March 18 Veterans News

March 18 Veterans News

VetsHQ News UpdatePentagon erroneously withheld $78 million from injured vets over 25 years (Stars and Stripes) The Pentagon has been deducting money erroneously from combat-wounded veterans’ severance pay for 25 years, an error officials knew about for years and that might have affected upwards of 13,000 troops, according to lawmakers and a veterans advocacy group. Now lawmakers are trying to return the money — estimated to be $78 million — through a bi-partisan bill introduced Thursday. Federal law prohibits taxation of the lump sum disability severance paid to troops who separate from service after combat-related injuries. But the pay system used by the Department of Defense has been automatically deducting taxes from those payments since 1991, according to a joint statement from the National Veterans Legal Services Program and Sens. John Boozman, R-Ark., and Mark Warner, D-VA. The error often cost individual troops thousands of dollars. The National Veterans Legal Services Program, a nonprofit veterans service organization, first discovered the problem and brought it to the attention of lawmakers. “Most troubling is that we learned the government had known about this problem for decades yet continued to take this money from thousands of disabled veterans,” Tom Moore, an attorney with the National Veterans Legal Services Program, said in the joint statement. The Combat-Injured Veterans Tax Fairness Act of 2016, introduced Thursday by Boozman and Warner, would direct the DOD to identify veterans who have had money wrongly withheld and reimburse them. “It’s unbelievable that Congress has to act in order to ensure that the law is followed and that veterans who have already sacrificed so much receive every penny of their severance,” Warner said in a statement. Army veteran Brandon Davis of Greenwood, Ark., who was wounded in Iraq and left the service in 2005, said he lost $8,000. “This money would have helped me and my family as we adjusted to life after being discharged from the military,” he said in a statement. A Department of Defense personnel official declined to comment.

Ohio veterans homes doctors accused in report (Toledo Blade)
An Ohio inspector general’s report details potential self-dealing and other wrongdoing between physicians who worked at both Ohio Veterans Homes and private medical company Stein Hospice. The report identifies about $5.3 million in improper use of state funds or potential fines because of the actions, which were self-identified by the former legal counsel of the Ohio Department of Veterans Services. The department, which has veterans homes in Sandusky and Georgetown, emphasized in a statement that it self-reported, but did not mention it eventually changed legal counsel and withdrew from the self-reporting process. Issued Thursday, the report details a cozy relationship between the state-run veterans homes and Stein. The company was allowed to operate without charge at both locations, with administrative space at the Sandusky home and a hospice facility located in the empty wing of the Georgetown home. At both locations, some employees of Stein were also either state employees or contracted with the state. That led to questions of self-dealing, the report states, and whether the homes were improperly referring patients to Stein. All patients referred to hospice were referred to Stein, and many weren’t told they had the option to chose which hospice they wanted. Placing patients in hospice is mutually beneficial to Stein and veterans services. The state agency receives funds from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for each patient cared for, according to the report. When a patient goes in hospice, the state still receives that funding, while Stein received Medicare funding, some of which was sent to veterans services. The inspector general’s report says the actions may violate both state and federal law, and referred the matter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Ohio Ethics Commission, and State Medical Board of Ohio. Barb Metcalf, Stein’s chief compliance officer, said the company had no comment on the report. A state veterans services spokesman said in a statement that Stein no longer uses department space, veterans receive lists of all available hospice providers, and extra layers were added to the referral system, among other changes.

New House bill targets VA recruitment, hiring challenges (Federal News Radio)
Many federal agencies would argue they have plenty of challenges recruiting and hiring new talent. But the sheer of number of vacancies within the Veterans Affairs Department is prompting specific action from the House VA Committee. Lawmakers are considering a bill that would the shorten the time it takes for the department to recruit and hire new employees. VA has roughly 43,000 medical and health-related positions unfilled, Elias Hernandez, chief officer for workforce management and consulting at the Veterans Health Administration, told the House VA Health and Economic Opportunity Subcommittees at a legislative hearing March 16. The VA had about 41,500 medical positions open as of last summer, said Rep. Beto O’Rouke (D-Texas). “We’re having a really hard time, not even treading water, but just not sinking altogether,” he said. Hernandez said the exact number of vacancies is difficult to quantify, because the VA doesn’t have a position management system. The department is actively recruiting for about 37,176 positions. The bill would amend Title 38 of the U.S. Code to let the VA secretary consider the private sector market, as well as the applicant’s experience and the complexity of the job or the hospital location before setting pay for a new medical professional. It also gives new workplace flexibilities for doctors or nurses — letting employees work more or less than 80 hours in a two-week period, as long as the individual’s total hours for the year does not exceed 2,080. Other provisions would require the VA to create a single recruitment database for the entire department, as well as an executive management fellowship program. The VA would identify 30 employees annually and set them up with training and development opportunities in the private sector. Though staffing shortages at VA medical centers might be dire, the department’s challenges to recruit new doctors and health care professionals mimic the struggles in the private sector, said Carolyn Clancy, VHA deputy undersecretary for health for organizational excellence. Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, praised provisions that would let the VA secretary pay its medical and Veterans Integrated Service Network directors competitively with the private sector. … But Stier reminded the committee, “The problems that you’re addressing are actually problems that face the entire government.” The untitled bill is still in the discussion phase, and the committee is waiting on more feedback from VA. The department commented on roughly half of the 16 provisions in the bill so far and plans to submit feedback on the remaining provisions “shortly,” Clancy told the committee. … The focus of the bill is a shift in tone from some of the conversations the committee has held in the past, which often focused on disciplinary problems among the department’s senior executives. “I know this committee has focused heavily on accountability, and while I think it is of the utmost importance, it’s important that we also focus on the hiring and retention of high quality employees within the department so our veterans receive the best services possible,” House VA Subcommittee Chairman Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) said. The department’s recruitment and hiring challenges are the driving force behind the VA’s proposed changes to its Senior Executive Service, Secretary Bob McDonald told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee March 15. The committee is revising an omnibus package that would overhaul large portions of the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014. Reforms would change accountability procedures for Senior Executive Service members, as well as other changes to the disability appeals process. The Senate committee wants to finalize the omnibus as early as April 1.

Michigan lawmakers release recommendations for fixing vets home (Wood TV)
After a blistering state audit of the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans, Michigan lawmakers have been hearing horror stories from veterans and veteran advocates about conditions at the home. Thursday, the House committee overseeing veterans affairs held its third and final hearing about the Auditor General’s report. “The veteran’s home used to be a beautiful place to live; not now,” said Jerry Lucksted, a nine-year resident at Grand Rapids Home for Veterans. “Many Members refer to the home as being a prison.” “To see a person go from a well-cared-for status to one of neglect is so disgraceful and a total disregard for human dignity,” said Harriet Sturim, Veterans of Foreign Wars auxiliary chaplain. Many of those concerns focused on the replacement of state employees with privately contracted caregivers through the company called J2S. “Yes, everybody supports vets until it costs money,” said Mark Stevens, a Marine and American Legion representative. Reports of failure to provide timely health care, of veterans left in their beds or lying on the floor after a fall, and an atmosphere of intimidation when complaints were made were common themes in the audit and the state House and Senate hearings that followed. The question remains: how does it get fixed? Some of the representatives did not believe the solution was scrapping privately contracted staff in favor of state employees, but agreed changes in personnel was needed. … Some legislators said low-paid workers without benefits cannot be expected to perform a job as important as caring for veterans when they see it as a dead-end job. “We have to treat the workers in that facility well so that they can help treat our veterans well,” explained Democratic Rep. David LaGrand of Grand Rapids. The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee will now send its recommendations to the full House. Those proposed improvements include: 

  • Creating an independent ombudsman
  • Reviewing pay rates and contracts for caregivers
  • Seeking more operations oversight from the Attorney General and Department of Health and Human Services 

Maine’s Governor aims to change state hiring practices to favor veterans (Bangor Daily News)
Gov. Paul LePage took new steps Thursday to promote the hiring of veterans in Maine, particularly by state departments and agencies. LePage introduced to the Legislature a new bill, LD 1658, which would give military veterans preference when applying for government jobs, in the form of guaranteeing them an interview if they meet the minimum qualifications for the job and if they were not dishonorably discharged. LePage complemented that bill with an executive order that directs the state’s Bureau of Human Resources with developing and instituting a policy that any veteran who applies for but is not hired for a state job is given guidance on other jobs for which he or she might qualify. “Having an opportunity for an interview and referral to additional openings is a best practice in the hiring of veterans,” said Joyce Oreskovich, director of the Bureau of Human Resources. “The guaranteed interview for qualified veterans provides not only an incentive to apply, which assists the state in its recruitment efforts, but also gives veterans meaningful opportunities to discuss their military background as it applies to the competencies we need for particular jobs.”

Veterans left scrambling after insurance is dropped (THV11)
After physicians were forced to drop a major insurance company, veterans are left concerned about where they’ll turn to for healthcare and the quality of care they’ll receive. “It was a hard decision, and my doctors really did not want to go this route,” Jonathan Foster explained. Many veterans are up in arms after discovering their insurance is no longer accepted by their primary physician. “We’re one of the main providers in the community. There’s not many providers out there that accept Tricare across the country, and it’s getting smaller and smaller due to reimbursement rates,” Foster continued. Jonathan Foster with Arkansas Central Primary Care said his group has been under contract with Tricare for the past 30 years but was recently forced to renegotiate their contract. They said they were successful in doing so with every other insurance company except for Tricare, leaving about 2,000 Tricare Prime patients left scrambling. Foster continued, “I had a patient today tell me she needed medication refilled and called the base, and it was going to be April 6 before she got her medication refilled.” Many in the medical profession have said it all boils down to losing money while taking care of patients. That is something many physicians say they cannot afford to do. “We want to take care of them. We didn’t want this to happen, and we’re actively doing everything we can to get back in network with them,” Foster said.

Des Moines Iowa touts ‘end of veteran homelessness’ (Des Moines Register)
Des Moines celebrated big strides toward eradicating veteran homelessness Thursday. Mayor Frank Cownie shared a letter from first lady Michelle Obama congratulating the city for “the extraordinary achievement of ending veteran homelessness.” It’s a notable achievement, even if doesn’t translate to zero homeless veterans in the city. The recognition means Des Moines and a string of partners have expanded and prioritized resources for veterans facing homelessness. The city has met benchmarks established by a national challenge that Cownie and other U.S. mayors accepted in 2014. “Any veteran who is experiencing or is at risk of homelessness in Des Moines and Polk County has access to a safety net of resources and services,” Jennifer Miner, a supervisor for Central Iowa’s Department of Veteran Affairs, said at a news conference Thursday. Specifically, all veterans have access — with priority over nonveterans — to a shelter or temporary housing in the Des Moines area. Records show the average veteran in Des Moines waits 49 days to secure housing after being identified, compared with a federal benchmark of 90 days, according to Julie Eberbach, leader of the Des Moines/Polk County homeless veterans response team. Officials behind the effort report that 388 local veterans are no longer homeless since the program began in January 2015. “The number of veterans exiting homelessness to housing is vastly outpacing the number of new veterans entering the homeless system in Des Moines,” Eberbach said. The goal is to build a system that moves people out of homelessness in the shortest time possible, she said. Officials at Iowa’s largest shelter in downtown Des Moines, Central Iowa Shelter and Services, estimate that roughly 20 percent of their clientele are veterans. “It still is a fairly big number,” said Jordan Johnson, CISS spokesman and shelter coordinator. The facility provides shelter to about 200 people on a typical night, despite a capacity of 150, Johnson said. It offers programming and case workers specifically tailored to help veterans. But the percentage of veterans coming through the door has decreased in recent years, according to Johnson, who did not have stats readily available. “That number has gone down a lot,” he said. “It’s been really effective partnering with the mayor’s challenge and it’s definitely been a quicker turnaround.”