Veterans’ claims backlogged by the thousands at St. Petersburg VA office (Tampa Bay Times)
More than 41,900 mail packages with unprocessed veterans’ claims materials piled up at the Veterans Affairs office in St. Petersburg last year, according to a new report by the department’s inspector general. The inspector general also found that 1,600 boxes of claims materials from the St. Petersburg office swamped a scanning facility in Georgia — and raised doubts about whether the information had been securely stored. “We observed a large amount of hard copy sensitive veteran information haphazardly commingled with contract company documentation, excess office furniture, and empty computer boxes that appeared to be trash,” investigators wrote in the report. The findings come amid national and regional concerns about a backlog of veterans’ claims. Last year, a report from the U.S. Senate listed the St. Petersburg regional office as the 10th worst performing in the nation in terms of wait time. … In a statement provided Wednesday to the Tampa Bay Times, the Department of Veterans Affairs said it had made “marked improvements” in the processing of mail since the investigation took place. What’s more, in its formal response to the findings, the agency said nearly half of the boxes at the scanning facility had in fact been processed and were awaiting shipment to a storage facility. VA officials also insisted the information had been kept secure. “At no time did this storage area contain original, hard copy materials, and controls were in place to prevent improper removal,” the agency wrote in its response. The inspector general’s review stemmed from a July 2014 complaint alleging “significant problems” at the Veterans Affairs regional benefits office in St. Petersburg, which serves the entire state. The report blamed the backlog on a large increase in the volume of veterans’ claims filed at the end of 2014, as well as the ongoing transition to a paperless claims process. But it also concluded that employees in the St. Petersburg office had not properly prepared claims materials before sending them to Georgia for scanning. The inspector general further found the VA “did not provide effective oversight” of CACI International, the information services company contracted to do the scanning. During a visit to the CACI facility, investigators said they observed “malfunctioning video surveillance of the rear storage area, employees freely roaming in this area, and adjacent unlocked … exit doors to the outside of the building.” … VA officials conceded that some of the claims materials had been improperly stored by the contractor. But they said the documents had been kept under video surveillance and were always secure. Officials said the St. Petersburg office, at 9500 Bay Pines Blvd., has been improving the time it takes to process mail. As of October, there were 6,421 packages pending, they said. … In September, the inspector general reviewed 90 disability claims that were filed at the office, and found 19 percent had been inaccurately handled. One year earlier, an inspector general report characterized lost and misfiled records as a “major issue” for the St. Petersburg operation.
Pentagon to overhaul how it recognizes heroism, review cases for modern veterans (The Washington Post)
The Pentagon is poised to consider whether more than 1,000 service members should have their valor awards upgraded to higher levels, the result of a broad review that also is expected to lead to the creation of new decorations to recognize significant contributions carried out in combat and remotely through unmanned aircraft and other military technology. The recommendations are expected to be signed by Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter on Wednesday, defense officials said Tuesday afternoon. Carter also will authorize the review of all award nominations for all service members who were recommended for the Silver Star, Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross, Air Force Cross and the Medal of Honor, a group that numbers well over 1,200. The decisions follow a review called for by then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in March 2014. He said at the time that he wanted to make sure modern combat veterans were appropriately recognized for their heroism and service, following years of complaints that significant acts of valor have been under-recognized. Just 17 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have received the Medal of Honor — far fewer than in Vietnam, World War II and other lengthy military campaigns. No living recipient ever received a Medal of Honor during more than eight years of combat in Iraq from March 2003 to December 2011, a detail that defense officials conducting the review noted. Carter also is expected to authorize several policy changes to speed up the process by which heroism is recognized, with nominations for valor awards initiated within 45 days of the action and all nominations for the Silver Star and up reaching the defense secretary within a year. That follows years of criticism that award investigations have languished and led to few service members receiving significant valor awards while still on active duty. The review of all major award nominations for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could be a significant effort. At least 635 soldiers, 346 airmen, 135 Marines and 15 sailors have received Silver Stars for actions in the two wars, with more receiving Bronze Stars with V device after being nominated for the higher award. At least an additional 30 soldiers, nine airmen, 40 Marines, and eight sailors have received service crosses, which are considered one step below the Medal of Honor in recognized combat heroism. The 17 Medals of Honor have gone to 12 soldiers, three Marines and two Navy SEALs.
Bill favors asbestos industry over sick vets, groups say (Military.com)
Asbestos poisoning is personal for Garry Hall, a retired admiral and national executive director of the Association of the United States Navy. Hall’s father-in-law, who was a sailor in the 1950s, died this week due to lung cancer that the family believes was connected to asbestos exposure. Hall said his father-in-law signed onto a class-action lawsuit against a manufacturer of the material while lying in his hospital bed. “If somebody is in their 60s or 70s and in asbestos litigation, the clock is ticking and asbestos big industry can run the clock out,” he said. Hall and other critics say a bill moving through the House this week would hand the asbestos industry a key legal advantage when fighting the claims of terminally ill veterans. The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, changes how information on billions of dollars in asbestos-poisoning settlements — much of it from sailors exposed decades ago — is handled. Republican sponsors claim it will root out fraud, in part by publishing claimants’ names, medical histories and partial social security numbers on the Internet. Veterans comprise the largest segment of the more than three million asbestos-poisoning claims paid out since the 1980s when the federal government began regulating the flame-retardant material and the military stopped using it. Companies that produced asebestos and worked to hide its dangers set up special trusts to pay victims, whose numbers surged in the past decade due to the long delay between asbestos exposure and the development of lung cancer. “I think it is going to be both a good-government piece of legislation and it is going to preserve the assets of these trusts for veterans, who are the biggest percentage of these claims, and the general public,” said Farenthold, who is the latest Republican lawmaker to float the legislation. A vote on the House floor was expected either Thursday or Friday. A companion bill was recently filed in the Senate by Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona. Farenthold said unscrupulous attorneys are “double-dipping” by filing multiple awards for victims and that fraud is threatening to empty the asbestos trusts. About 60 different trusts established across the United States and have paid out more than $17 billion, according to the Government Accountability Office. The bill requires trusts to disclose confidential settlements with veterans to industry defense attorneys who request it and send claimants’ personal information to bankruptcy courts, where it would be published on a docket and be available for download on a nationwide filing system. Defense attorneys could use the information to check veterans’ trust settlements for fraud and “ensure there is more money there in the future,” Farenthold said. … However, the instances of fraud among the 3.3 million claims might be small, according to a Wall Street Journal investigation in 2013 that found about 3,000 cases of potential fraud among 850,000 settlements it reviewed — a rate of .3 percent.
Federal court to weigh lawsuit alleging lung diseases from Iraq, Afghanistan burn pits (Stars and Stripes)
A federal district court on Jan. 21 will consider the scope of a lawsuit alleging soldiers’ exposure to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan led to serious respiratory illnesses and deaths and whether government contractor KBR, Inc. is responsible for the way the pits were operated. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the military relied heavily on the large, open-air pits to burn trash and waste daily, exposing the personnel working the pits and others living nearby to toxic smoke. In 2010, the Government Accountability Office found the Department of Defense was not following its own regulations for safe burn-pit operations, and that pits were regularly used to dispose of prohibited plastics, paints, batteries, aerosols, aluminum and other items that could produce harmful emissions when burned. KBR, under the military’s logistical support contract, operated the pits. For military families affected, there’s no question in their minds that the burn pits caused the illnesses they now face. “My husband was deployed to Iraq in 2007. He came back sick,” said Rosie Torres, executive director of Burn Pits 360, a nonprofit group raising awareness of the long-term respiratory illnesses and cancers servicemembers have experienced since returning from deployment. Since his illness, retired Army Capt. Le Roy Torres has been diagnosed with constrictive bronchiolitis and had to leave his job as a Texas state trooper. He’s had cysts in his spleen, regular headaches and is on oxygen. But what could still be unknown about the long-term effects of exposure to the pits is the worst part, Rosie Torres said. “He’s stable but he’s not,” she said. “We don’t know enough about this lung disease to say what going to happen next.” Torres and her husband are party to the lawsuit, she said. On Jan. 21, a federal district court in Greenbelt, Md. will hear arguments to determine the scope of the case, which was originally filed in 2010 and potentially could include more than 53 former or current bases in Iraq, including al Taqqadum Air Base and Taji, where some of the 3,550 U.S. soldiers sent back to Iraq are deployed to train Iraqi security forces. Col. Steve Warren, a Baghdad-based spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, did not know whether burn pits were still in use at Iraqi military training sites. Nine locations in Afghanistan are also potentially within the lawsuit’s scope, as are another eight bases supporting Iraq and Afghanistan operations, such as Camp Arijian in Kuwait. Since the original filing, dozens of similar lawsuits by servicemembers have been consolidated under this case, which is being presided over by Judge Robert W. Titus at the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, Greenbelt Division. The lawsuit is just one of several fronts in which veterans groups and the DOD are attempting to weigh what effect burn-pit exposure has had on servicemembers. In 2015, Congress added burn-pit exposure to a list of peer-reviewed medical issues to be studied by the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program at Fort Detrick, Md. That study is not yet underway, said Gail Whitehead, a spokesman for the program. Research funding for the congressional program starts at two years, and typically produces a report within three years, Whitehead said. Burn-pit exposure was not included in the 2016 list of topics. In addition, Veterans Affairs opened a burn-pit registry in 2014 for the estimated 2.3 million veterans who served in Operation Desert Storm in the 1990s or supported the more recent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The VA did so to record what ailments they were experiencing, where and when they served, and whether they were exposed to burn pits. Torres said 53,255 veterans had registered as of Nov. 30, and that her group wants to make more veterans aware of the registry. The VA has released two studies based on information collected from the registry. The data shows that personnel who worked at burn pits were more likely to report a chronic respiratory disease, and the department has said “veterans who were closer to burn pit smoke may be at greater risk.” However, the VA said “at this time, research does not show evidence of long-term health problems from exposure to burn pits.” The VA will be expected to report to Congress later this year on its findings from the registry based on language inserted by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., into the 2016 Omnibus Appropriations bill.
Congresswoman fights ban on burying female WWII pilots at Arlington (AirForceTimes)
Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., on Wednesday introduced a bill that would allow the cremated remains of women who flew non-combat missions during World War II to be laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. The WASP Arlington Inurnment Restoration Act would overturn former Army Secretary John McHugh’s decision earlier this year to not allow the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, to be inurned at the storied cemetery. McSally, a retired Air Force colonel and the first female fighter pilot to fly in combat, said that WASP pilots have been eligible for inurnments at Arlington since 2002, but McHugh revoked that eligibility in early 2015. “This decision is simply appalling,” McSally said. “At a time when we are opening all positions to women, the Army is closing Arlington to the pioneers who paved the way for pilots like me and all women to serve in uniform. It doesn’t make sense.” In a Tuesday blog post, Arlington National Cemetery said that’s not quite what happened. The cemetery said that the confusion stemmed from a law allowing the secretary of Defense to declare certain groups as active duty to make them eligible for certain Veterans Affairs Department benefits, such as burial and inurnment at national cemeteries maintained by VA. But Arlington is not run by VA, the cemetery said. The cemetery’s administration made a mistake when officials misinterpreted that law and granted eligibility to some WASPs before 2010. McHugh clarified the eligibililty issue in 2015, and said those who were mistakenly inurned there would remain. And because space is extremely limited, the cemetery said, it must be more stringent on its eligibility criteria. “WASPs have never been eligible either for inurnment or burial at Arlington,” the cemetery said. “The service of Women Airforce Service Pilots during World War II is highly commendable and, while certainly worthy of recognition, it does not, in itself, reach the level of active duty service required for inurnment at Arlington National Cemetery.” McSally said the issue of WASP eligibility was brought up by the family of former WASP Elaine Harmon, who died in April. … According to the Air Force’s Historical Studies Division, the WASP program graduated 1,074 female pilots during World War II. The women ferried combat aircraft across the country, towed airborne targets for gunnery training, and trained combat pilots. Thirty-eight died during the war – 11 were killed during training, and the other 27 died during missions.
Arkansas VA opens Fort Smith location (Times Record)
As part of a process to establish eight regional offices across the state to make the Arkansas Department of Veterans Affairs more effective, state and local officials celebrated the opening of one of those locations Wednesday in Fort Smith. The regionalization is part of an initiative under the agency’s first-ever long-term strategic plan that was approved by Gov. Asa Hutchinson in June. Wednesday’s ceremony at the ADVA’s new District 6 office at the Department of Workforce Services offices at 616 Garrison Ave., Room 101, marked the fifth of eight new district offices to open that will bring agency veteran service officers closer to the veterans and counties they serve, ADVA director Matt Snead said. Before the plan was implemented, veterans from across the state seeking assistance from a state veteran service officer had to travel to North Little Rock, Snead said. Snead said that a part of the agency’s long-term strategic plan is to strengthen the overall effectiveness in the veteran service officer network. In the past, Snead said the agency provided limited training or other services and that the new plan will “empower the county veteran service officers” and provide them with training, accreditation to gain access to the federal veterans affairs system and provide day-to-day support. One of ADVA’s three core missions is the responsibility for the veteran service officer network, Snead said, adding that the network is designed to connect veterans and their families to services at the local, state and federal level. … Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin applauded the program. “This is where we need to be going. … This is where the rubber hits the road,” Griffin said. “This will be more responsive to the individual veteran, which is a better use of taxpayer dollars.” Griffin said the program will allow the ADVA headquarters to more effectively monitor activities and services provided and will be more convenient for veterans.
VA chief of staff departs after less than a year in post (azcentral)
Less than a year after his appointment as Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald’s right-hand man, VA chief of staff Rob Nabors is leaving the agency “to pursue other opportunities,” officials confirmed Wednesday. As a member of President Barack Obama’s White House staff, Nabors was first loaned to the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2014 to help troubleshoot problems at the height of the health-care wait-time crisis. He eventually was named McDonald’s chief of staff last April. The agency Wednesday lauded Nabors’ “extraordinary leadership in the turnaround of VA,” saying he also helped McDonald in his Senate confirmation and reform efforts. Bob Snyder, executive director of the MyVA Taskforce, will serve on an interim basis as Nabors’ replacement.