February 24 Veterans News

February 24 Veterans News

VetsHQ News UpdateVA watchdog sits on wait-time investigation reports for months (USA Today) After the Veterans Affairs wait-time scandal erupted nearly two years ago, the department’s chief watchdog investigated 73 VA facilities across the country and found scheduling problems in 51 cases. But that watchdog — the VA’s inspector general — still has not released reports with the findings of those investigations to Congress or the public. As a result, it’s impossible to tell which medical centers had problems, how serious those problems were, or whether they led to the deaths of any veterans. The inspector general has said only that they range from simple rule violations to deliberate fraud. In Delaware, the inspector general found cases of improper scheduling at the Wilmington VA that led to disciplinary action months ago. But Democratic Rep. John Carney said he’s still trying to figure out exactly what went on at the facility. “I’m outraged that we still haven’t received the inspector general’s report,” he told USA TODAY last week. “The investigation began almost two years ago and we can’t address the problems when we don’t know the full picture.” After repeated inquiries and a Freedom of Information Act request from USA TODAY, the inspector general’s office said it will release the reports “shortly.” Catherine Gromek, a spokeswoman for the office, did not say why the investigative reports were shared only with the VA but suggested the inspector general did not want to disrupt potential disciplinary actions by the VA. But that doesn’t explain dozens of cases in which the VA says no discipline was imposed. Acting Inspector General Linda Halliday pledged greater transparency after former interim Inspector General Richard Griffin stepped down in July amid criticism of secrecy. USA TODAY had found the office had withheld from the public the results of 140 health-care investigations, including cases in which veterans were harmed or died. … In December, President Obama signed legislation requiring the VA inspector general to release investigative reports within three days of completion. But it’s been months — in some cases possibly more than a year — since the VA wait-time reports were completed. Gromek, the inspector general’s spokeswoman, refused to say when the reports were finished. According to congressional testimony, all were completed before December 9. … Gromek said the new law applies only to “issued” reports that include recommendations based on the findings. “The reports of (wait-time) investigation are not issued and do not make a recommendation or suggest a corrective action,” she said. “We transfer our findings to VA’s Office of Accountability and Review (OAR) for any administrative action they deem appropriate.” She said Halliday has always intended to release the reports, and her office is now scrubbing personal information from them. “This is an extensive, meticulous, and time-consuming process,” she said. “Once we are satisfied that we have met these obligations, we will finalize and issue the work product and release it publicly.” … Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., who co-authored the legislation requiring release within three days, said that’s “unacceptable.” Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said that when the inspector general’s office completes a report, it should be released to the public without delay. “VA’s challenges will only fester if they are kept shrouded in secrecy,” he said. Federal law requires the inspector general’s office to independently investigate fraud, waste and mismanagement within the VA and to keep Congress — and therefore the public — “fully and currently informed” about its findings. VA officials asked the inspector general in June 2014 to investigate 111 medical facilities where an audit — conducted after the wait-time scandal at the Phoenix VA — found potential scheduling manipulation. Those facilities, located in 37 states and Puerto Rico, range from small outpatient clinics to large hospitals. … The inspector general said the office is still investigating 33 facilities. VA officials say they’ve reviewed 71 of the wait-time reports from investigations by the inspector general’s office. In 12 of the cases, they say, the VA found “individual misconduct warranting discipline or counseling.” In a statement issued by VA spokeswoman Walinda West, the agency said it initiated disciplinary action against 29 employees, three of whom retired or resigned.

Vets fight new report that calls for halt to research on ‘Gulf War Illness’ (Fox News)
The scene U.S. forces encountered as they entered Kuwait in February 1991 to end the Iraqi occupation was a hellish inferno, with hundreds of oil wells set ablaze by Saddam Hussein’s army to send a choking, black smoke billowing into the skies. Now, as the troops who served in the Gulf War mark its 25th anniversary on Tuesday, they are fighting a different battle. A new report once again casts doubt on the legitimacy of Gulf War Illness, an ailment afflicting hundreds of thousands of veterans of the war. “We were appalled at the new Institute of Medicine report, although not surprised,” James Binns, former chairman of the federal Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses, told FoxNews.com. The institute is a division of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, and conducts research to serve private and governmental agencies, including by congressional commission. Veterans are set to testify before a congressional panel on the need for more scientific research on the illness, and are incensed at the report’s recommendation for a focus on “mind-body connectedness.” The wording has reopened an old wound caused when the Pentagon claimed the illness was mental, and not physical. An estimated 24 to 33 percent of the nearly 700,000 who served in the 1991 Gulf War have reported a condition with three hallmark symptoms: chronic fatigue, joint and muscle pain and concentration and memory difficulties. Other ailments associated with the illness include gastrointestinal problems and skin rashes. On Feb. 11, the last report issued by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommended that “further studies to determine cause-and-effect relationships between Gulf War exposures and health conditions in Gulf War veterans should not be undertaken.” The report goes on to say “it is time research efforts focus on the [mind-body] interconnectedness.” Following more than $500 million in U.S. government-funded research on Gulf War veterans between 1994 and 2014, the report indicates that the illness and its causes are poorly understood. “Their recommendations are a complete U-turn from everything science has shown in the last 15 years of research,” Binns said. “If these recommendations were to be adopted, research would be directed away from hard science to understand the underlying mechanisms of the disease and toward psychiatric factors. “There would be no further chance to develop treatments that treat the underlying disease,” he continued. “Only treatments that would help them cope with the disease.” Binns noted that the previous 2010 IOM report had recommended hard science research to identify the mechanisms underlying the illness and find treatments, including “studies to identify … modifications of DNA structure related to environmental exposures … signatures of immune activation, or brain changes identified by sensitive imaging measures.”  

Access the IOM report and learn more about Gulf War Illness

Opinion: Give ‘blue water veterans’ health coverage they need, deserve (The Bulletin)
Bulletin Editorial Board: Last week, Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, called for congressional action to help so-called blue water Navy veterans — those who served in territorial waters overseas during the Vietnam War, and who may suffer illnesses linked to exposure to Agent Orange. That these veterans lack full Veterans Administration coverage for these illnesses is a national disgrace, and Congress can and should act swiftly to remedy the situation. The VA presumes that any veteran who served on land or in Vietnam’s inland waters was exposed to Agent Orange, the toxic herbicide used for a decade during the war. Those veterans are compensated for any of a bevy of illnesses associated with and presumed linked to exposure, including diabetes, cancer and Parkinson’s disease. Blue water vets, however, are excluded; the VA maintains there is no scientific basis or legal justification to cover them. But advocates say Agent Orange — which contains dioxin, a potent toxin — ran off into the sea where it was sucked up and distilled by Navy vessels and used for drinking, bathing and laundry. The distillation process only concentrated the dioxin. The Agent Orange Act of 1991 originally covered blue water veterans, but the VA changed its interpretation in 2002 to exclude them. That decision withstood a 2008 court challenge, and in April, an appeals court ordered the VA to review the policy. But earlier this month, the administration announced it had decided to maintain its policy limiting blue water veterans’ coverage. One of the bases of the VA’s position is a 2011 Institute of Medicine report which did not find sufficient evidence to support extending presumption of exposure to the offshore Navy vets. Incidentally, that report also identified plausible pathways by which Agent Orange could have traveled to sea and into ships’ distillation systems. In other words, there isn’t a scientific guarantee that blue water veterans were exposed to Agent Orange, but there a credible possibility. In our view, when it comes to veterans’ well-being, the VA ought to be erring on the side of caution — not excluding some because absolute scientific certainty isn’t there. Those who served the country in the armed forces deserve the benefit of the doubt.

Discover more on Agent Orange and Blue Water veterans

Proposal would give some VA senior executives more pay (Government Executive)
A small number of Veterans Affairs senior executives would be able to earn up to $50,000 more in annual salary under the department’s draft legislative proposal to make it easier to hire and fire top career officials. A new pay band would be created for the department’s 344 career senior executive positions that would establish an annual salary range of between $205,000 and $235,000 for 20 SES jobs, according to a VA proposal, obtained by Government Executive, to revamp the hiring, compensation and removal of senior executives. For 2016, the annual salary cap for the federal government’s senior executives is $185,100. Under the VA’s proposal, which would move the department’s senior executives out of Title 5 into Title 38, there would be an additional top tier “1A” pay band that would include the new $205,000 to $235,000 pay range in addition to three lower annual salary bands that range from $150,000 to $205,000. “Only the most complex executive leadership roles” at the department would be assigned to the highest pay band, the proposal said. … The proposal also indicated a decrease in pay is a possibility, depending on the new job. Mobility is a key component to being part of the SES. … Under Title 5, senior executives’ pay cannot be reduced if they move to an assignment with a lower-profile or fewer responsibilities. The proposed changes are part of the department’s larger effort to exercise more flexibility in how it hires, pays, and fires its senior executives. Since the beginning of the year, three separate administrative judges have reversed the VA’s decisions to demote or fire senior executives accused of wrongdoing – and the VA is not happy about it. The draft proposal on moving senior executives from Title 5 to Title 38 would replace the current expedited demotion and removal authority under the 2014 Choice Act. The VA also is having a hard time recruiting and retaining top employees in hard-to-fill jobs. According to the draft proposal, as of late January, nearly 30 percent of the department’s SES slots were vacant, while 70 percent of the current corps is “eligible to retire immediately or will become eligible this year.” VA Secretary Bob McDonald and Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson in the last month have met with congressional VA committee leadership to discuss moving the SES corps from Title 5 to Title 38 of the U.S. Code. McDonald and his top deputies have said that doing so will give them more authority to expedite hiring and offer higher pay to better compete with the private sector for top talent. But it also gives them more leeway when it comes to firing top career officials accused of wrongdoing. If senior executives are taken out of Title 5 and moved into Title 38 under the VA’s proposal, they would lose their rights to appeal disciplinary actions against them, such as removal, to the independent Merit Systems Protection Board. Instead, their appeals would be handled internally at the VA. … The Senior Executives Association has blasted the VA’s idea to convert the department’s SES corps into Title 38 employees.

New York launches veterans app (WAMC)
The New York State Division of Veterans’ Affairs unveiled its new mobile app to help the state’s 900,000 vets connect to important state and federal programs. With a simple download, users can get assistance finding housing, getting a job, finding education, navigating benefits, and connecting with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. … The app is being is celebrated by leaders on the left and right. Democrat Angelo Santabarbara, a member of the state Assembly Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said connecting veterans with services has been a major topic of conversation at committee hearings. … Santabarbara, a veteran of the U.S. Army Reserve, said he often has his own questions about finding what services he’s eligible for. “It gets you moving in the right direction and directs you to the appropriate department to ask those questions, so it makes it more efficient.” In addition to providing links to agency websites, the app also has a “Near Me” feature. An individual anywhere in New York can find the addresses and contact information for the nearest Division of Veterans’ Affairs field offices and County Veterans Service Agency offices. It also provides news on the latest updates on state and federal programs. Republican Kathy Marchione, a member of the state Senate Standing Committee on Veterans, Homeland Security, and Military Affairs, also had praise for the app. … The app is free and available for Android and iOS devices. For more information visit: www.ny.gov/mobileapps

Missouri House passes tuition caps for post-9/11 student military veterans (The Joplin Globe)
The House voted unanimously, 149-0, to make changes to the Missouri Returning Heroes’ Education Act to what bill sponsor state Rep. Charlie Davis said it was originally intended for, which is to make college affordable for veterans. Davis, R-Webb City, said his bill caps the tuition veterans, who enlisted after Sept. 11, 2001, as a Missouri resident, can be charged at $50 per credit hour. The law now says that only after all federal and state aid, including the GI bill aid itself, is applied would the student have to pay $50 per credit hour. “All we are doing is changing it to ‘before’ aid instead of ‘after,'” Davis said. The bill could have significant implications for veterans who are inundated with costs unrelated to tuition, such as rising student fees and room and board, Davis said. Sean McLafferty, a graduate student at the University of Missouri and the president of the Mizzou Student Veterans Association, testified in favor of the bill during its committee hearing, where the bill passed unanimously as well. He said MU currently charges about $276 per credit hour for in-state tuition. For a 30 credit-hour academic year, adding the about $1,223 in traditional student fees, McLafferty said students can be charged about $9,500, not including college-specific fees, room and board and textbooks. McLafferty said he helped out at Mizzou’s student veterans center where he would help GI bill applicants fill out paperwork. It was there where he would see veterans find out that going to school is not cheap and that other aid would exclude them from using GI bill benefits. … McLafferty, who attended Mizzou for his undergraduate degree, said he racked up $15,000 in debt after using aid from the Montgomery GI bill, also known as Chapter 30. McLafferty explained there are several chapters of the GI bill, all of which cover different kinds of costs. The GI bill most students are moving to is the Post 9/11 bill, or Chapter 33, which is the most generous of the GI bills, said Becca Diskin, Missouri Southern State University director of financial aid. Chapter 33 covers a lot of the costs students face, so Davis’ bill will be more helpful to students who receive aid through other GI bill chapters. … Ten MSSU students now are eligible for the Missouri Returning Heroes’ Education Act after state and federal aid is applied. Diskin said this number, which is reported in the bill’s fiscal note, isn’t indicative of all the students who would be eligible if Davis’ bill passes into law, meaning MSSU would be waiving more tuition than the about $7,700 listed. Darren Fullerton, MSSU’s vice president of student affairs, said the university takes great pride in being listed as a military-friendly school and will do what it can to keep that title. The current in-state cost per credit hour at MSSU is about $177 and students are charged about $283 in student fees per semester, Fullerton said. Fullerton said all veterans receive in-state tuition, no matter their residency. … Davis said the benefits of having Missourians attend their schools outweigh the tuition dollars they stand to lose. “Tell me one university that stands there and says we don’t want veterans here because we will lose money,” Davis said. Davis said his bill will provide an economic incentive for Missouri veterans to stay in Missouri. An amendment to the bill took out the year limit for when post-9/11 veterans can use the Missouri Returning Heroes’ Education Act.

Veterans make plea to legislators for vets’ nursing home in Montevideo, MN (West Central Tribune)
More than four decades ago, Chris LaBeau returned home from two tours of duty in Vietnam as a wounded veteran. On Tuesday, he brought one request to a legislative committee visiting Willmar. It’s time to provide the funding to make possible a veterans’ nursing home in Montevideo. There’s a growing number of aging veterans in west central Minnesota who need skilled care in their final years, said LaBeau, commander of the American Legion post in Montevideo. He testified before members of the House Committee on State Government Finance, led by Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth. “Isn’t it time we stepped up to the plate and say we will take care of them,’’ LaBeau said. He was among a number of Montevideo area veterans who took advantage of the committee’s hearing in Willmar to make their case. Rep. Tim Miller, R- Prinsburg, and Sen. Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City, will be introducing bills this session seeking $16 million in state bond funds for construction of separate, 70-bed veterans homes in Montevideo and Bemidji. House members gathered Tuesday at the American Legion post in Willmar also learned that Willmar could rejoin the mix of communities interested in hosting a new veterans home. Tricia Appeldorn, veterans service officer in Kandiyohi County, told the committee that the community has a large population of veterans and would be an appropriate location for a home to serve the region. If the state approves bonding funds to construct a home in Montevideo, it would initiate the process of seeking federal construction funds and a federal agreement to help fund its ongoing operation costs, Marv Garbe, Montevideo City Council president, and Angie Steinbach, Montevideo assistant city manager, told the committee. The state would also need to share in the operation costs, and that’s why the Montevideo contingent brought their plea to Anderson’s committee. They will need its support to fund annual operational costs now estimated at $3.38 million for a 70-bed facility in Montevideo. Annual costs are projected to be just over $5 million by 2020, according to a report by legislative staff on the veterans home proposal. The Montevideo and Bemidji proposal is based on the fact that there are sizable populations of veterans in the two locations who are a long distance from the five existing veterans homes in the state. The nearest homes to Montevideo are in Luverne and Fergus Falls, each more than two hours’ drive away, Steinbach testified. She said there are currently over 1,500 veterans on a waiting list for the 862 beds in state veterans homes. The federal government would allow Minnesota to add 144 beds, if funding is approved, according to testimony given Tuesday. The Minnesota Department of Veteran Affairs is not bringing a request for bond funds to build a new veterans home in the state at this time. The department is seeking over $5 million in bond funds to improve care at existing facilities and $7.8 million to reopen a truss bridge serving the Minneapolis Veterans Home, according to Ben Johnson, who testified on behalf of the department. … The community has invested $152,000 toward its proposal to date, and has raised $4.88 million in funds to apply towards its construction, Steinbach told the committee.

Students launch project to connect student veterans to benefits (Daily Herald)
They may no longer be in combat, but for many student veterans, the battle is far from over, whether it’s fighting to find benefits, or adjusting to their new normal of civilian life. “Getting benefits has been described to us as jumping through hoop after hoop, and we thought, let’s put those hoops together and jump through it at one time,” said Ruth Kindt, a member of Epic Public Relations, a group of Utah Valley University students running a campaign with multiple goals to aid student veterans and change the public mentality around them. “There is a general idea with student veterans that they come back and they’re broken,” said Colton Simons, a team member. The campaign, Enlist In Your Education, seeks to raise awareness of student veterans, connect veterans to their benefits and increase enrollment in the campus chapter of the Student Veterans of America club. The group is one of two teams at the university participating in the Public Relations Student Society of America Bateman Case Study Competition. The campaign will run through March 15. The campaign was officially introduced last week at Veteran Appreciation Night at the UVU men’s basketball game. Veterans and their families could attend the game for free, and there were events to recognize student veterans. “The veterans were so surprised by the community support,” Kindt said. During interviews of veterans to understand their needs, Kindt found they liked to do service and needed to know how to highlight their military career on a resume, among other needs. But finding veterans, or getting them to identify as a veteran, can be difficult. “They want to be involved in the veteran community, but they don’t want people to see them as a veteran,” said Eric Simmons, a team member. At the basketball game, the team started to see community support for the non-traditional students. “One of the most touching things for me was to see how the audience rallied around these veterans,” Simons said.