January 29 Veterans News

January 29 Veterans News

VetsHQ News UpdateWounded Warrior Project denies claims of waste, lavish spending (Military.com)
Under fire for questionable use of donations, the Wounded Warrior Project on Wednesday denied allegations that it spends too little on injured troops while paying for resorts, parties and alcohol. In its most recent tax filing, the group far outpaced other charities in fundraising in 2014. It spent a whopping $149 million on direct care for wounded troops, while other large national charities have entire budgets worth tens of millions. But the massive success came with a hefty price tag. According to 2014 tax records, the Wounded Warrior Project spent 34 percent of its total expenses on fundraising while only doling out 60 percent for direct care. For an investigation that aired this week, CBS News interviewed former employees who said that the charity wasted money on lavish staff perks including travel, conferences, hotels and dinners, and that CEO Steve Nardizzi used extravagant ways to enter those events, such as rappelling, riding a Segway and on horseback. One four-day conference in Colorado for its 500 staff members reportedly cost $3 million, according to CBS News. On Wednesday, the nonprofit fired back in a letter posted online. The nation’s largest military charity said 80 cents of every dollar it spends now goes directly to those in need and demanded CBS News retract its stories on the group’s spending. “Based on our most recent independently audited financial statements, 80.6 percent of total expenditures went to provide programs and services for wounded service members, their caregivers, and families,” wrote Ayla Tezel, executive vice president of communications for the Wounded Warrior Project. Tezel also denied that the nonprofit spent $26 million on staff get-togethers, including the $3 million training event. “Ninety-four percent of the figure CBS reported as conference and meetings for staff was actually a program expense for warriors and their families to participate in services such as mental health programming,” Tezel wrote. Tezel did not return requests for comment from Stars and Stripes. No new financial statements have been released. Other top-rated national charities such as the Fisher House Foundation and Operation Homefront put only a small percentage of their total expenses into fundraising, while spending about 90 percent on direct care. If the Wounded Warrior Project had managed its money along those lines, it could have spent an additional $75 million in 2014 on direct aid, according to tax documents published by the website Charity Navigator. The allegations by people who used to work for the Wounded Warrior Project — which the charity called a “handful of former, disgruntled employees” — and the low spending on direct care was a blow to the group’s image. It raised questions over how it manages and spends money that many donors believe will go directly to helping wounded service members, said Joe Kasper, chief of staff for California Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter, a Marine veteran. “The scrutiny is definitely fair, and it’s on WWP to prove to its donor base and prospective donors that it strives to reduce operating costs and overhead in order to help even veterans — otherwise, WWP is going to continue hurting itself and its image,” Kasper wrote in an email to Stars and Stripes.

Veteran who became face of VA wait-times scandal dies of cancer (Military.com)
Less than two years after disabled Army veteran Barry Coates told a House committee, “I stand before you terminally ill,” the South Carolina man is dead from the cancer that went undetected by VA doctors for nearly a year. Coates, only 46 when he died on Jan. 23, became the face of the Veterans Affairs Department wait-time scandal — in which patients whose appointments were put off by a system unable to handle the volume of men and women needing its services. “It is likely too late for me,” he told the House Veterans Affairs Committee during an April 9, 2014 hearing. “The gross negligence of my ongoing problems and crippling back log epidemic of the VA medical system has not only handed me a death sentence but ruined the quality of my life I have for the meantime.” Coates was among disabled veterans interviewed as part of a CNN investigative report on delays to veterans care. In his case, a cancer that could easily have been detected with a rectal exam grew and spread over 11 months of delays and inadequate care at VA facilities in South Carolina. “Through no fault of his own, Barry Coates was dealt a tragic hand in life,” Rep. Jeff Miller, a Republican from Florida and chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said Thursday morning. “Time and again he was let down by the very agency established to serve him,” he said. “Yet after all he endured, he kept a positive attitude and remained focused on ensuring that other veterans would not have to suffer the same mistreatment he did.” … The wait-times scandal broke with reports of delays and secret patient appointment waiting lists at the VA Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona. CNN reported in April 2014 that up to 40 veterans died awaiting care. The VA’s subsequent investigation found that unofficial wait lists and delays to care were systemic across the department. The Inspector General’s office also concluded that up to 35 people seeking care through the Phoenix facility died, but initially stated their deaths were not caused by delays. The IG later backpedaled and said delays likely contributed to the deaths of some veterans. Few VA hospital officials have been fired over the wait-times scandal. The former head of the Phoenix facility appealed her termination to the Merit System Protection Board. It was only because the board found she had accepted gifts from a would-be vendor that her firing was upheld. On Capitol Hill, lawmakers continue to criticize the VA for its failure to hold people accountable for the delays. But well before the CNN investigation, lawmakers had been told that VA officials were manipulating appointment data to conceal the fact they were not able to meet patient demand. The Government Accountability Office reported the problem to Congress in 2013. A year before, a former VA hospital official in New Hampshire told lawmakers that medical center executives across the country were swapping best practices for getting around VA wait-time standards. Executives had a financial incentive for meeting wait-times standards, Nicholas Tolentino said: earning bonuses. It was only after CNN reported in April 2014 that dozens of veterans died waiting for an appointment at the Phoenix hospital that lawmakers in Congress and leaders at the VA started to pay attention to the issue. A VA Inspector General report concluded that wait-time workarounds was a systemic problem, but stopped short of saying the delays killed patients. The IG instead said the delays contributed to veteran deaths. The scandal ultimately led to the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

VA e-claim system melts backlog, but costs alarm congress (Military.com)
Over the past five years, since Republicans won back control of the House, the Department of Veteran Affairs has been flogged publicly many times, often for allowing a mountain of backlogged disability compensation claims. As the backlog fell, lawmakers now are learning, they should have paid more attention to how much VA was spending on its primary tool for the task — a paperless claim system. They’re paying attention now. The cost of VA’s electronic claims network, called the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS), is $1 billion so far and soon will reach $1.3 billion, VA conceded last week to the House Veterans Affairs Committee. That’s more than double VA’s original estimate of $580 million for VBMS in 2009. Costs are continuing to grow too because, by design, VBMS gets a software upgrade every three months. And apart from quarterly upgrades, VA plans for major innovations to the VBMS starting in 2018. Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said he called last week’s to focus on “yet another VA project that is over budget and underachieving.” Amid the waves of criticism that followed, including testimony on results of troublesome audits by VA’s Office of Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office, doubts surfaced as to what impact the VBMS alone might have had on the backlog melt. A VA claim is said to be in backlog status if awaiting a decision beyond 125 days of being filed. The size of the backlog peaked in March 2013 at 611,000. It stands today between 75,000 and 80,000, said Beth McCoy, VA’s deputy under secretary for field operations. She credited the decline in large part to the increasing effectiveness of the VBMS. Miller complained that the backlog wasn’t eliminated by 2015 as VA had vowed it would be. And both Miller and Brent Arronte, deputy assistant inspector general for VA audits and evaluations, questioned how much credit VBMS deserves for the backlog’s sharp decline. Miller noted that the Veterans Benefits Administration also had hired 7300 more fulltime employees from 2007 to 2014. Arronte said VBA spent a combined $255 million on mandatory over time to work the backlog, and VA implemented a fully developed claims process to shorten processing times. Whatever VBMS contributed to the backlog’s decline, Arronte said, its costs “continue to spiral upward and final end state costs remain unknown.” Consequently, VA cannot be sure if its paperless claims system is providing “an effective return on its investment,” he said. Cost overruns, Miller said, “would be bad enough but, after six years in development, VBMS is still not able to fully support disability claims and pension applications.” And for claim decisions on appeal, he said, VBMS “only acts as a document repository.” So even as the backlog of original claims has fallen, Miller said, the number of claims awaiting appeal decisions jumped 70 percent the past three years to 433,000. In VA’s defense, McCoy and Dawn Bontempo, director of Veterans Benefits Management System Program Management Office, suggested lawmakers are wrong to label VBMS spending increases as cost overruns.

Lawmaker wants VA to speed up new veteran ID cards (Military Times)
The lawmaker behind national IDs for veterans is upset that federal officials are still months away from issuing any of the new cards. “Another year is too long of a wait, as millions of veterans remain vulnerable to identity theft,” Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., wrote in a letter to Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald on Thursday. “VA needs to pick up the pace and move faster on issuing identification cards to any veteran who wants one.” Congress approved legislation sponsored by Buchanan last July to create the identification cards, designed to give veterans an easy way to prove their military service for nonofficial offerings like shopping discounts. Earlier this week, VA officials said they likely won’t issue the first cards until early next year. “This is a lengthy process that requires time for a public comment period as well as approval from the Office of Management and Budget,” officials said in a statement this week. “VA currently estimates the program will be implemented in 2017.” Buchanan wants that process sped up. “Over the years, I have heard from countless veterans who have expressed frustration over their inability to easily document their service to our country,” he wrote. “Our veterans deserve all of the respect and gratitude we can offer, and these ID cards will help make their lives just a little bit easier.” Buchanan also asked for the department to provide Congress with steps taken so far to produce the cards, information on meetings of the ID card task force, and a timeline for rules for the process. VA officials said they have already begun drafting regulations, but that the process will take time. Under rules approved by Congress, no veterans will be required to get the IDs, and the cards will not replace military ID cards. Supporters have called it a simple way to honor veterans’ service, and provide an alternative to carrying around military documents with potentially sensitive personal information. Buchanan noted that Federal Trade Commission researchers have found that veterans have twice the rate of identity theft as the general public. In lieu of federal cards, several states have options to list military status on veterans’ driver’s licenses.

GOP candidates take a swing at the VA (Federal Times)
Donald Trump’s absence may have been the elephant in the room for the Jan. 28 Fox News/Google Republican presidential debate, but it was the Department of Veterans Affairs that got the most notice from the candidates. The VA has been reeling from a series of scandals related to everything from lengthy backlogs for patient care to two senior executives who misused their positions for material gain, making the agency a ripe target for debate fodder. When asked by moderator Brett Baier about the controversy around reports of how the charity the Wounded Warrior Project spends it donations, former Gov. Jeb Bush pivoted to reforming the VA as a top priority for veteran care. “I will make sure that we fire the sheer incompetence inside the Department of Veterans Affairs and then we’ll give veterans a choice card so that they don’t have to travel hours and hours to get care if they want to go to their private provider,” Bush said. “You want to make the Veterans Administration do a better job,  give veterans choices and you’ll get a much better result.” In Fox News’ earlier Republican undercard debate, which included four GOP candidates polling at the lower end of the field, former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore also took a swing at the VA, offering a laundry list of necessary reforms: “The lousy appeals process that they have got; the fact that sometimes they get good service at the VA and sometimes they don’t; and the fact that post-traumatic stress syndrome is not properly recognized – that psychology positions are unavailable.” “And I will say this to you –  as the only veteran in this race, when I become president of the United States, the veterans are going to be treated with respect and competently,” Gilmore added. Carly Fiorina also took the agency to task for its past scandals, comparing her time as CEO to Hewlett Packard to the sweeping personnel changes that she would make at the VA, if elected president. “When we know that 307,000 veterans have died waiting for health care and the VA handed out $142 million worth of bonuses for superb performance, I’m going to start by firing 400 senior executives at the VA,” she said.

Alyce Dixon, oldest female veteran, dead at 108 (Fox News)
Alyce Dixon, one of the first African-American women to serve in the army and believed to be the oldest living female veteran, died Wednesday. She was 108. Dixon, known as “Queen Bee,” died in her sleep, the Washington DC Veterans Affairs Medical Center said, according to FOX5DC. Born in Boston in 1907 as Alice Ellis, Dixon changed the spelling of her first name when she was 16, inspired by actress Alyce Mills, the VA said in a prior press release. She briefly attended Howard University but quit school early to help support her family. She joined the Women’s Army Corps in 1943, stationed in England and France during World War II and working in the postal service with the 6888th Battalion. Her job was to help eliminate a massive backlog of letters and packages sent to soldiers fighting on the frontlines. She received the Good Conduct Medal for her service. Later, Dixon worked for the Census Bureau and the Pentagon. She also volunteered for Washington Hospital Center and Howard University Hospital. Dixon retired in 1973 and had been living at the VA Medical Center’s Community Living Center. “God left me with a few marbles,” Dixon had said. “I’m so blessed.” Medical Center director Brian Hawkins told FOX5DC that Dixon would be missed. “She was one-of-a-kind; a strong-willed, funny, wise, giving and feisty WWII veteran,” Hawkins said. “Her message touched a lot of people. It has been an honor to care for the oldest female veteran. The DC VA Medical Center won’t be the same without her.”

Los Angeles land to be used for veterans (The Washington Times)
The federal government on Thursday released a plan to build nearly 2,000 apartments to house chronically homeless veterans in West Los Angeles to settle a lawsuit that alleged it had ignored their plight. The Department of Veterans Affairs unveiled the draft of a master plan to build 1,200 permanent and 700 short-term housing units at the site of its sprawling West Los Angeles health and medical campus. If the plan receives federal approval, construction of housing could begin this year. The VA also plans to expand special services for women veterans and those with specific issues such as brain injuries and mental health and addiction problems. “The plan is not to convert the campus into a giant homeless village. That would be bad practice and against the desires of most homeless people who would like to live in the real world,” Gary Blasi, one of the attorneys who sued on behalf of disabled vets, told the Los Angeles Times. “The idea is to have the campus help prevent homelessness, to have services to intervene so families don’t fall apart and become homeless.” Los Angeles County has an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 homeless veterans – the largest population in the nation. The plan was required under a year-old settlement of the lawsuit, which contended that the VA had violated terms of a 19th century deed to the donated land by ignoring the housing needs of vets. It said the VA improperly cut deals for non-vet uses of the nearly 400-acre property by leasing it over the years for non-vet uses such as a UCLA baseball stadium, a hotel laundry, a private school and a film studio storage lot. The master plan calls for the University of California, Los Angeles to pay $300,000 a year in rent to keep the Jackie Robinson Stadium on the property. “Veterans fought to secure our American dream. Now it’s our turn to fight for them,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said. “The VA’s Master Plan for our region’s largest VA campus, which incorporates more than 1,000 comments from L.A. residents and veterans, is the latest step in our continued efforts to ensure that every veteran gets the housing and supportive services they need for a better life.” Rep. Ted W. Lieu, D-Los Angeles, called the proposed plan an “historic framework.” Lieu said he has introduced legislation that will grant the VA secretary authority to order construction of permanent housing at the West Los Angeles property. “The 1888 deed calls for this land to be permanently maintained as an old soldiers’ home,” he said. “Without this authority, there can be no home.” Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein has introduced counterpart legislation in that house.

VA boasts progress in North Carolina (WNCN)
The North Carolina Department of Veterans Affairs says more and more service members are moving to the state. Thursday, Sec. Cornell Wilson announced for the first time North Carolina is No. 8 in veteran population size in the whole country. “The veteran population and its economic impact in North Carolina is growing because of the hard work of our governor, and our folks all across the state servicing veterans,” said Wilson. Wilson also said they’ve added eight more veteran service locations across the state. Wake County’s veteran population has increased by 59,109 since September 2014. Wilson added that the Department is streamlining the state’s professional licensure process for vets who have applicable military training and experience. There has been a $1 billion dollar increase in compensation awards to North Carolina Veterans and the state is number two in most improved rate of servicing veterans in the country. “As the governor has said, if you can drive a truck in Afghanistan, you can drive a truck in North Carolina. Another example is military police. If you’re a policeman in military service, served in Afghanistan or Iraq or anywhere, you’re trained, then why do you have to take 575 hours of training to become a policeman in North Carolina,” said Wilson. The announcement preceded a meeting of the Governor’s Working Group on Veterans, Service Members and Their Families.

Back-to-school boot camps help veterans in the classroom (USA Today)
Mark Henderson spent five years in the 82nd Airborne Division with its 2nd Brigade Combat Team, which executes parachute assaults and conducts combat operations worldwide. In 2010, he was deployed to Port Au Prince, Haiti, to help in the aftermath of the devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake. But when he decided to return to the classroom, he was scared he wouldn’t be able to keep up with his classmates. Henderson, however — now a government major in his junior year at Georgetown University — hit the ground running. He credits this in large part to the Warrior-Scholar Project (WSP), a program launched in 2012 that offers academic boot camps for veterans seeking a higher education. “The biggest challenges in transitioning to life as a student … have been not having the same intellectual foundation as my peers,” Henderson told USA TODAY College in an email. “While most traditional students are coming straight from successfully navigating high school, I have had to shake off some rust.” The WSP boot camp, hosted at campuses nationwide, is run by a team of student veterans, and taught by university professors and graduate students. The academic courses have a liberal arts focus, although boot camps at Yale University and the University of Oklahoma will include a STEM component for the first time this summer. But classes also address the transition experience itself, and include subjects like time management and tips for getting to know professors. Veterans who have “an actionable plan to attend college in the near future,” according to WSP’s website, are eligible to apply. … In addition to the skills taught in the program, some say connecting with other veterans offers lasting benefits. … A total of 12 schools are hosting the program this year. In addition to Yale and Oklahoma, they are: the University of Michigan, Georgetown University, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Vassar College, Harvard University, Syracuse University, Cornell University, University of Southern California, University of Chicago and, for the first time, the University of Arizona. Cody Nicholls, assistant dean of students for Military and Veteran Engagement at the University of Arizona and a veteran, says that identifying and reaching out to veterans in any given student body can be a challenge. “So to connect with vets before they even arrive on campus is a tremendous opportunity,” he says.