oversight for informal claims processing mistakes and delays. “Staff stated, and we confirmed, that completing the processing of the informal claims was not a priority and the review was conducted sporadically, with staff dividing their time to address other higher priority workloads,” the January 2016 report said. Staff told the watchdog there was confusion over what constituted an acceptable informal claim when documentation came from a service organization on behalf of the veteran. VA staff’s incomplete record-keeping might have contributed to the IG’s inability to find any evidence of the alleged list of more than 13,000 informal claims.
U.S. court: Wearing unearned military medals is free speech (Military Times)
A federal appeals court on Monday tossed out a veteran’s conviction for wearing military medals he didn’t earn, saying it was a form of free speech protected by the Constitution. A specially convened 11-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the First Amendment allows people to wear unearned military honors. Elven Joe Swisher of Idaho was convicted in 2007 of violating the Stolen Valor Act, which made it a misdemeanor to falsely claim military accomplishments. President George W. Bush signed it into law in 2006, but the U.S. Supreme Court struck it down in 2012 as a violation of free speech protections. Investigators looked into Swisher’s military claims after he testified at the 2005 trial of a man charged with soliciting the murder of a federal judge. Swisher wore a Purple Heart on the witness stand. Swisher testified that David Roland Hinkson offered him $10,000 to kill the federal judge presiding over Hinkson’s tax-evasion case. Swisher said Hinkson was impressed after Swisher boasted that he killed “many men” during the Korean War. Prosecutors say Swisher enlisted in the Marine Corps a year after the Korean War ended but was never wounded in the line of duty. Swisher was honorably discharged in 1957, and discharge documents indicate that he didn’t receive any medals, according to the 9th Circuit ruling. During his 2007 trial, prosecutors showed the jury a photograph of Swisher wearing several military medals and awards, including the Silver Star, Navy and Marine Corps Ribbon, Purple Heart, and the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with a Bronze “V.” Swisher’s attorney Joseph Horras of Boise, Idaho, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment Monday. After the Stolen Valor Act was struck down, Congress passed a new law making it a crime to profit financially by lying about military service. President Barack Obama signed it in 2013. After Swisher’s conviction, Congress removed a provision making it illegal to wear unearned medals.
New 2016 laws assist California veterans (Sierra Sun Times)
Seven laws took effect on January 1, 2016, with the goal of improving the lives of California’s Veterans, service members, and their families.
- Assembly Bill 413, by Assemblymember Rocky Chavez (R – Oceanside), assists surviving family members with continuing the operations of a Disabled Veteran Business Enterprise (DVBE) after the death or permanent medical disability of a Veteran. The new law allows survivors to fully operate the DVBE for up to three years after the disabled Veteran’s death or certification of permanent medical disability. The law allows survivor-owned DVBEs to enter into new contracts under the DVBE certification if the contracts can be completed within those three years. This gives survivors the time and flexibility to manage the business in a way that best suits their needs. CalVet holds the position of statewide DVBE advocate, and works in tandem with Department of General Services (DGS) to supply outreach, recruitment, and support to DVBEs.
- Senate Bill 221, authored by Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson (D – Santa Barbara), assists disabled Veterans who are new state employees. The law benefits new state employees who are Veterans with a service-connected disability certified by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The law allows up to 96 hours of sick leave during the Veteran’s first year in the state workforce to attend medical appointments during work hours without having to take unpaid leave.
- Assembly Bill 388, authored by Assemblymember Ling Ling Chang (R – Diamond Bar), requires the evaluation of programs relating to the Veterans Housing and Homeless Prevention Act to include information relating to the effectiveness in helping Veterans occupying supportive housing or transitional housing developments.
- Assembly Bill 778, authored by Assemblymember Brian Maienschein (R – San Diego), allows Veterans to request military documents from the county recorder’s office with a digital request to promote easier access to Veteran’s services.
- Assembly Bill 1401, authored by Assemblymember Catherine Baker (R – San Ramon), provides Veterans of the California National Guard, the State Military Reserve, and the Naval Militia with greater access to student financial aid services.
- Senate Bill 386, authored by Senator Benjamin Allen (D – Santa Monica), protects Veterans from pension scams and makes illegal the act of advertising the pension poaching scams.
- Senate Bill 685, authored by Senator Mike McGuire (D – Healdsburg), authorizes licensed Veterans’ clubs to sell and serve alcoholic beverages to members of other veterans’ organizations, active duty or reserve service members, veterans, and to members of their own organization and their guests.
Public hearing set on proposed veterans cemetery in western New York (The Buffalo News)
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has scheduled a meeting Jan. 21 to update the public and solicit feedback concerning a proposed 132-acre national cemetery on Indian Falls Road in the Town of Pembroke. The meeting will be held from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the Batavia VA Medical Center, Building 4, 222 Richmond Ave. The Genesee County grounds would serve the burial needs of more than 96,000 veterans and eligible dependents in the cemetery’s service area for the next 70 years, the Veterans Administration said. The initial phase of construction will develop approximately 70 acres and provide for approximately 10 years’ worth of interments, providing plots for both casketed and cremated remains. The VA purchased the property at 1232 Indian Falls Road, just north of Thruway Exit 48A, in May 2014 for $625,000. Plans call for the VA to work with architectural and engineering firms to design the cemetery through 2016, with groundbreaking contingent on the availability of funding through future VA budget requests. The first phase of the project is expected to take about three years to finish after funding is received, and the first burials will begin a year or more after the start of construction. Features of the cemetery include a front entrance, administration building, maintenance building, flagpole assembly area, memorial walkway, committal shelters, and public information center with electronic gravesite locator, and restrooms. It also will have its own roads, landscaping, irrigation and utilities. The public meeting will be led by Joshua M. de Leon, director of the National Cemetery Administration’s North Atlantic District; Glenn Madderom of the VA Cemetery Development and Improvement Service; and Mark Tillotson of the VA Office of Construction and Facilities Management. The VA announced that it plans to operate a local, off-site cemetery office during construction to provide updates. More information can be obtained by contacting the National Cemetery Administration Office of Communications at 202-632-8035. Currently, there are five VA national cemeteries in New York – Bath, Elmira, Schuylerville, Calverton and Farmingdale. There is no state veterans’ cemetery in New York.
VA to Texas veterans: No open carry here (Chron)
Open carry is now the law of the land in the Lone Star State, but the federal government is reminding Texan veterans that guns still are not allowed on VA property. In a reminder posted to the Central Texas Veterans Health Care System website, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs made clear that firearms will remain prohibited at all of the federal agency’s sites. “Texas concealed and open carry handgun laws DO NOT apply to VA property,” the alert stated. “No firearms or weapons are allowed on our VA controlled property. Any confiscated firearms will be destroyed and offender will appear before Federal Court. Only certified police officers in the commission of his or her duties may bring a firearm onto VA property.” Central Texas VA spokesperson Deborah Meyer said the prohibition on firearms extends to all federally-controlled property in the state, not just the VA, but said the posting was simply a reminder to Texans. There was no incident that led to the alert, she confirmed. The VA operates several dozen hospitals, clinics and centers in Texas. “We wanted to remind everybody that it still remains the same. Concealed carry is the same as open carry, there’s still no firearms on federal property,” Meyer said.
Maine group aims to help veterans learn to farm (Bangor Daily News)
When war veterans return home, their future often is grim. Suffering from injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder, they find it hard to acclimate to society. “They give you medication, put you on another pill to keep you from killing yourself and consider that a success,” said Jerry Ireland, who spent 10 years in the Army and served in Afghanistan. “We as veterans are trying to change that. It’s not good enough for vets to come home and not work,” Ireland said. Thanks to the newly chartered Farmer Veteran Coalition of Maine, of which Ireland is executive director, Mainers who served in the military can now find a fertile future in agriculture. “This gives us an opportunity to be a success and become part of the food and agricultural movement in Maine,” said Ireland, who runs a diversified farm called Ireland Hill Farms in Swanville. “It’s a hand up, not a hand out.” On Tuesday, Jan. 12, and Thursday, Jan. 14, Ireland and fellow veterans in the chapter will hold demonstrations and host a panel at the Agricultural Trade Show to spread the word. A new partnership with Get Real, Get Maine and Homegrown By Heroes also will be announced. Currently, 55 farms in the state are owned and operated by veterans, and 12 farmers, ranchers, fishermen and producers are now certified under the new Homegrown By Heroes classification. A goal of 20 is set for spring. Through a newly created fellowship fund, the chapter will award several $5,000 grants to veterans with disabilities this year to farm. The group also is orchestrating an equipment donation and exchange program in which older farmers can hand off what they are not using to veterans. All these initiatives help “advance the business plan of our veteran farmers,” said Ireland, who, despite his own injuries suffered in duty, taps maple trees, makes honey and raises 200 chickens. He also planted 250 apple trees and farms livestock. Soon he will opening a general store. “I look at it as a business, not just a farm,” Ireland, 40, said. Why do former military members make good farmers? “Veterans bring similar skill sets to the table. From survival to changing on the fly. … You always prepare for three courses of action: When you get there, none of those plans work,” Ireland said. “All of those translate into huge successes in the farming world.” Just like local, organic and non-GMO, farming veterans have their own label to set their product apart in the marketplace. The Homegrown By Heroes sticker slapped on goods from maple syrup to soap to pork is a new seal of approval. And for its producers, it’s much more than branding. “The pride I felt as a veteran on active duty is lost along the way in civilian life. You put it on a shelf,” said Ireland, who has been farming for 3 ½ years. “With the label, we get that sense of pride and ownership back.”