February 1 Veterans News

February 1 Veterans News

VetsHQ News UpdateVA’s failure to demote executive a ‘tragic comedy,’ lawmaker says (Military.com) The chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on Friday slammed an administrative judge’s ruling that reinstates a Department of Veterans’ Affairs official who was demoted for allegedly maneuvering a lower-ranking employee out of a job so that she could fill it. Rep. Jeff Miller, a Republican from Florida, said Kimberly Graves’ successful appeal of her demotion from director of the agency’s Philadelphia regional office is an insult “to the many dedicated VA employees who do the right thing on a daily basis.” The department demoted and reassigned Graves for playing a role in the transfer of the St. Paul, Minn., regional director in 2014 and then taking his place. The VA Office of Inspector General alleged she forced Antonio Waller to take reassignment at the Baltimore office. The VA said her action created the appearance of impropriety, according to the ruling released on Friday by the Merit System Protection Board. The department also demoted and reassigned Philadelphia regional director Diana Rubens for the same reason, after alleging she used her position to move Robert McKenrick from that job and accept transfer to the Los Angeles office. Rubens testified before an MSPB judge in Philadelphia on Thursday. A ruling in that case should be released on Monday. In Graves’ case, Chief Administrative Judge Michele Szary Schroeder dismissed the VA’s disciplinary action on the grounds the department unfairly applied a standard to Graves that it did not to one of her direct supervisors, whom the IG also implicated in the transfer approvals. Although the VA set a deadline to consider action against Under Secretary for Benefits Danny Pummill by Dec. 31, 2015, Graves pointed out that nothing had been done as recently as this past week. Miller called the ruling “a twist of tragic comedy [as] VA’s attempt to discipline Kimberly Graves was undone by its refusal to discipline other employees involved in this scandal.” He added, “By now there should be no doubt whatsoever that our federal civil service system is in need of drastic reform. And as long as there is a system in place — that requires a similar burden of proof to discipline federal employees as it does to send criminals to prison — these problems will only continue.”

Top charities give larger portions to services than WWP (Military.com)
What is an extra $75 million to help wounded troops and veterans? That is how much more money the Wounded Warrior Project could have spent on direct aid in 2014, if it managed its donations like other top-rated military charities. But as others strove to spend most of every dollar on people in need, the nonprofit group instead pumped one-third of its donations into more fundraising. It had grown into a charity colossus that collected $312 million in donations and modeled itself on Starbucks, CEO Steven Nardizzi told the New York Times this week. The approach turned Wounded Warrior Project into the largest charity of its type – eclipsing others and drawing allegations this week of lavish spending on conferences and meetings. It has meant bucking the frugal grassroots ethic of more traditional charities, which tend to be more low-key and reliant on community generosity. “The donors’ money, they want it to go to the mission of Homes for Our Troops. So, if they give us $10, they want to know most of it is going to build that home,” said retired Army Gen. Richard Cody, chairman of the board for the charity, which builds specially equipped homes for veterans across the United States. Homes for Our Troops spends 89 percent of its money directly on aid and about 5 percent on fundraising. It is among the top-rated charities on Charity Navigator, a website that aggregates tax reporting statistics and rates performance. Cody said his nonprofit group feels a huge obligation to cut costs. Board members travel with their own money and most team-building exercises are done at the charity’s headquarters in Massachusetts – with pizza and pasta. When they enter a town to build a home, other military support groups such as the VFW and Blue Star Mothers of American rally around the cause and can help raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in extra support. The group has 125 veterans on a waiting list for homes. Cody said the group has no spare money to ramp up its fundraising efforts. “If we were to cut into our budget one year and say we are going to spend this much money in hopes are getting more traction … it equals to 2-3 homes,” he said. The Wounded Warrior Project spent 34 percent of its donations on raising more money in 2014 – and only about 60 cents of every dollar on direct aid. If it had instead put 90 cents of every dollar into direct aid such as Homes for Our Troops and other top-rated charities, the group would have spent an additional $75 million on wounded troops on top of the $149 million it did spend. David Coker, president of the Fisher House Foundation, said his charity largely operates by word of mouth without marketing. It spent about 2 percent of its money on fundraising in 2014. “We think if we just focus on meeting the needs in our lane that good things are going to happen,” he said. Meanwhile, 91 percent of Fisher House expenses went directly into free lodging for military families so they can be close to a loved one during an illness or medical treatment. The group operates 67 locations and served about 25,000 families in 2014. Here is a comparison of Wounded Warrior Project donations and spending and other top-rated charities that tend to spend more in direct services and less in fundraising. It was compiled using 2014 data supplied by Charity Navigator:

  • Wounded Warrior Project
    • Mission: To assist servicemembers injured after 9/11
    • Donations: $312 million
    • Percent spent on direct aid: 60
    • Percent of fundraising costs: 34
  • Homes for Our Troops
    • Mission: Build specially equipped homes for injured servicemembers
    • Donations: $17 million
    • Percent spent on direct aid: 89
    • Percent of fundraising costs: 5
  • Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund
    • Mission: Financial assistance to wounded Marines and their families
    • Donations: $20 million
    • Percent spent on direct aid: 93
    • Percent of fundraising costs: 4
  • Fisher House Foundation
    • Mission: Free lodging to military families during illness
    • Donations: $56 million
    • Percent spent on direct aid: 91
    • Percent of fundraising costs: 2
  • Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society
    • Mission: Financial assistance, interest-free loans, educational scholarships
    • Donations: $17 million
    • Percent spent on direct aid: 89
    • Percent of fundraising costs: 3
  • Operation Homefront
    • Mission: Financial and recovery assistance for wounded servicemembers
    • Donations: $61 million
    • Percent spent on direct aid: 92
    • Percent of fundraising costs: 4
  • Disabled American Veterans Charitable Service Trust
    • Mission: Physical and psychological rehabilitation programs for ill and wounded veterans
    • Donations: $6 million
    • Percent spent on direct aid: 97 percent
    • Percent of fundraising costs: 1 percent

Veterans Choice program under federal probe (Union-Bulletin)
The Veterans Choice program, designed to eliminate some of the woes plaguing the Department of Veterans Affairs health care system, is scheduled for a federal examination of its own problems. Prompted by a new push from several members of Congress, the Government Accounting Office announced it will audit the program the VA debuted in November of 2014 as an answer to the lack of access to timely care at its medical centers nationwide, including Walla Walla’s. Long wait times for medical appointments erupted in a scandal at the VA center in Phoenix, Ariz., in April 2014. Investigations showed significant and chronic care system failures had resulted in delayed care and deaths of veterans. Key players involved in covering up waiting list practices included Phoenix VA Director Sharon Helman, who headed the Walla Walla medical center in 2007-2008 and was fired from the federal VA system in November 2014. The Veterans Choice program promised to allow users timely and more local care. Veterans who have waited more than 30 days for VA care or who live more than 40 miles from a VA medical facility can use the program, and get outside care paid for by the VA. The program was initially funded at $10 million but has been slow to roll out, federal officials say. That’s been to the detriment of veterans here and everywhere, noted Washington State Veterans’ Affairs Advisory Committee chairman Don Schack. … Veterans are forced to jump hoops each time they seek care outside Walla Walla’s Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center campus, beginning with asking a VA doctor or nurse to authorize the request, he said. And there’s no guarantee a non-VA appointment can be scheduled within the 30-day window the VA is mandated to strive for. … Walla Walla VA employees, who say they fear retribution if they are named, told the Union-Bulletin Veterans Choice is as confusing for them as it for patients. Problems include the following: Once a private-provider appointment is approved it can take up to 10 days to notify the veteran he or she is free to set up the visit. Sometimes the system makes the appointment but fails to alert the veteran. Thus the VA gets billed for a “no-show” patient. In some cases multiple appointments are made for the same patient for the same health issue. VA employees who are supposed to act as patient advocates lack information about how Veterans Choice works. … An audit by the Office of the Inspector General, in a report released Jan. 12, said $1.9 billion of $4.8 billion designated for medical care outside the VA system went unspent in 2013. From October of 2013 to March 2014, VA officials overestimated the funds needed to pay for non-VA services by about $543 million. That money was then unnecessarily tied up in 2013, the report said. Also, national news organizations report numerous health providers are declining to work with the Veterans Choice program, citing reasons that include nonpayment and a burdensome communication process. The push for the new, GAO audit was led by U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., and Sens. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. … GAO spokesman Ned Griffith said the audit of the Veterans Choice program is expected to begin this coming spring.

Military’s new fertility benefit will let troops freeze their sperm and eggs (Military Times)
Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced Thursday that the Pentagon will start covering sperm and egg freezing for troops who want to preserve their gametes for future use. In a speech on “Force of the Future” initiatives that addressed changes to maternity and paternity leave as well as improved child care services, Carter said the Defense Department will launch the pilot preservation program and promised to explore widening the department’s coverage of fertility services. “We can help our men and women preserve their ability to start a family, even if they suffer certain combat injuries,” Carter said. “That’s why we will cover the cost of freezing sperm or eggs through a pilot program for active-duty service members.” According to Carter, the benefit will be offered to any service member who requests it as well as troops anticipating a deployment. He added that the egg- and sperm-freezing program not only will give troops who deploy “peace of mind,” it also will provide “greater flexibility” for service members to decide when they want to start a family. … The majority of military personnel are in the prime of their child-bearing or fathering years: Nearly half of all enlisted personnel are under age 26, with the next largest group, 22 percent, being ages 26 to 30. More than 42 percent of officers are between the ages of 26 and 35, according to Defense Department data. Women made up 15 percent of the active-duty force of 1.3 million in 2014. More than 1,300 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan suffered injuries to their groin regions and genitalia that would require advanced reproductive surgeries. Some advocacy groups and military spouses have pressed for improved fertility services for service members, saying the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments should cover advanced reproductive technologies for troops whose infertility is related to their military service as well as egg and sperm freezing prior to a combat deployment. Seven military treatment facilities offer IVF and artificial insemination to active-duty personnel and their spouses at cost if they meet eligibility criteria. Those services and others, including sperm extraction and embryo preservation, are available at no charge to severely wounded personnel on active-duty and their spouses. Tricare, the military’s civilian health benefits program, covers diagnoses of illnesses that can cause infertility and correction of any medical issues that might be the source of the problem but does not cover IVF or artificial insemination. The Department of Veterans Affairs, which provides health care to former service members with service-connected conditions, offers diagnostic services and treatment for some conditions but does not provide IVF or other advanced fertility services. Carter said the initiatives are among a larger effort to make the military a more “family-friendly employer.” … According to a Defense Department fact sheet, the two-year pilot will cover the cost of freezing sperm or eggs through Tricare. After the test program is complete, DoD will assess its impact, including cost and recruiting and retention benefits, and either renew the program or allow service members to pay out of pocket for continued storage. Carter did not provide details about the estimated cost of the initiatives.

Veterans’ caregivers lose VA stipends, struggle to understand why (The News Tribune)
For three years, a monthly stipend of $1,275 from the federal Department of Veterans Affairs gave Sarah Jenkins the freedom to care for her husband without having to worry about resuming her career. That let her keep a calm home and respond instantly if her veteran husband experienced one of the mood swings that have characterized his behavior since a group of mortars landed close to him on an Iraqi air field. The checks abruptly stopped in August when the VA declared her family no longer needed them. Jenkins is still trying to figure out why. … Her family is one of a growing number around the country who are raising questions about why the VA has been removing them from a caregiver program it launched in 2010. The program delivers extra compensation to caregivers of badly wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in the interest of keeping them out of expensive, long-term treatment facilities. Most of the caregivers are spouses or close family members of veterans. That program still is growing at a rate of 400 patients a month, but the VA has been taking a closer look at the veterans it initially enrolled to see whether they still meet standards to continue receiving checks. So far, about 7,000 veterans who once were enrolled in the program no longer are getting stipends. About a third were cut because VA staff members determined they did not meet medical criteria for the support. From the beginning, the money was not intended to be a permanent benefit and the program’s creation stipulated that the VA occasionally would reassess patients. The trouble was, the VA badly underfunded the program and fell behind in oversight, according to a September 2014 study from the Government Accountability Office. What’s different now is that the VA only last year published an official rule laying out how the program should be administered and it might finally have enough employees to manage it as it was designed. The idea is to provide stipends to families as long as the veteran’s health meets criteria laid out by the law, VA officials said. If the veteran’s health improves, the VA might remove a patient from the financial part of the program. “What you’re seeing today is based on our (GAO) findings nationwide that have helped us refocus the program and make sure we’re following the guideline set by the law,” said Rocco Bagala, the assistant chief for social work at VA Puget Sound. Veteran support organizations around the country have been hearing scattered reports of caregiver families raising concerns about losing their stipends. They don’t have enough information yet to decide whether they want to press the VA for reforms or to know for certain that the VA is removing patients from the program who genuinely no longer need the stipends. … The GAO showed the VA initially estimated about 4,000 veterans would qualify for the stipend. Instead, more than 15,600 had enrolled by 2014. Last year, more than 24,700 people received caregiver stipends, according to the VA. Spending on the program has swelled to the $555 million budgeted for 2016 from $350 million in 2014, according to VA documents. Staffing has increased, too. … The program is bigger than just the financial stipends. It also provides coaching and networking to help caregiver families learn from each other. Those benefits are provided to all veterans, not just people who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. … Some veterans who recently lost caregiver stipends took the decision as a sign the VA did not value them. They’re also unaware of the non-financial services the program provides.

Report: Former La. veterans secretary mismanaged department (The Washington Times)
Louisiana’s former veterans secretary mismanaged his department, the state legislative auditor and inspector general said in an investigative report released Monday that describes widespread improprieties at the Department of Veterans Affairs under David LaCerte’s leadership. LaCerte “engaged in questionable organizational, hiring and pay practices that appear to have contributed to an environment with little accountability,” the report says. The ex-secretary’s lawyer blasted the report in a written response, saying the allegations were untrue and describing the investigation as a “character assassination.” LaCerte abruptly resigned in October, amid the investigation by Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera and state Inspector General Stephen Street. The investigation looked at LaCerte’s tenure at the Department of Veterans Affairs, from July 1, 2010, through Oct. 8, 2015, during which time he worked as deputy secretary, interim secretary and secretary for former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration. Among the findings, investigators say LaCerte paid more than $44,000 to a company owned by two of his law school classmates without a proper consulting contract and with no evidence that work was done. They say LaCerte used more than $27,000 in federal funds earmarked for a Slidell veterans cemetery to instead buy a sport utility vehicle used by department staff to transport LaCerte and other employees to meetings and events, even though LaCerte received a $500 monthly stipend to use his personal vehicle for state business. “According to multiple interviews with (department) staff, Mr. LaCerte used his position of authority to threaten the jobs of employees who questioned certain actions such as travel. Staff also stated that the general culture was that you do as you are told, regardless of what the proper policies and procedures are,” the report says. During LaCerte’s leadership tenure, department employees “failed to disclose information of potential crimes involving veteran residents at three of the five war veteran homes,” which offer long-term health services, the report says. Investigators also say LaCerte’s military service record doesn’t match claims in his department biography or resume. LaCerte’s biography said he served in the Marines in Afghanistan and Pakistan and led over 100 combat patrols and missions, according to the report. But a review of his military records show LaCerte had a seven-month sea deployment, with only three months and nine days of foreign service, the report says. LaCerte’s lawyer, Jarrett Ambeau, described the report’s findings as “patently false, blatant character assassination and appear to be a calculated attack on the integrity and credibility of (the) former veterans affairs secretary.” Ambeau denied that LaCerte threatened workers’ jobs and said the former secretary properly hired his law school classmates’ company for consulting work related to two potential construction projects. The lawyer offered a point by point rebuttal of the allegations in the report – except on the military record questions. “Attacks on Secretary LaCerte’s service record are below the standard of a public office in the state of Louisiana, and will not be given the dignity of response herein,” Ambeau wrote. “Secretary LaCerte served his country honorably and his service record speaks for itself.” The auditor and inspector general say after LaCerte resigned, Jindal appointed an interim secretary, Thomas Enright, “who took steps to address many of the issues cited in this report.” The inspector general is continuing his investigation. Joey Strickland, veterans secretary for Gov. John Bel Edwards, said he ordered an agency review to make sure all previous audit issues have been addressed. In a written response, Strickland said he’s working on reforms so the department can “be back on track and again focused on its mission of supporting Louisiana veterans and their families.”

What veterans groups will see money from Trump’s rally? (Military Times)
Officials with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s campaign still aren’t saying exactly how much they’ll donate to veterans charities or when they’ll start sending checks, but they have offered a list of 22 organizations in line to be beneficiaries. Among them are the Disabled American Veterans Charitable Trust, the Fisher House Foundation, the Navy Seal Foundation and a host of lesser-known groups with targeted veterans assistance programs. Trump claims to have raised more than $6 million at his Thursday rally in Iowa, launched as a protest event after the business mogul refused to attend a Fox News debate over complaints about moderator choices. Of that total, $1 million came from Trump’s own fortune. All of the money was collected by the nonprofit Donald J. Trump Foundation, and the business mogul has promised the funds will be distributed among the groups. On Friday, officials from the DAV Charitable Trust released a statement saying Trump’s campaign has informed them a donation is coming. “While we are grateful for this support, it is our sincere wish that all who seek public office will provide the American public with substantive information on their vision for the future of veterans’ health care and benefits,” officials said. “We hope all candidates will support our cause. We will use these funds to ensure our fellow veterans receive the care they have earned through their service and sacrifices. The receipt of a donation from Mr. Trump’s foundation does not imply an endorsement for his political campaign.” Officials from another potential beneficiary, the Texas-based 22Kill — a reference to the estimated 22 U.S. veterans who commit  suicide each day — appeared on stage with Trump at Thursday’s rally and praised the Republican front-runner for his generosity. Trump officials also noted that several of the charities receiving money from the event are Iowa-based veterans organizations. The first presidential primary event will be held in Iowa on Monday. Campaign officials did not respond to requests for further details on how the groups were selected or the distribution. Here is the full list of groups listed as event beneficiaries: American Hero Adventures (Eugene, Ore.), Disabled American Veterans Charitable Trust (Cold Spring, Ky.), Fisher House Foundation (Rockville, Md.), Folds of Honor (Owasso, Okla.), Homes for our Troops (Taunton, Mass.), Honoring America’s Warriors (El Reno, Okla.), Hope for the Warriors (Annandale, Va.), K9s for Warriors (Ponte Vedra, Fla.), Liberty House (Manchester, N.H.), Mulberry Street Veterans Shelter (Des Moines, Iowa), Navy Seal Foundation (Virginia Beach, Va.), Operation Homefront (Quincy, Mass.), Partners for Patriots (Liberty, Tenn.), Project for Patriots (Sioux City, Iowa), Puppy Jake (Des Moines, Iowa), Racing for Heroes (Mill Hall, Pa.), Support Siouxland Soldiers (Sioux City, Iowa), Task Force Dagger Foundation (McKinney, Texas), The Green Beret Foundation (San Antonio), Veterans Airlift Command (St. Louis Park, Minn.), Warriors for Freedom (Stillwater, Okla.), 22Kill (Dallas).

Sen. Fischer asks VA secretary to help resolve campus impasse (Columbus Telegram)
Sen. Deb Fischer has sent a letter to the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs encouraging the federal agency to resolve problems that have stalled negotiations on redevelopment of Lincoln’s VA campus. A development team hopes to build apartments and rental homes for veteran’s and seniors on the the 65-acre campus near 70th and O streets. The team — which includes Omaha-based America First Real Estate Group, the nonprofit Seniors Foundation and Lincoln-based Sampson Construction — has been negotiating a long-term lease with the VA for four years, even before the project went public. The city approved tax-increment funding for the project in late September, even without a long-term lease in place. And this fall Sampson Construction began clearing land for an apartment complex that will house low-income and homeless veterans who qualify for vouchers through the federal Department of Housing and Urban Affairs. But negotiations for the lease stalled late last year after the federal agency introduced new requirements for the project, according to Fischer’s letter to VA Secretary Robert McDonald. In it, she asks McDonald to resolve the problems blocking the redevelopment. And, she asks to meet personally with the secretary to discuss the issue. Fischer points out that without the redevelopment project, the VA will be spending up to $1 million in maintenance costs for an unused campus once the department closes the Lincoln clinic now operating in the old VA hospital. … The Nebraska development team is seeking a meeting with top VA officials to discuss two contract issues leading to the impasse. The VA is looking for a site for a new Lincoln clinic, and the development team has proposed building it on the VA Campus. The development team has determined the broader VA Campus project is only feasible with the new clinic there and is seeking a clause in the long-term lease to allow its dissolution if the new clinic is moved to an off-campus site. Having the clinic near the housing and other veteran services that will be available on the redeveloped campus is “critical to the success of the entire project,” based on an analysis by America First. The VA contends that its clinic is off limits in discussions of a long-term lease, because including it could subject the later awarding of the clinic to a protest from an unsuccessful bidder, according to a letter from the development team explaining the issues to Congressional leaders. The development team believes grounds for a protest already exist, so putting it in the lease shouldn’t be an issue. And it has an opinion from a former General Services Administration attorney advising that a contingency in the lease is not prevented by statute. In addition, the development team learned in December it must meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design silver standards, which will add considerable costs to the project, Fischer wrote. In the letter to Congressional leaders, the development team points out that the partners have spent more than $500,000 on the project, obtained a commitment of about $7.1 million in TIF from the city and put together a redevelopment agreement for more than $100 million in work. Failure of a highly visible and significant project would be a blow not only to Lincoln but also the veterans this project will serve, the development team writes.