VA vows to punish employees after judges void sanctions (The Washington Times) The VA insisted Tuesday it will still find a way to punish two employees accused of bilking the government out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonuses after federal judges ruled that the department bungled its case against them, restored their full salaries and awarded them backpay. Deputy Veterans Affairs Secretary Sloan D. Gibson said he will mete out new punishments within a week for Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves, though he said he won’t be able to demote them from the Senior Executive Service after the judges ruled over the last week that was too harsh. “I will impose some penalty,” he told reporters on a conference call. But it was Mr. Gibson’s own handling of the case that led two judges to reject his original punishments and restore the two women’s full salaries — spurring questions about how the VA managed to bungle what had seemed like an easy lay-up case against the employees. Ms. Rubens, who ran the regional VA office in Philadelphia, and Ms. Graves, who was a senior executive in Minnesota, were accused by the department’s inspector general of orchestrating their moves to the positions, keeping high salaries and collecting more than $400,000 between them in relocation bonuses. The VA, following a law Congress passed two years ago to try to expedite discipline for bad executives at the troubled department, demoted the two women, kicking them out of the Senior Executive Service, which resulted in pay cuts: Ms. Rubens went from $181,497 to $123,775, and Ms. Graves fell from $176,558 to $122,932. Both women appealed, and administrative law judges this week sided with the women. The judges concluded — using Mr. Gibson’s own testimony — that the women did not actually orchestrate their moves, though they showed bad judgment in leaving the appearance of impropriety. But the judges said because Mr. Gibson didn’t punish other employees, it seemed like he was illegally singling the two women out. The ruling stunned congressional overseers, who said the VA ruined its own case. … Congress passed a law to grant the VA streamlined firing powers to get rid of bad executives, but lawmakers say the department has been hesitant to use the new tools. The department’s inspector general said the two women orchestrated openings in Philadelphia and Minnesota, then arranged to take those jobs themselves, collecting large bonuses in the process. Mr. Gibson said the IG report unfairly “trashed” the reputations of Ms. Graves and Ms. Rubens — but he also said the women were to blame for giving the appearance that they were involved in wrongdoing. He tried to kick them out of the Senior Executive Service as punishment for that breach, but an administrative law judge ruled Ms. Graves was not given sufficient warning before her demotion. And in the case of Ms. Rubens, a judge said that since Mr. Gibson didn’t discipline any of the other people involved in approving her move, it appeared the VA was singling her out for special punishment. That judge, William L. Boulden, said if the law had allowed a lesser penalty, he would have imposed it. But he said since the choice was between demoting Ms. Rubens or reinstating her, he had to reinstate her. Mr. Gibson said Tuesday he has asked for a short investigation into the other employees involved in the transfers, and will decide next week whether any of them should be punished. He also still needs to decide whether to leave Ms. Rubens in charge at the Philadelphia regional office.
Veterans’ families seek ban as dogs walk among gravestones (ABC News)
Families of those buried in Rhode Island’s veterans’ cemetery say that using the grounds as a dog park is disrespectful to the fallen, and they’re battling pet owners over access to the property. Unlike many state veterans’ cemeteries nationwide that ban pets out of respect, Rhode Island has no such restrictions. Rhode Island has received six complaints in the past year from visitors to the cemetery who were upset that dogs are roaming about the 265-acre property in Exeter. One complaint alleges a dog knocked down a child. The head of the Veterans of Foreign Wars department in Rhode Island, Frank Rosebrock, is appalled that dogs walk among the veterans’ stones and sometimes relieve themselves. … The chairman of House Veterans Affairs Committee agrees. Democratic Rep. Jan Malik introduced a bill on Tuesday to prohibit pets, except for service animals, from the Rhode Island Veterans Memorial Cemetery. Violators would be fined. It’s very common for state veterans’ cemeteries to restrict pets and recreational activities to maintain their sanctity, said David Brasuell, president of the National Association of State Directors of Veterans Affairs. Brasuell was surprised to hear Rhode Island allows pets, and called it “inappropriate.” In New England, New Hampshire allows leashed pets into its veterans’ cemetery while Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and Maine allow service animals only. … At the Rhode Island cemetery on Monday, a 10 ½-year-old Puggle named Artie sprinted along the cemetery roads. His owner, Rebecca Allen, unleashed him because she can’t keep up. When he veered near gravestones, she called to him to steer him away. She carried waste bags. Allen, an Exeter native, likes the quiet of the cemetery. She said she never goes near people visiting the gravesites and she has relatives buried there, too. She’s frustrated that responsible dog owners could be penalized because of a few irresponsible ones. … A bill was introduced to ban pets, except for service animals, from the cemetery in 2014 and 2015. Kim Ripoli, who oversees the state’s Division of Veterans Affairs, told lawmakers in 2014 that it was horrible to witness a dog defecating on hallowed ground. The dogs didn’t have lobbyists. The effort stalled over questions about how to enforce a ban, said Democratic Rep. Raymond Gallison, who sponsored the bills. The veterans affairs division is also currently considering addressing the issue as it revises its cemetery rules.
Lawmaker: Costly hepatitis C drug “a slap in the face to the veterans” (CBS News)
A Congressional hearing will begin Wednesday in response to a CBS News investigation that showed how a costly new cure for hepatitis C isn’t making it to most of the 200,000 U.S. veterans infected with the disease, many as a result of their service. Congress has given $2.7 billion taxpayer to treat veterans with hepatitis C, but only 15 percent have been treated with the drug, one that might not exist without government funding. The drug at the center of Wednesday’s hearing has been called a miracle drug, reports CBS News correspondent Chip Reid. The problem is the drug is so wildly expensive, the Department of Veterans Affairs can’t afford to give it to all the vets who so desperately need it. Dr. Raymond Schinazi is in the business of curing diseases — and business is good. When his private company invented and sold a cure for hepatitis C to pharmaceutical company Gilead in 2012, he personally made over $400 million. Sold as Harvoni or Sovaldi, one treatment costs up to $84,000. The Department of Veterans Affairs gets a 50 percent discount, but even so, it spent over a billion dollars on the drugs last year alone. But, as we first reported in December, the VA is also where Schinazi has worked since 1983. “I’m seven-eighth’s government employee, so I’m not full time. What I do with my remaining time is up to me,” Schinazi told CBS News last December. “So you’re only spending one-eighth of your time on your private companies,” Reid said. “Well, even less than that. I’m very efficient,” Schinazi said. “Has anybody ever questioned the arrangement that you have that allows you to become very wealthy while working seven-eighths of your time with the government?” Reid asked him. “Nobody has questioned anything yet,” Schinazi said. That is about to change. “I want to ask him how other than saying he was a very efficient worker, how were you able to accomplish the things that you accomplished without doing part of it on VA time?” Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs Jeff Miller said. On Wednesday Miller will hold a hearing into why the VA can’t afford the drugs its own doctors help invent. Schinazi was invited to testify, but told CBS News he does not plan to attend. “Unfortunately, he’s decided to retire before he appears. Which again begs: did he want to be questioned by an oversight committee of Congress?” Miller said. The VA approved Schinazi’s arrangement and told us federal employees are allowed to invest in private companies, provided all conflict of interest rules are followed. But Miller wants to know if there was a conflict, and why the drug costs $42,000 for veterans, but only $900 in dozens of developing countries. “It’s a slap in the face to the veterans,” Miller said. … Congressman Miller says the VA spends about $2 billion a year on research, and when that research is successful, it’s supposed to benefit veterans. He wants to look into whether that happened in this case.
Commentary: The time is now for VA reform (The Villager)
Rep. Mike Coffman, Colorado’s 6th District: Even as the chorus for reform at the VA grows louder, VA officials and the Obama Administration continue to deny the problems. Newspaper headlines trumpet stories of long wait lines, wasted taxpayer dollars, and an out-of-control bureaucracy But VA leadership and this Administration simply don’t get it. As a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee and chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, I have tackled a number of issues surrounding VA reform. Aurora VA Hospital & VA construction: After multiple delays and hundreds of millions of dollars in cost overruns, I, along with the Colorado Delegation, secured funding and a completion date for the Aurora hospital. I also led the charge to strip VA of construction authority transferring it to the Army Corps of Engineers. VA can focus on providing services to our veterans. Wait times: Horrific stories of long waits for medical care have, unfortunately, become the norm at VA facilities across the country. Although, we still have much to do, after multiple hearings on the issue, our collective work culminated in the Choice Act, which finally allows veterans to seek care from a private provider. Now we have to get the VA to get the VA to actually allow the Choice Act to work rather than working to make it fail. Protecting whistle blowers: Long wait lines, poor service, and wasted taxpayer dollars, those of us on the Committee hear constant stories of them thanks to brave whistle blowers. Unfortunately, in many cases, these whistle blowers are persecuted by VA leadership not thanked for revealing these problems. After lengthy investigations and hearings, I am a co-sponsor of the Whistleblower Protection Act (HR 1994). We must protect these individuals who step forward and stand against corruption. Wasted taxpayer dollars: There are significant procurement problems within the VA. The result is billions of dollars in inappropriate purchases. These include paying too much, not correctly bidding contracts, and buying the wrong items. Thanks to a whistleblower we have learned of this and held multiple hearings on the issue. Now I am working with the committee to craft a procurement reform package of legislation. Cutting bureaucratic red tape: In 2015, I introduced the Veteran Owned Small Business Improving Opportunities for Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Businesses Act of 2015. Currently, veteran-owned small businesses and service-disabled veteran-owned small businesses face incredible challenges getting certified to seek and secure contracts from the VA. The bill I introduced reforms, streamlines, and simplifies the current process to certify these firms. Focus on serving veterans: I am introducing legislation directing the VA to sell Pershing Hall, the five-star hotel it owns in Paris. The sale proceeds go toward funding VA construction and renovation projects here in the United States. VA needs to get out of the overseas hotel business and focus on serving our veterans. Serving veteran needs: We continue to work on a number of issues specific to Veterans care including Gulf War Illness, Legionella, and suicide. According to VA’s 2012 Suicide Data Report, there are 22 veteran suicides per day totaling 8,000 per year. It is absolutely vital that we as a nation address the twin crisis of veteran suicide and mental health issues. Next month I plan to introduce legislation to improve access to mental health services for our veterans. While we have made great progress for our veterans much work remains and regardless of what legislative changes we pass, fundamental change requires better leadership from the top of the VA and the administration. In a 2007 speech, candidate Obama promised to build a 21st century VA to serve our veterans and urged comprehensive reform. The time is now for President Obama to fulfill candidate Obama’s promise. We owe it to the men and women who serve our country.
Two studies of veterans link PTSD to accelerated aging (MedicalXpress)
We’ve all heard of people “aging overnight” after a traumatic event. Scientists actually have a word for this phenomenon: “Marie Antoinette Syndrome,” named for the French queen. When she was captured after fleeing Paris and sentenced to death by guillotine, observers claimed her hair turned white from shock. While accounts of the queen’s hair may just be legend, scientists have long suspected that chronic psychological stress—triggered by events like war, abuse, or imprisonment—may accelerate aging, leading to early onset of age-related disease or even premature death. Now, two studies from researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine (MED), jointly funded by the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the National Institute of Mental Health, report significant links between post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in veterans and accelerated aging. Many vets with PTSD are aging too fast, at a surprisingly young age. “We’re seeing evidence, on multiple levels, of accelerated aging among very young veterans—people in their early 30s,” says Erika Wolf, a MED assistant professor of psychiatry and clinical research psychologist at the US Department of Veteran Affairs’ National Center for PTSD, who is lead author on the two studies. “These could snowball into major health problems down the road.” “The idea that traumatic events can have a physical effect on people has been around for a long time,” says Mark Miller, associate professor of psychiatry at MED and senior author on the two studies. “Observations suggest that traumatic stress starts a cascade of biological consequences that can produce visible signs of aging. More recent research shows how this is happening on a cellular level, and for the first time we have the methods to actually see it in a person’s DNA.” The first study, published online on September 30, 2015, in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, used new tools for examining DNA for signs of aging and comparing it to a person’s actual age. The tools, developed in 2013 by scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of California, San Diego, look at specific areas of a person’s genome and note how they are methylated—tagged with a tiny molecule of one carbon and three hydrogen atoms, known as a methyl group. Methylation is one of the primary ways that the body switches genes on and off, and certain patterns of DNA methylation correlate to a person’s chronological age. For the Psychoneuroendocrinology study, Wolf, who is also funded by the VA Clinical Science Research & Development Career Development Award, examined data from 281 veterans, studied at the VA’s Translational Center for TBI and Stress Disorders (TRACTS) database. TRACTS has collected health information—including brain scans, blood tests, and the results of comprehensive psychological exams—from 450 veterans who have been exposed to trauma. She found small but significant evidence that veterans with PTSD had accelerated aging of their DNA. … The second study, published online in January 2016 in the journal Biological Psychiatry, examined broader, age-related health consequences of PTSD. Specifically, Wolf looked at metabolic syndrome—a constellation of symptoms including obesity, high blood pressure, abnormal blood lipids, and high blood sugar that can contribute to Type 2 diabetes, coronary artery disease, and even neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. Metabolic syndrome is elevated among veterans, says Wolf, with an estimated 25 percent affected. That number may be as high as 40 percent among people with PTSD. Wolf wondered exactly how PTSD correlated to metabolic syndrome, and whether the two together led to reduced cortical thickness—a shrinking of specific brain areas responsible for things like emotional regulation and memory. Again using data from TRACTS, Wolf examined health information from 346 military veterans who had deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. She found that PTSD was directly associated with metabolic syndrome, and that metabolic syndrome was strongly associated with reduced cortical thickness. Wolf hopes to continue the research looking at longitudinal data, so she can see how this accelerated aging proceeds over a decade or more. She also wants to expand the research to include Vietnam veterans, who could provide an even longer-term view. The findings are significant, says Wolf, because they highlight a problem—metabolic syndrome—that is not usually considered in treating PTSD and is “ripe for intervention.” Furthermore, says Miller, they suggest that clinicians may need to expand their repertoire of treatments for PTSD to target sleep, diet, and exercise.
No property taxes for some injured veterans in Illinois this year (Chicago Tribune)
A new law taking effect this year gives severely wounded U.S. military veterans who live in Illinois an impressive property tax break, with some vets even being completely exempt from taxes in 2016. Although a property tax exemption for disabled vets has been in effect since 2007, the new law applies to more disabled vets and provides greater tax savings than was the case in prior years. Under the new law, passed last year, the most severely wounded veterans will not pay any property taxes at all. It’s one of those proposals that was hard to turn down, said Oak Park Township assessor Ali ElSaffar. “Someone who is severely wounded and served their country — you want to help those people out,” ElSaffar said. Veterans with a disability of greater than 70 percent are now completely exempt from paying any taxes. In addition, disabled veterans with a level of disability of 30 to 50 percent are now eligible for a smaller exemption for the first time this year (Before the change, the cut off was 50 percent). There is no tax saving for those under 30 percent disabled, ElSaffar said. About 2,500 veterans in all of Cook County received the exemption in prior years, he said. Out of the millions in Cook County, legislators felt the tax break wouldn’t unduly burden other folks, ElSaffar said. … Homes with a market value last year of $917,000 or more are not eligible for the exemption. If a disabled veteran dies and is survived by a spouse, the spouse can retain the exemption until he or she remarries. ElSaffar urges all disabled veterans to check the eligibility requirements under the new law. … To qualify for the disabled veterans exemption, a property has to be owned and occupied by a vet with a disability connected to military service. The service-connected disability also needs to be certified with a letter from 2015 or 2016 from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which determines the extent of a veteran’s disability. Because the property tax bills are automatically generated, disabled vets who are completely exempt from paying taxes this year will nonetheless receive a first installment tax bill that is 55 percent of their total property tax bill from last year. Once second installment bills come out in July, however, the veterans will be eligible for a refund of the amount paid for the first installment. Veterans with questions about first installment bills should call their township’s assessor’s office, ElSaffar said. Vets who received the exemption last year will receive renewal forms in late January that have to be returned by March 2. Renewal applications also must include the letter verifying the disability extent. Those who did not apply for the exemption last year will not get an application in the mail. … Applications can be found online at the Cook County Assessors Office. Anyone in Oak Park with questions can feel free to call ElSaffar at 708-383-8005.
VA to launch trial of ReWalk’s exoskeleton system (MassDevice)
ReWalk Robotics said today that the Department of Veterans Affairs released details of a planned 4-year, national, multi-center study of ReWalk’s Personal 6.0 exoskeleton systems. The aptly named Exoskeleton Assisted-Walking in Persons with SCI: Impact on Quality of Life study is slated to enroll 160 patients at 6 participating VA Medical Centers across California, Florida, Massachusetts, Texas and Virginia. “This VA clinical trial is groundbreaking in both its purpose and scope, and will undoubtedly provide a wealth of quality research data to the department’s already impressive research. ReWalk is glad to provide our technology to enable this critical national study,” CEO Larry Jasinski said in a press release. ReWalk Robotics said the VA plans to initiate the study in October this year. In January, ReWalk Robotics said the VA awarded a delivery order to the Veterans Healthcare Supply Solutions for its Robotic Exoskeleton systems to use in the upcoming 4-year trial. The company said it has already shipped 6 of those systems for the trial. In December, ReWalk saw shares jump after the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs issued a policy to evaluate, train and procure its personal exoskeleton systems for all qualifying veterans in the U.S. ReWalk stocks rose over 32% in day trading after the announcement. ReWalk develops and produces exoskeletons designed to restore self-initiated walking for patients with spinal cord injuries. The personal system is battery-powered and features an array of sensors and motors that detect the wearer’s movement and assist in standing up, sitting down and upright walking.
Baltimore County bans housing discrimination against veterans (WBAL)
The Baltimore County Council this week unanimously voted for a bill that will protect veterans from discrimination in housing and hiring practices. The bill, which was introduced by Councilman Todd Crandell (R-Dundalk), will also enable veterans to be a preferred housing class. Crandell said the bill removes restrictions and allows property owners and sellers to offer housing as “Veterans only.” Crandell said the bill is designed to help veterans deal with the oftentimes enormous challenges in transitioning to civilian life. He added that 55,000 of the approximate 500,000 veterans in Maryland reside in Baltimore County. “As vets return home, they face enormous challenges in their transition to civilian life,” Crandell said in a statement. “Veteran’s Affairs benefits are stretched thin, so the challenges to assist our heroes fall on the shoulders of nonprofit groups who help with issues such as adjustment to the civilian workforce, combat-related disabilities. Housing is largely unaddressed by these veterans organizations or the VA itself.” The bill was dedicated to Alfred E. Clasing, a decorated veteran and a dedicated advocate for decades in Baltimore County, who passed away in December.