February 10 Veterans News

February 10 Veterans News

VetsHQ News UpdateHouse passes flurry of veterans bills, bigger deal could be looming (Military Times) Lawmakers could be headed toward a veterans omnibus bill covering a host of health, education and employment issues after House members passed a package of nine veterans-themed measures Tuesday evening. The flurry of legislation came after a day of debate and discussion about veterans issues on the House floor. All of the measures were passed by voice vote without objection, but will need Senate action and the president’s signature before they can become law. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said the moves were a needed push to help “our retired servicemen and women who have been neglected by a broken Department of Veterans Affairs.” He promised more focus on the issues in months to come. … House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said the bills together help “rein in the incompetence that permeates VA’s construction efforts, end the egregious taxpayer abuse some unscrupulous and greedy schools are committing on a daily basis, and most importantly, honor our veterans while improving and expanding the benefits they have earned.” The most controversial item on the legislative slate was a measure that would halve the housing stipend for children of troops attending college with transferred Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits. Veterans advocacy groups opposed that portion of the so-called Veterans Employment, Education, and Healthcare Improvement Act, which also included provisions to restrict GI Bill payouts for flight schools and increased eligibility for children of some veterans. Supporters of the measure did not address the issue on the House floor, but several Democrats said they hope the housing stipend cut is reconsidered in the Senate. Among the other bills approved Tuesday:

  • The Construction Reform Act, which would require VA to hire an assistant inspector general for construction projects. Lawmakers have criticized lax oversight of those projects, several of which have faced multimillion-dollar cost overruns.
  • The American Heroes COLA Act, which would permanently tie veterans’ annual cost-of-living adjustments to Social Security and make their annual adjustments automatic.
  • The Career-Ready Student Veterans Act, which would require educational programs eligible for GI Bill payouts to meet state licensure and certification standards.
  • The Female Veteran Suicide Prevention Act, which would boost focus and oversight on suicide prevention programs targeted at women veterans.
  • The Failing VA Medical Center Recovery Act, which would require VA to assign special management teams to underperforming VA medical facilities to provide faster solutions for patients using those services.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate have discussed the possibility of crafting a larger veterans omnibus bill later this year, to include both the measures passed Tuesday and a host of other separate bills under consideration by both chambers. But no further details have been finalized on when that plan might be introduced.

GI Bill transfer rules unchanged, housing allowance cut (Military.com)
An eleventh-hour change to Department of Veterans Affairs legislation scrapped a plan by lawmakers to increase the service obligation required for troops who wish to transfer their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to their spouses or children. The bill, which was passed by the House yesterday, originally included a provision requiring troops to serve 10 years on active duty plus a two-year service obligation to qualify for the transfer benefit. Instead, lawmakers opted to keep the requirement at the current six years of service, plus a four-year service obligation. A plan to slash in half the housing allowance for military dependents using the transferred benefit remained in the bill and was approved as part of the vote. A similar version of the legislation will be considered by the Senate before heading to the president’s desk for approval before it becomes law. The provisions, part of the Veterans Employment, Education and Healthcare Act, halved only the payment for children of service members using the transferred funding — not spouses. The congressionally mandated Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission last year recommended eliminating the entire housing payout for both groups. Children who have already been transferred the benefit under the old rules will be grandfathered into the full housing allowance, as will those transferred the benefit up to 180 days after the change is signed into law. Troops who have not yet reached six years of active service are not eligible to transfer the benefit and will not be able to lock in the current housing allowance rules. Also included in the bill were two Fry Scholarship expansions for spouses of troops killed in action after September 11, 2001, and a measure allowing Guard and Reserve members on medical hold from injuries received on active duty to earn their GI Bill faster than has traditionally been permitted.

House passes bill focused on mental health of female veterans (Los Angeles Times)
Under a House bill passed Tuesday, the Department of Veterans Affairs would have to look closely at whether its mental health and suicide prevention programs meet the needs of the growing number of female veterans. A study released over the summer found that women who have served in the military commit suicide at nearly six times the rate of those in the civilian population. “One suicide is way too many, and the VA, in my opinion, has to make this the highest priority,” said Rep. Julia Brownley (D-Westlake Village), sponsor of the bill. Brownley’s measure also would require the VA to collect data specifically on how trauma affects female service members. … The bill, Brownley said, is an update to the Clay Hunt SAV Act, which President Obama signed in February 2015. That law mandates that the VA review its suicide prevention programs, provide veterans with financial and medical assistance related to mental health and make information about treatment more readily available. … The legislation also includes language, sponsored by Rep. Scott Peters (D-San Diego), that orders the department to set treatment standards for veterans who served in classified or intelligence positions. “It’s hard enough for veterans who are returning from action to find people to talk to about stuff. That problem is doubled when you’re in intelligence, because you can’t talk about anything. So it is important to reach out to that community in particular,” Peters said. Coronado residents Howard and Jean Somers inspired the measure. They have petitioned Congress to act since their son, Sgt. Daniel Somers, committed suicide in 2013 while waiting for individual treatment from the VA for post-traumatic stress. The House on Tuesday also passed the Career-Ready Student Veterans Act, sponsored by Rep. Mark Takano (D-Riverside), which requires a college program to either be accredited or meet the requirements for state licensing or certification in order to be eligible for GI Bill benefits. The bill is trying to keep veterans from earning a degree under the GI Bill that doesn’t satisfy the requirements needed for a career. In an attempt to speed up disbursement of veterans’ benefits, the House also passed by voice vote a bill — sponsored by Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona) — that would instruct the VA to allow colleges to work together in reporting to the department on a veteran’s enrollment. Currently, each college has to certify that a veteran student is enrolled before the VA will pay. Calvert said the change would benefit multi-college districts like the Riverside Community College District.

Bill to reduce veterans’ services backlog passes House (Winona Daily News)
A bill coauthored by U.S. Rep. Tim Walz intended to reduce the backlog veterans encounter when returning from service passed the House of Representatives. Walz, D-Minn., along with Minnesota U.S. Senator Al Franken, wrote the Quicker Veterans Benefits Delivery Act of 2015, a bipartisan, bicameral bill aimed at tackling the Department of Veterans Affairs benefit-claims backlog. “After these brave men and women put their life on the line for us, the least we can do is ensure they are getting the benefits they have earned in a timely manner,” Walz said in a statement. “I recognize this problem was not created, nor will it be solved, overnight, but we can and must do better.” As identified by the VA, for a veteran to qualify as in the backlog, they must be waiting 125 days or more for the VA to process their claim. Currently, hundreds of thousands of veterans are in the VA benefits backlog. While the VA has taken steps to reduce the backlog, problems persist and there is still significant work that needs to be done to address the claims process and prevent future problems. The bill would allow local doctors to conduct disability medical examinations for veterans newly seeking benefits from the VA. Currently, veterans must visit a VA facility for this examination. Allowing veterans to see a local doctor for their initial examination conserves VA resources, cuts back on long wait times at VA hospitals, enables quicker diagnoses of disabilities, and eliminates unnecessary trips to the VA for veterans in rural communities. Additionally, the legislation would require the VA to report on the bill’s implementation and annually on common reasons for claim denials. “We know that our veterans’ battles don’t always end when they return home,” Franken said in a statement. “Too many return with mental and physical disabilities incurred while protecting our freedoms. All they expect in return for their service is for our nation to keep its promises and get them the VA benefits they’ve earned.”

VA boosts budget to tackle outstanding healthcare claims from vets (Military.com)
The Veterans Affairs Department is requesting a budget of $182 billion next year, a nearly $20 billion funding increase designed in part to tackle outstanding health care claims from veterans. The proposed spending plan unveiled on Tuesday includes nearly $103.6 billion for mandatory programs such as disability compensation and pensions, and more than $78 billion in discretionary funding — mostly for health care. VA Secretary Bob McDonald, who is scheduled to testify Wednesday before Congress on the budget request, said the agency now has “one of the greatest opportunities in its history to transform the way it cares for our veterans.” McDonald says the funding will expand health care options to veterans across the country, continue efforts to end chronic veteran homelessness and further reduce the backlog on first-time claims and also on appeals. Claims appeals, which have increased over the past six years as the VA put more resources and manpower into tackling the first-time claims backlog, is being targeted next year with more money and personnel. The budget proposes $156.1 million and 922 full time employees for the Board of Appeals, up from about $110 million for a staff of 680 personnel in 2016. The department’s spending plan marks the last one that President Barack Obama will submit as his second term ends next year and amounts to about double what it was in 2009 when he was sworn in. After the White House released the budget details, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, a Republican from Florida and the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, released a rundown of recent and longstanding department problems, from cost overruns on construction projects to employees not being held accountable for poor performance and alleged wrongdoing. … The department budgeted $68.6 billion for health care. Of that amount, more than $12 billion is slated to deliver health care to vets in their community. Another $8.5 billion is for long-term care; $7.8 billion for mental health programs; $1.6 billion to reduce veteran homelessness; $1.5 billion to treat veterans ill with hepatitis C; $601 million for treating spinal cord injuries and $284 million for traumatic brain injuries, according to budget documents. The VA expects to spend $725 million for caregivers. To improve claims processing, the VA is continuing to invest in technology, earmarking $180 million to the Veterans Benefits Administration to enhance its electronic claims system and $143 million to the Veterans Claims Intake Program to continue converting older, paper records, including health records, into digital images and data. The backlog in first-time claims — those not acted on within 125 days of filing — has been reduced from its 2013 peak of 611,000 to about 82,000, McDonald said last month. Unlike other parts of the federal budget, Congress has authorized the VA to include funding requests one year in advance. As a result, the department included 2018 funding figures that totaled about $174 billion, including $104 billion in mandatory programs, a $1.5 billion increase from the 2017 request, and $470 billion in advance appropriations, an boost of about $300,000 from next year’s amount.

House approves bill to tighten control on VA construction (The Denver Post)
The House on Tuesday approved a bill to increase oversight and management of large construction projects at the Department of Veterans Affairs after a new VA hospital in Aurora nearly tripled original cost estimates. The bill requires the VA to allow the Army Corps of Engineers or other federal agencies to manage projects that cost more than $100 million. The VA also would be required to keep Congress closely informed about large projects. Money could not be spent on advance planning or design until 60 days after Congress is notified. The House approved the bill on a voice vote. It now goes to the Senate. The measure responds to a multiyear debacle in Aurora, where the hospital under construction is now projected to cost $1.7 billion. Investigators blame overruns on multiple design changes and a decision by VA officials to use a complicated contract process they didn’t fully understand. Republican lawmakers call the Aurora project a symptom of the VA’s overall dysfunction. Congress reluctantly approved up to $625 million in additional spending for the project last fall, the money to come from other accounts within the VA. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said the bill approved Tuesday would “help rein in the incompetence that permeates VA’s construction efforts” while enhancing accountability and efficiency. Construction of the Colorado hospital is expected to be completed in 2018 — four years after the initial target date. The House bill also would authorize expansion of a VA hospital in Tampa, Fla., and provide $561.4 million for five other projects: renovation of a hospital in Canandaigua, N.Y., and four major medical projects in California: Long Beach, San Francisco, West Los Angeles and San Diego.

After scandals, VA proposes boost to Inspector General staff (Military.com)
The Veterans Affairs Department is seeking to grow its investigating arm next year by more than 100 people. The IG, which is responsible for uncovering waste, fraud and abuse, has itself come under fire in recent years over allegations it underplayed findings related to deaths of veterans on secret waiting lists and, more recently, allegedly skewed an investigation into senior executives alleged to have pushed out of jobs two employees whose positions they wanted. During a call-in session with reporters to discuss the proposed 2017 budget, officials did not link any action or investigation to the $160 million budget request. For 2016 the OIG office is funded at $137 million. “This will allow for more increased oversight of VA programs,” said Interim Assistant Secretary for Management and Interim Chief Financial Officer Ed Murray said. He expects the 100-plus new employees to the OIG will improve accountability across the VA. … Officials did not provide a breakdown of OIG’s current staffing, though in an annual report to Congress last September the agency said it had 662 employees organized into three sections: the offices of Investigations, Audits and Evaluations, and Healthcare Inspections. It also maintains a contract review office. Deputy Inspector General Linda Halliday, who has been steering the OIG since the previous acting IG resigned last year, reported in September that the IG investigators closed 523 investigations and made 209 arrests during 2015 for crimes including fraud, bribery, embezzlement, identity theft and drug-related crimes, including diversion and illegal distribution. Three people were sent to prison for fraud and bribery, among them a VA supervisor and two contractors, Halliday reported. Lawmakers have taken the IG’s office to task, however, over its handling of investigations into the wait-times scandal that came to light in 2014 and, more recently, the case to two senior executives whose punishment for allegedly manipulating the VA’s employment system was overturned by an administrative law judge. Overall, the VA is seeking $20 billion more in 2017 than in 2016, for a total of $182.3 billion. The total that includes more than $78 billion in discretionary funding — mostly for health care — and nearly $103.6 billion for mandatory programs such as disability compensation and pensions.

Oklahoma Sen. Inhofe meets with VA nominee (News OK)
Sen. Jim Inhofe said Tuesday he might allow a vote soon on the man nominated to be the head watchdog at the Veterans Affairs Department, but he’s still not satisfied there will be an independent review of Oklahoma’s veterans hospitals. Inhofe, R-Tulsa, met on Capitol Hill with Michael Missal, whose nomination as VA inspector general is pending in the Senate. For the past week, Inhofe has prevented a vote on the nomination as he seeks assurances that someone outside the VA’s bureaucracy will investigate the VA centers in Oklahoma City and Muskogee. After the meeting, Inhofe’s office was notified the chief of staff at the Jack C. Montgomery hospital in Muskogee had been removed. Inhofe said that was the result of a report done by the VA’s regional office that oversees Oklahoma and several other states. Inhofe had requested the review by the Rocky Mountain region of the Veterans Integrated Service Network. … In an interview, Inhofe said he wanted a commitment from Missal — the inspector general nominee — that his office would investigate the Oklahoma hospitals in conjunction with an outside entity, preferably the Joint Commission, a nonprofit organization that can audit a hospital and look for specific areas of concern. Inhofe did not get that commitment Tuesday. Rather, Missal told him he would check into what was possible regarding a joint investigation. Inhofe said he wouldn’t require that the investigation commence — since Missal would have to be confirmed for that to happen — before lifting his hold. “I’ll take his word for it,” he said. According to Inhofe’s office, Dr. Thomas Schneider was removed as chief of staff over the Eastern Oklahoma VA Health Care System and Dr. Herbert Nagamoto was appointed to serve as the temporary chief of staff.

Muskogee VA hospital chief of staff reassigned amid quality-of-care investigation (Tulsa World)
Amid allegations of problems with quality of care, the chief of staff at the Jack C. Montgomery Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Muskogee has been reassigned to a temporary detail at an outpatient clinic in Tulsa. Dr. Thomas Schneider, who has served as the Muskogee hospital’s chief of staff since August 2012, was temporarily moved Monday to the Ernest Childers VA Outpatient Clinic in Tulsa, which is part of the Eastern Oklahoma Veterans Affairs Health Care System. An internal memo states that in December, the Eastern Oklahoma VA Health Care System was told of allegations concerning quality of care at the Muskogee facility, and it suspended intermediate surgeries in order to conduct reviews. The hospital will continue to perform basic surgeries but will send veterans who have intermediate surgical needs to community hospitals to receive their care, according to the memo. In December and January, the Veterans Integrated Service Network, Rocky Mountain Network, sent two fact-finding teams to Muskogee to conduct an internal evaluation. The Rocky Mountain Network, VISN 19, operates six health-care centers in Colorado, Montana, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming, its website says. VISN 19’s findings were sent to the VA Office of Accountability Review, which reviews allegations when VA executives are involved. Dr. Herbert Nagamoto of VISN 19 has been appointed acting chief of staff at the Muskogee facility for two weeks until Dr. Susan Bray-Hill takes over as acting chief of staff. In a news release, U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, praised the change in management and applauded VISN 19’s efforts in conducting a review. … Interim Medical Center Director Richard Crockett, who was appointed to his position in July after Director James Floyd retired, said he was unsure to what specifically over the past decade Inhofe was referring, but he said the facility has nothing to hide. … Crockett noted that the center serves 37,000 veterans, and even a 99 percent satisfaction rating would leave hundreds who might have valid concerns. As far as the nature of the allegations, Inhofe referred to “poor quality of care.” Crockett said he could not elaborate. … Crockett described his decision to reassign Schneider as “standard procedure.” “Per protocol, when there’s a review being done on an executive, or anyone really, we just detail them out,” he said. “It’s just better that way. He’s detailed (to the Tulsa clinic) until the investigation’s done, and then we anticipate putting him back.” The VA website shows that its Office of the Inspector General has conducted five program reviews and five inspections at the Muskogee center since 2003. A national audit released in June 2014 showed that the facility had an average wait time of 30 days to schedule appointments for new patients. The audit recorded a wait time of two days for an appointment for established patients, with 98 percent of all appointments scheduled within 30 days. The audit, which reported on 731 hospitals and outpatient clinics, found that more than 57,000 military veterans across the country had been waiting 90 days or more for initial appointments, and 64,000 never got appointments.

$36 million in fed budget for veterans’ cemetery in Michigan (Buffalo Business First)
Construction on a 132-acre National Veterans Cemetery could start within the next year, now that the federal funding for the project has been secured. Landing the $36 million for the proposed cemetery is considered a major win for a project that is being championed by local military and veteran’s groups and organizations. President Barack Obama, in his proposed federal budget, included the $36 million necessary to develop the cemetery, set for a large parcel along Indian Falls Road in Pembroke. The cemetery will serve both the Buffalo and Rochester markets and eliminate the need for regional military families, who opt for a loved ones burial in a veterans cemetery having to travel to Bath in central New York state. Creating the regional veterans cemetery has been a top local priority by area military groups for the past few years. Sen. Charles Schumer, a major advocate for the regional veterans cemetery, said he will lobby to make the $36 million remains in the final budget appropriations bill. “It is important we can guarantee that military veterans in this area have a proper burial site at close to the homes, families and communities they dedicated their lives to serve and protect,” Schumer said. Planning and design work is underway and should be completed later this year. Construction will start by early 2017, assuming the funding remains in place, Schumer said. The site is 30 miles from Buffalo and 48 from Rochester.

Therapy kangaroo helps veterans, to be honored (KUTV)
About a dozen therapy animals share their healing love and support with the residents at William E. Christoffersen Veterans Home in Salt Lake City. But one four legged friend is unlike the rest. His name is Charlie, and he’s a kangaroo. “He just makes everybody smile,” said administrator Noralyn Kahn. “He’s cool. I like him,” said Bernie Kindred. Kindred has been in the home for about as long as Charlie, almost a year. During that time, they developed a close friendship. “He likes to come into my room and we’ll eat licorice,” said Kindred. Kahn said Charlie’s love is unconditional. “He just knows that he has to love them. And it doesn’t matter what they look like or how they act, he’s there to love them,” said Kahn. “It is very emotional to me because it is such tenderness. And it makes such a difference in so many lives.” Visitors enjoyed Charlie, too. “It makes it so that the grandkids aren’t afraid to come see Grandpa. Because they can come see Charlie, too.” Charlie took trips to special education classes and hospice care facilities. “He was passing away and he held Charlie for about an hour and said, now I can die.” Charlie is about a year old and weighs 30 pounds. Red kangaroos grow quickly and soon Charlie will be 5 feet 2 inches tall and weigh 125 pounds, which means he will not be able to stay in the veterans home much longer. The Utah Red Cross will honor Charlie and Noralyn in a Heroes Recognition Event on March 31 at the Little America Hotel. This is a very unique story and we are pleased and proud to honor the work of Noralyn and of course Charlie,” said Red Cross representative, Rich Woodruff. Woodruff said the annual event has many categories, but they only recently added animal category. “We’re just so pleased to bring this story to light and share it with the community at our annual Heroes Event.”