VA chief brushes aside criticism he hasn’t done enough to clean up agency (telegram.com)
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert A. McDonald on Thursday dismissed criticism that he hasn’t done enough to clean house at his agency since the 2014 scandal over long waiting times for veterans to get health care services, coloring such attacks as noise from the political machine. “That’s a red herring,” Mr. McDonald said of a letter criticizing his leadership penned Wednesday by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Mr. McCain’s letter demands answers as to why two VA staffers accused of misconduct at the Phoenix VA Health Care System – the epicenter of the wait list scandal – are being allowed to return to work at the VA. Asked about the letter Thursday during a visit to Worcester, Mr. McDonald did not directly address the situation regarding the two employees. “Since I’ve been secretary we’ve terminated over 2,500 people,” he replied, later clarifying that not all those employees had been fired but that in “a lot” of cases they retired after being charged by an administrative investigatory board. … Mr. McCain said in a statement Wednesday that Mr. McDonald is “singularly responsible for the VA’s refusal to take action and its failure to expeditiously hold personnel responsible for the gross mismanagement and neglect of our veterans” in Phoenix and around the country. Asked about the statement Thursday, Mr. McDonald was unfazed. “Sen. McCain and I were together at the State of the Union address,” he said. “Certainly we want to bring people to justice, but what we’re not going to do is invent justice.” Mr. McDonald said he believes people are being held accountable, and that critics fail to acknowledge the standards of evidence he must prove to mete out discipline. … Mr. McDonald directed a reporter to a section of the VA website that details accountability actions within the agency. According to the site, 62 cases investigated by the inspector general resulted in criminal convictions in 2014, while six senior executives had exited federal service as of June 2015. … Mr. McDonald also defended his agency’s handling of discipline in the cases of Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves, VA executives an inspector general report last year concluded used their positions to transfer themselves into cushier jobs that came with hundreds of thousands of dollars in relocation pay. Many called for the two to be fired, but they were demoted instead. Mr. McDonald noted that the Justice Department chose not to prosecute the women and lauded the efforts of his enforcer, Deputy VA Secretary Sloan D. Gibson, a classmate of his at West Point and a man of “tremendous integrity.” “He said that the evidence showed that those two individuals should be demoted, so he demoted them,” Mr. McDonald said, adding there was every incentive but the evidence to go further. … Mr. McDonald said he believes that politicizing the discipline issue does a disservice to veterans. “Let’s get everybody to focus on caring for veterans… Let’s not use veterans as political pawns.”
Senators push V.A. to expand Agent Orange coverage (ABC13)
Two Virginia senators are teaming up to help vets who did their duty decades ago and who are now paying the price. Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine are pushing the V.A. to expand its list of which Vietnam veterans who receive treatment and benefits related to exposure to Agent Orange. During the war, the United States sprayed an estimated 20 million gallons of chemical herbicides and defoliants collectively known as Agent Orange on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The effects on veterans more than four decades later have been well-documented: increased rates of cancer, including acute and chronic leukemia and Hodgkins and non-Hodgkins lymphoma, as well as nerve, digestive, skin and respiratory disorders. Yet, many who served on Navy ships in the vicinity are ineligible for help from the Department of Veterans Affairs. That’s because V.A. policy states that “Blue water veterans are not presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange or other herbicides unless they set foot in Vietnam or served on ships that operated on the inland waterways” between 1962 and 1975. Virginia Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine want change. They’ve joined 12 other senators in sending a letter to V.A. Secretary Robert McDonald to administratively change what they call “inconsistent and burdensome regulations.” “Regardless of whether they served on land or at sea, those who’ve fallen victim to Agent Orange deserve access to the same benefits and compensation,” said Warner. “We owe these great defenders of our liberty no less.” “There’s nearly 4,000 in Virginia who served on ships, in bays, and harbors and estuaries, as well as in the territorial waters within 12 miles of the Vietnamese coast who are suffering from Agent Orange,” said Kaine. “And so, is it a surprise that some of these blue water vets have Agent Orange exposure? Absolutely not.” A spokesman at the Hampton V.A. told 13News Now: “Local facilities make no determinations on Agent Orange. Veterans who wish to be considered for Agent Orange related compensation must file a full claim like all other Veterans.”
GOP candidates promise a bigger, better military (Military Times)
Amid blistering attacks on each others’ campaigns, the Republican presidential candidates at Thursday’s sixth national debate did express a common theme in their plans: The military needs more money and attention. All seven candidates at the event lamented the current readiness and funding for the armed forces and promised as next commander-in-chief to build a stronger fighting force than President Barack Obama has. “We are not the world’s policeman, but we need to stand up and be ready. And the military is not ready,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told the South Carolina audience. “We need to rebuild our military, and this president has let it diminish to a point where tinpot dictators like the mullahs in Iran are taking our Navy ships. It is disgraceful, and in a Christie administration, they would know much, much better than to do that.” The Republican attacks came just two days after Obama’s final State of the Union address, where he accused campaign officials of fear mongering on national security and military readiness. He argued that more defense spending and more aggressive use of military might will not translate into better international partnerships or homeland protection. But throughout the debate, the candidates pushed back against that message. Business mogul Donald Trump bluntly stated that “our military is a disaster” and promised make rebuilding the force a top priority. Neurosurgeon Ben Carson was less fatalistic, saying that “we have the world’s best military, even though [Obama] has done everything he can to diminish it.” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio accused the president of being “more interested in funding Planned Parenthood than he is in funding the military.” He also blasted Obama for downplaying the threat posed by Islamic State fighters in the Middle East. “If you listen to the State of the Union the other night, [Obama] described them as a bunch of guys with long beards on the back of a pickup truck,” he said. “They are much more than that. “This is a group of people that enslaves women and sells them, sells them as brides. This is a group of people that burns people in cages, that is conducting genocide against Christians and Yazidis and others in the region. This is not some small scale group.” Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said recent defense policies are “gutting” the military. “The deployments are too high for the military personnel,” he said. “We don’t have procurement being done for refreshing the equipment. The planes are older than the pilots.” “We have to eliminate the sequester, rebuild our military in a way that makes it clear that we’re back in the game. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz — who spent most of the event fending off attacks from rivals on personal issues — referenced this week’s detention of two Navy ships by Iranian forces as further evidence of Obama’s failed security strategy. “I give you my word, if I am elected president, no service man or service woman will be forced to be on their knees, and any nation that captures our fighting men will feel the full force and fury of the United States of America,” he said. Of the group, Ohio Gov. John Kasich comments on defense were the least fiery, though still not complimentary to the president. His comment that “in foreign policy, it’s strength, but you’ve got to be cool” seemed aimed at the bombastic comments of his fellow candidates, but he also criticized the president for diminishing America’s standing across the globe.
UMass Medical School joins forces with VA (Mass Live)
Central Massachusetts veterans will receive more services and have to travel less this spring due to a collaboration between the Veterans Affairs Administration and the University of Massachusetts Medical School. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald has officially cut the ribbon for a new VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System facility at 377 Plantation St., in a former laboratory of the medical school’s biotech facility. The VA current has an outpatient clinic on Lincoln Street. The new office will not only offer podiatry, but it will increase available optometrists from three to seven and add a service veterans now have to travel for, audiology, according to John Collins, director VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System. The VA has also agreed to lease space in another UMass Medical School building, its ambulatory care building, as well. “It’s a great day and a great space,” Collins said. “It’s another step in our collaboration and hopefully one of many more pieces to come.” Dr. Michael Mayo-Smith, network director said the VA “can bring a lot to the medical school” by way of sharing recruiting and doctors skills. While the area has one of the top medical schools, it did not have a robust affiliation with the VA, he said. “We want to make this the first of many steps,” Mayo-Smith said. “We want to being as many VA services to the many veterans who live in this area of the state.” Describing the collaboration as a “unity of purpose and vision,” McDonald said similar collaborations with hospitals and academic institutions help the federal agency meet its mission. “This is a team sport and this can’t be done by the VA alone,” McDonald said. “We depend upon academic partners like the University of Massachusetts for their expertise, for the resources, for the training that we do.” Opening the state’s medical school to veterans was an idea that came from the school itself, according to Congressman James McGovern. McGovern, like John Collins, said he was hopeful for more collaboration in the future. “I don’t believe we would be here talking about this if it wasn’t for Chancellor Michael Collins and Dean (Terence) Flotte,” McGovern said. “They’re the ones who came to me and said we have to do better by our veterans.” “What has motivated everybody is our commitment to our veterans,” McGovern said. “These are the people who put their lives on the line for our country, who have served our country and when they came back they have built up our communities and raised our families. We can never re-pay them.”
Deal in works to keep PainCare in Veterans Choice program (New Hampshire Union Leader)
Veterans Administration officials are working on a deal to keep the PainCare medical practice in the Veterans Choice program, officials from both organizations said Thursday. Efforts by the organizations started Thursday, the day the New Hampshire Union Leader wrote that PainCare, which operates 11 clinics in New Hampshire, would stop seeing Veterans Choice patients as of Feb. 1. Authorized by the 2014 bipartisan VA reform bill, Veterans Choice allows veterans to get health care outside the VA system when the care is not readily available or a long distance off. But PainCare and others have complained about bureaucratic delays, and PainCare had planned to drop Veterans Choice patients starting next month. Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., wrote Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald on Thursday and urged him to cut the red tape that’s delayed payments to Veterans Choice healthcare providers. She cited PainCare’s decision. Shaheen noted that federal law requires prompt payments to doctors and other providers. And when providers drop Veterans Choice, the program is at risk, she warned. “Despite Congressional attention to the issue, the VA continues to fall short of its legal requirements,” Shaheen wrote. On Thursday, the director of the Manchester VA Medical Center said her staff and PainCare have tentatively agreed to a 90-day abatement of PainCare’s decision to withdraw from Veterans Choice. This will give the VA time to resolve payment issues and transition patients to another provider, Manchester VA Medical Director Danielle S. Ocker said in a memo to her staff. VA spokesman Kristin Pressly confirmed the authenticity of the memo. PainCare was more guarded. “I can’t tell you 100 percent positive right now what we’re going to do,” said Tom Barnes, adminstrator for PainCare. “We’re still talking to them. ‘Tentative’ is a good word,” he said. PainCare has previously said that its decision to drop Veterans Choice affected about 30 patients. The practice blamed the decision on red tape and delayed payments. Some $70,000 in unpaid bills remain outstanding, the practice has said. Shaheen’s office said it has heard from other providers frustrated with the process. “These delays are not only inconsistent with federal law, they have also undermined confidence in the Veterans Choice Card program among veterans, providers, and the general public,” she wrote in her letter to McDonald. Shaheen urged him to consider whether the law deems it necessary to withhold all Veterans Choice payments until providers return medical records for each appointment. Currently, 3,433 New Hampshire veterans are enrolled in Choice, according to the VA.
Pennsylvania targets vets to fill upcoming ag job shortage (Lancaster Online)
With an alarming shortage of as many as 75,000 agriculture-related and food-processing jobs looming in Pennsylvania over the next 10 years, the hope is that veterans will step into the breach. After all, Pennsylvania has the second-highest population of veterans in the nation. Thursday was Veteran and Active Duty Day at the Pennsylvania Farm Show and state officials and about 10 veterans groups used the venue as a platform to tout the initiative that will target both retired vets and soldiers before they retire. Veterans have unique qualities that could help combat the upcoming manpower shortage as farmers retire and new technology-driven practices increase on the farm. So says Retired Gen. Jerry Beck, who heads the state’s Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. “Let’s face it, the farmers these days are getting older and they need younger folks to pick up the reins,” said Beck in an interview before an Ag-Vet Forum that featured three former veterans who now farm in Pennsylvania. “Why not a vet?” Servicemen and women are used to working more than eight-hour days and moving around and performing different jobs — all prerequisites for work on a farm, noted Beck, a Millersville University graduate who lived in Lancaster County for 20 years. Many have leadership qualities and have been embued in the service with skills that can be easily translated to what will be needed, Beck said. For example, some have been trained in fixing motors that could become on-the-farm repair service. Driving skills will be needed for drivers of dairy trucks and hauling produce, Beck said. And there’s something else, Beck said. “The sense of duty that veterans have is something (ag employers) certainly could use.” The state Department of Agriculture announced at the event a new guide for veterans that highlights the top 25 jobs that will be needed in the future and the corresponding classification on the military training scale. Efforts will be made to get vets on-the-job training through apprenticeships. The new plans to train and usher newly discharged soldiers into ag and food-processing jobs could also knock down the unemployment rate for Pennsylvania veterans, which currently stands at 5 percent. The strategy is to beat the bushes for veterans, even approaching vets discharged from jails and prisons to give them a new lease on life, and perhaps easing the ranks of homeless veterans. The trick, officials said, will be how to get the word out to vets. That’s why a cross-section of state agencies are partnering and gearing up for the effort. … Pennsylvania also has an incentive in which veterans producing certain products can use a Pennsylvania Preferred label. There are about 1,200 such veteran producers in Pennsylvania.
Veterans Healing Farm plans expansion (Citizen-Times)
Funds from private donors and a local community foundation point to expansion at the Veterans Healing Farm. The charity, which serves post-9/11 veterans and their families, plans to build a community center from renovated shipping containers thanks to a recent $25,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Henderson County. That money, paired with an estimated $35,000 of private fundraising, will provide space on the farm for intensive educational retreats, said Nicole Mahshie, administrative coordinator at the Veterans Healing Farm. Construction should begin this Spring. The planned community center will have a bunkhouse, outdoor classroom space and a 20-foot commercial kitchen, Mahshie said. Veterans from throughout the country will be invited to five-day retreats where they learn everything from bee keeping to mushroom farming and holistic health. “(The center) is going to provide a gathering space for our local community members that come to the farm, and it will allow us to launch training workshops open to veterans,” she said. “Our focus is on empowering veterans to have the ability to create a healthy and sustainable lifestyle.”
Opinion: Vets should research burial benefits (Daily Record)
Carl J. Asszony, VA Veterans Advisory Council: Just as we honored our veterans during their life we should so honor their passing. There has been much written and discussed about the many benefits to which our living veterans are entitled, but the burial benefits are seldom mentioned. The death of a loved one is a painful and a difficult topic to discuss. It is, however, one of life’s realities and needs to be addressed. Many veterans, or their next of kin, are not aware that the Brig. General William C. Doyle Memorial Cemetery in Wrightstown provides burial services at no cost to the family, along with military honors, to all veterans with legal residence in New Jersey, and who were discharged under conditions other than dishonorable or undesirable. Requests for burial may be made at the time of death through any funeral director. The necessary proof of veteran status and residency must be provided such as separation document DD214 for all branches of service, for World War II veterans a WD AGO Form 53 (Army), NAVPERS Form553 (Navy) or NAVMC Form 553 Marines). There are no burial plots reserved in advance, but burial arrangements can be provided prior to death. For more details contact a funeral director, or contact the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, or go to the website of the William C. Doyle Memorial Cemetery, or call directly at 1-609-738-2400. In addition, many of the veteran’s organization such as VFW, American Legion, AMVETS, etc. often donate $300-$400 (depending on the length of membership, usually a minium of five years, and paid up dues status), to the surviving spouse or nearest surviving relative . Many of these organizations will also have a group perform a military honors ceremony at the gravesite of the deceased veteran, with flag presentation to the next of kin. Veterans should check with their local veteran’s organization service officer for more details. On the national level: veterans can be buried in any of the 133 national cemeteries. With perpetual care, a government headstone or marker, a burial flag and Presidential Memorial Certificate at no cost to the family. Gravesites cannot be reserved. In certain situations there can be financial reimbursement for funeral and burial expenses. Benefits for burial in a private cemetery can include a government headstone or marker, or medallion, which can be attached to a privately installed headstone, a burial flag and Presidential Memorial certificate. However, since different rules apply at the various private cemeteries it is best to inquire if a grave marker, or medallions are permitted at the gravesites of veterans. Some private cemeteries do not allow such additions. … Veterans, their spouse, and /or their nearest of kin, should take time to explore the various burial benefits available. From ancient times to the present the burial of warriors has been accompanied by pomp and ceremony. Over the years these ceremonies have been modified. But, it is fitting and proper we continue honoring our veterans, men and women, in death as in life and provide an honorable burial, or inurnment. We should never forget that these men and women sacrificed years of their life serving and protecting our nation. We should be ever grateful such people existed. They may be gone but never forgotten.