January 28 Veterans News

January 28 Veterans News

VetsHQ News UpdateWounded Warrior Project accused of wasting money (CBS Evening News)
A CBS News investigation into a charity for wounded veterans, the Wounded Warrior Project, looks into how the charity spends its donation money. What caught our attention is how the Wounded Warrior Project spends donations compared to other long-respected charities. For example, Disabled American Veterans Charitable Service Trust spends 96 percent of its budget on vets. Fisher House devotes 91 percent. But according to public records reported by “Charity Navigator,” the Wounded Warrior Project spends 60 percent on vets. Where is the money is going? In its commercials, Wounded Warrior Project appeals to the American public’s generosity, and it works. In 2014 alone the group received more than $300 million in donations. “Their mission is to honor and empower wounded warriors, but what the public doesn’t see is how they spend their money,” said Army Staff Sergeant Erick Millette. … Millette said he witnessed lavish spending on staff. … CBS News spoke to more than 40 former employees who described a charity where spending was out of control. Two of those former employees were so fearful of retaliation they asked that their faces not to be shown on camera. … According to the charity’s tax forms, spending on conferences and meetings went from $1.7 million in 2010, to $26 million in 2014. That’s about the same amount the group spends on combat stress recovery — its top program. Former employees say spending has skyrocketed since Steven Nardizzi took over as CEO in 2009. Many point to the 2014 annual meeting at a luxury resort in Colorado Springs as typical of his style. … About 500 staff members attended the four-day conference in Colorado. The price tag? About $3 million. … Wounded Warrior Project declined CBS News’ repeated interview requests for Nardizzi, but offered their Director of Alumni and a recipient of their services, Captain Ryan Kules. Kules denied there was excessive spending on conferences. “It’s the best use of donor dollars to ensure we are providing programs and services to our warriors and families at the highest quality.” When asked why conferences were held at five-star resorts instead of cheaper options, Kules provided the same answer. “Like I said, it’s to make sure we are aligned and can build as a team. Be able to be able to provide the best quality services.” … Kules also told CBS News the charity did not spend $3 million on the Colorado conference, but he was not there and was unable to say what it did cost. He also denied that the charity spends money on alcohol or engages in any other kind of excessive spending.

VA secretary: Appeals process is ‘failing veterans’ (Military Times)
In his second plea to Congress in a week, Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald on Wednesday said his department’s benefits appeals process is “failing veterans” and asked lawmakers for a massive overhaul to fix the process. “Decades worth of law and policy layered upon each other have become cumbersome and clunky,” McDonald said in a statement to House lawmakers and the press. “Most importantly, it is now so antiquated that it no longer serves veterans well as many find it confusing and are frustrated by the endless process and the associated length of time it can take to get an answer.” The Cabinet secretary he needs both legislation and resourcing to “put in place a simplified appeals process” to handle the cases in a matter of months, instead of years. McDonald’s call echoed comments he made to the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Jan. 21 during a hearing on department reforms. He said that with lawmakers’ help, officials could reduce the processing time for appeals cases to less than a year by 2020, much quicker than the current three-year average wait for decisions. VA officials have worked in recent years to clear the backlog of first-time benefits applications after intense public criticism about the waits facing veterans seeking disability payouts. Over the last three years, the number of cases pending for four months or more has dropped from more than 612,000 to fewer than 80,000 this week. But officials missed their publicly stated goal of reaching zero by the end of 2015. At the same time, the number of appeals — cases where veterans believe claims processors have misunderstood the severity of their injuries and shortchanged their benefits payouts — has risen by more than one-third, to 440,000 cases. VA officials have blamed the rise on the growing number of veterans filing benefits claims, noting the percent of cases heading to appeals has held steady at around 12 percent in recent years. They also note that administrative moves alone to certify and transfer appeals usually take more than two years. Veterans also have the option of adding new illnesses and disabilities as the appeals process drags on, giving them the opportunity to receive larger payouts but also lengthening the wait on decisions. McDonald called the current wait times for veterans in the process “unacceptable.” The VA secretary says he wants a new appeals process “with the timely and fair appeals decisions veterans deserve, and adequate resourcing.” House lawmakers have begun work on legislation to reform the appeals process. A bill sponsored by Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, would create a “fully developed appeals” process, limiting introduction of new evidence and arguments but guaranteeing quicker processing time and decisions. Mirror legislation is expected to be introduced in the Senate in coming days. The proposal could become the basis of the type of reform McDonald wants, and has support from key lawmakers from both political parties. … McDonald said plans are underway to move on upgraded mail systems and digitized records that will speed the process some. Staff is undergoing retraining to better handle those cases.

Demoted Philly VA exec appeals punishment for transfer, relocation bonus at hearing (Stars and Stripes)
After months of remaining silent in the public spotlight, two Department of Veterans Affairs senior executives at the heart of a scandal over their relocation bonuses are finally getting their days in court this week. Here in Philadelphia on Wednesday, Diana Rubens was asking an administrative judge to overturn a demotion and a steep pay cut in an appeals hearing. While it can’t fully clear her name, it might restore her status as a senior executive at the Veterans Benefits Administration. Rubens and another senior executive, Kimberly Graves, came under investigation last year on suspicion they abused their positions to carve out transfers to less demanding jobs while enriching themselves with relocation incentives. Rubens received nearly $275,000 to transfer from her job as Under Secretary for Field Operations to a more junior job as director of the troubled Philadelphia regional office in June 2014, where she was brought in to clean up an office embroiled in scandal. Graves had been Eastern area director until she transferred in 2014 to the regional benefits office in St. Paul, Minn., collecting a bonus of nearly $130,000. Her appeal was held before an administrative judge in Chicago on Tuesday. On Wednesday, in a tiny room in an office building in downtown Philadelphia, top VA officials were called to testify — including Graves, who appeared via video from Chicago, saying that the VA inspector general drew wrong conclusions and that “there was no collusion between Ms. Rubens and myself.” VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson testified for more than two hours on why he saw fit to demote Rubens but not fire her. He said she used poor judgement but he did not see intent to do malice. “If this was an attempt to manipulate the process for her own gain, that would have been an ethical violation and a violation of conflict of interest laws,” Gibson said, adding that he would have decided to fire her. “In my opinion, this was a serious error in judgment, not an ethical violation. Other top VA officials, called by the defense, praised Rubens as a top-notch executive dedicated to her mission. In his testimony, Gibson criticized the VA inspector general’s conclusion that Rubens and Graves should be referred for criminal charges. Gibson said he saw “ a gulf between the conclusions of the report and the evidence in the file,” and saw no basis for criminal prosecution. The Department of Justice last month declined prosecution. … In the IG report, Rubens and Graves were accused of coercing the director of the St. Paul office after he expressed interest in the Philadelphia job. Antoine Waller testified Wednesday that he called Graves in early 2014 to let her know he had family ties in Baltimore. At the time, that position wasn’t open. … The hearing continues Thursday, when Rubens is expected to take the stand.

Hepatitis C drug maker is price-gouging, GOP lawmaker says (Military Times)
The chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee has accused the makers of hepatitis C drug sofosbuvir of opportunism and price-gouging for charging the U.S. government up to $68,000 for a treatment regimen that costs about $1,400 to manufacture. In an op-ed published Wednesday on CNN.com, Florida Republican Rep. Jeff Miller condemned California-based Gilead Sciences Inc. for “picking and choosing” its pricing by customer or geographic area. According to Miller, Gilead charges $900 in Egypt for the 12-week curative treatment but charges the Veterans Affairs Department between $40,000 and $68,000, depending on which of Gilead’s treatments containing sofosbuvir — either Sovaldi or Harvoni — is used. The irony, Miller adds, is that the man who led the scientific team that created sofosbuvir, Raymond Schinazi, is a senior research career scientist who has worked for the VA since the late 1980s. “Gilead is making billions by charging American taxpayers exorbitant prices for medicine a VA doctor helped invent. And to add insult to injury, Gilead is practically giving the drug away in Egypt and some 90 other developing nations,” Miller wrote. It is believed that more than 200,000 veterans have hepatitis C, with nearly 175,000 veterans enrolled in the VA health system diagnosed with the disease, which is spread by shared needles or by contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person. Those most at risk include people who received a blood transplant or organ transplant before 1992, when widespread screening became available in the U.S. In fiscal 2014, the Veterans Health Administration treated more than 5,400 veterans with sofosbuvir at a cost of $370 million. The anticipated cost of treating all affected veterans forced VA officials earlier this year to ask for additional funds in its budget; Congress appropriated $1.5 billion for the treatments in the fiscal 2016 consolidated spending bill. Alarmed by the high prices charged by Gilead when the drug was introduced, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., called a hearing in late 2014 to discuss the impact of the cost on the VA budget. Gilead executives were called to testify at that hearing but declined, citing overseas business travel. Sanders said he was outraged by the cost structure and accused the company of “price-gouging.” … The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee planned to discuss the development of sofosbuvir at a hearing on technology transfer scheduled for Feb. 3. According to a source with knowledge of the hearing schedule, Schinazi was asked to testify but VA has said he is retiring effective Feb. 1. Gilead spokeswoman Michele Rest defended the price and the company’s billing structure in an email to Military Times last year. She noted that Sovaldi does not “merely provide a long-term or indefinite treatment,” but a cure for a life-threatening disease. Rest said the price “reflects the value of the medicine.” Miller argues that Gilead is exploiting the veteran community and the VA.

Cruz groups want one-on-one debate with Trump, pledge $1.5 million for veterans (The Washington Times)
A couple of Ted Cruz super PACs say the deep-pocketed families funding their groups would be willing to donate $1.5 million for military veterans if businessman Donald Trump agrees to a one-on-one debate with the Texas Republican before Monday’s Iowa caucuses. Mr. Trump pulled out of the prime-time debate Thursday in Des Moines after host Fox News refused to replace moderator Megyn Kelly. The debate is scheduled to begin at 9 p.m. EST. Mr. Trump, who is running neck-and-neck with Mr. Cruz in Iowa, has scheduled a 7 p.m. “special event” to raise money for veterans at nearby Drake University. In response, Mr. Cruz has tried to bait Mr. Trump into a one-on-one debate without a moderator. On Wednesday, the families funding the Keep the Promise I and Keep the Promise II super PACs took it a step further by pledging to donate $1.5 million in charities — plus whatever revenue the host network would share — if Mr. Trump agrees to a one-hour debate with Mr. Cruz in Iowa. “Senator Cruz and Mr. Trump both respect the veterans and hold them in the highest regard but Senator Cruz respects the process and we are calling on Mr. Trump to do the same and debates are the purest form of democracy,” the principal donors of Keep the Promise I, the Mercer family, and Keep the Promise II, the Neugebauer family, said in a joint statement. ”Iowans — and Americans — deserve to hear from the front-runners in this ‘two-man race’ one last time. “Not only would this be a heck of a debate, but it would also be a terrific opportunity to generate millions of dollars for the veterans,” they said.

Missing VA surgeon found dead; police investigating (Daily News)
The body of a missing VA surgeon was found floating in a Washington state river Tuesday, officials said. An official cause of death for Spokane doctor and former Marine John Marshall has not been determined, but there are no obvious signs of foul play, interim Spokane Police Chief Rick Dobrow said. Still, police are investigating his death as suspicious, KREM reported. Marshall, who was the Acting Chief of Surgery at Spokane VA Medical Center, was found dead in the waters of the Spokane River Tuesday morning. While the Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Office still needs to officially identify the body, the man’s clothing matched what Marshall was wearing when he went missing Monday, Dobrow said. The married dad of two began working at Spokane’s Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center five years ago, center spokesman Bret Bowers said. A fourth-generation Marine, the 49-year-old served in Afghanistan and worked as an Army doctor before being appointed the center’s Acting Chief of Surgery. “Patients and staff alike talked regularly about his conscientious, empathetic and respectful nature,” Bowers said in a statement.  “Dr. Marshall was an outstanding surgeon and consummate professional who cared about his patients and dedicated team of VA coworkers.” Marshall was last seen leaving the YMCA early Monday morning to go for his daily jog close to the river. Surveillance footage showed him leaving the complex around 5 a.m. His colleagues reported him missing when he failed to show up to work, his wife, Suzan, said. He was scheduled to perform several surgeries that day. “He had a lot of patients to see, and wasn’t there,” she said.

After overpayment of benefits, VA wanted $38,000 back (NPR)
Clay Hull has a stubborn sense of justice. After an improvised explosive device blast in Iraq ended his time in the military, he fought the Army and the Department of Veterans Affairs over the amount of compensation they awarded him for his injuries. “If I’m in the wrong, I’ll admit it. But I’m not going to let somebody just push me around, especially the VA,” he says. It was complicated and drawn out, but Hull now gets the maximum the VA pays for disability. The money pays for his mortgage, support for his young son and feed for the livestock on Hull’s 3 acres in south central Washington — 2 1/2 hours from Seattle. He has a day job as a shipping clerk and then comes home to work on his place. He’s currently fixing a fence that runs along his property line. Four years after he moved in, Hull went to prison on a weapons charge. Hull notified the VA he was in prison. The VA was supposed to review Hull’s disability payments to see if they should be reduced until he got out. But during Hull’s entire 18 months in prison, the full VA payments kept coming. In February 2014, when Hull was settling back into normal life, he received a letter from the VA: The agency wanted all the money back. “Thirty-eight grand and they were wanting it in a lump sum payment,” Hull says. “There was no negotiating with them. They would just shut off all benefits until they were repaid.” Hull couldn’t pay. While in prison he had spent the money on his mortgage and child support for his son. He says he had done his part by filing the right paperwork. Now the VA was threatening him. “After the stress they caused, I’m sorry to have ever been a vet or served this country,” he says. Hull took his paperwork to Leo Flor, an attorney and veteran who served eight years in the Army. At the time, Flor worked for the Northwest Justice Project, a publicly funded legal aid program in Washington state. The first thing he had to do in Hull’s case was deal with the threat to cut off his benefits. “This is the money they use to buy groceries; this is the money they use to put gas in their cars,” Flor says. He won that round, but getting Hull’s benefits restarted was only the beginning. Flor, who has worked with a lot of vets in this situation, had to prove that Hull’s overpayment was the VA’s mistake. In 2015, the Department of Veterans Affairs says it overpaid 2,200 incarcerated vets more than $24 million. Money it then tried to get back. The VA puts the burden on veterans. Vets are expected to file all the right paperwork — and do it from behind bars. … When Hull was in prison he was obsessive about keeping track of his correspondence with the VA. He made copies of every note he mailed them. In those letters he told them he was in prison and explained why he needed the benefits to support his family. He even kept receipts for money he withdrew to buy the stamps. The VA benefits system is set up to accommodate incarcerated veterans who have financial responsibilities. If it had worked, it’s possible Hull would have been granted an exception to pay for his mortgage and his child support. That request was never addressed, leaving Hull with a debt. On March 5, 2014, Flor sent the VA all of Hull’s records. Then on Dec. 18, 2014, the VA sent Hull another notice of intent to collect the debt. Flor was incredulous. It was as if the VA hadn’t read anything he’d sent. On Dec. 23, 2014, Flor sent the entire package of records to the VA again. Eventually, Hull received a short letter in the mail. … Finally, after a year and a half, Hull’s $38,000 debt was erased. The VA says it knows this is an issue. “Without a doubt, we need to do a better job making sure that doesn’t happen,” says Dave McLenachen, the VA’s acting deputy undersecretary for disability assistance. He says the VA is swamped. The agency settled 3 million claims for benefits adjustments just last year. … The VA says it’s working with the Social Security Administration to help better identify incarcerated veterans who are receiving disability payments. Hull still has one more battle to fight. He’s in court trying to overturn the weapons charge that landed him in prison in the first place.

VA deploys mobile vet center to help patients (NBC Montana)
In Belgrade (Montana) Wednesday, the American Legion post hosted a mobile vet center that brings resources to servicemembers and their families on a local level. The trailer came in the morning and was open for service until about 4 p.m. It is one of the two mobile offices in Montana run by the federal government. It’s used to get resources to veterans who need help with their health and benefits questions. “That’s what we’re about. Making sure that our veterans get taken care of, without trouble,” said Ken McMillon, a Navy veteran and a member of the American Legion in Belgrade. The Department of Veterans Affairs uses mobile vet centers as a resource when creating and staffing an office in a city is not workable. Inside the trailer, a counselor talks to veterans and their families on whatever issues they bring up — it could be post-traumatic stress disorder or the loss of a loved one. Sometimes veterans just need someone to talk to about what they have experienced. “A lot of veterans, they kind of feel left out. They feel like they’ve been abandoned, and as a veteran, I wouldn’t want to feel like that,” said Mario Negrette, the center’s outreach specialist. Negrette works in this particular vet center, which started in Billings over six years ago. The centers help veterans navigate through the red tape for getting government benefits they are entitled to. Negrette says he does the job because it is rewarding. “So (veterans) know there are people out there rooting for them, going for them, and let them know that people do care,” he said. “That’d be the biggest reason I do this, because I care about our veterans.” This vet center is on the road from West Yellowstone to Great Falls and all the way to the eastern border of Montana. There are about 100,000 veterans in Montana. The VA has four vet centers in the state. Missoula and Billings have mobile units that serve their areas.

Fisher House on Vancouver VA campus nearly complete (The Columbian)
A house is starting to look like a home. The new Fisher House is nearing completion on Vancouver’s Veterans Affairs campus, with a ceremonial ribbon-cutting set for Wednesday, March 23. It will be a home away from home — provided at no charge — for out-of-towners whose veterans are being treated at Portland-area VA medical facilities. It will be a homelike environment where families “can be near their loved ones as they recover,” Joanne Krumberger, director of the VA Portland Health Care System, said at the ground-breaking in September 2014. The facility is being built by the Fisher House Foundation. Since 1991, the nonprofit group has built more than 60 houses near military and VA medical centers across the country. At the dedication, the house will be given to the VA Portland Health Care System. Value of the donation is estimated at $6 million. Vancouver is part of the Portland VA system. Since the Vancouver campus has a lot more open space than Portland’s campus adjoining Oregon Health & Science University, a site just across from Clark College on Fort Vancouver Way was chosen for the site. “It is approximately 90 percent complete,” Dan Herrigstad, regional VA public affairs officer, said earlier this week at the VA Portland. At 13,400 square feet, the home will have suites for 16 families. It is expected to provide free lodging for about 500 families a year. The Portland VA medical system serves veterans from across the Pacific Northwest, and it’s a national referral center for veterans who need liver and kidney transplants. Most of the medical treatment is done on the Portland VA campus, but regularly scheduled shuttles transport people between Portland and Vancouver. There currently are two Fisher Houses in Washington. One is part of the Puget Sound VA system in Seattle; the other is at Joint Base Lewis McChord near Tacoma.