March 23 Veterans News

March 23 Veterans News

VetsHQ News UpdateTop VA benefits official suspended in relocation scandal (Military Times)
Veterans Affairs officials on Tuesday suspended the department’s top benefits official and reprimanded three others for their role in an ongoing promotion scandal that has frustrated and enraged lawmakers. Danny Pummill, the acting undersecretary for benefits, faces a proposed 15-day suspension for a “lack of oversight” for his role in the incident last year. That punishment can be appealed, a process that has been fraught with problems for the department in recent months. Officials also recommended a 10 percent pay cut for Philadelphia Regional Office Director Diana Rubens and St. Paul Regional Office Director Kimberly Graves, both for “failure to exercise sound judgement by creating the appearance of impropriety.” A fourth official received a letter of reprimand. An inspector general report released in late September charged Rubens and Graves with abusing their authority to reassign other directors to jobs elsewhere within VA, then moving into the vacant positions themselves. Investigators said the moves carried with them relocation payouts totaling more than $400,000 combined. Over congressional objections, VA leaders defended the moves as legitimate, but criticized both women for not taking enough care to ensure their actions were beyond public scrutiny and tried to relocate the directors to other facilities. Merit Systems Protection Board judges denied those moves, calling them too extreme. The pay reductions and official reprimands can be reviewed by VA Secretary Bob McDonald but not appealed to outside agencies. Graves makes nearly $174,000 a year, Rubens about $181,000. In a statement, VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson called the punishment an appropriate final response. “After my review of that evidence, I believe that, within the scope and intent of the law, additional accountability actions were warranted,” he said. … Gibson said he is confident both women can work effectively in their director roles despite the ongoing public criticism of their moves, and he expressed confidence that Pummill can continue working in his leadership role even after facing punishment for supervisory failures in the past incidents. The relocation scandal was one of several for the department that prompted lawmakers to review VA hiring and firing rules for senior executives, a reform that McDonald has also petitioned lawmakers to tackle. New legislation is expected from senators in April.

Unemployment rate for Veterans is the lowest in seven years (The Wall Street Journal)
The unemployment rate for American veterans fell to the lowest level in seven years in 2015, a reflection of an improving jobs market alongside programs to put servicemen and women to work. The unemployment rate for all veterans was 4.6% last year, the Labor Department said Tuesday, matching the rate in 2008. By comparison, the figure was 5.2% for nonveterans ages 20 and over. The latest numbers echo broader trends in the U.S. labor market. The unemployment rate for people 16 and over was 5% at the end of 2015 and 4.9% the first two months of 2016, the lowest since February 2008. To be sure, by many measures the labor market hasn’t fully healed from the latest recession, which ended in mid-2009. The share of Americans stuck in part-time jobs or too discouraged to look for work was 9.7% in February, the lowest level since May 2008 but still well above prerecession levels. But overall job creation appears to be pulling more Americans into jobs. The latest report offers a notable turnaround for younger veterans, who experienced particularly high unemployment following the downturn. Veterans who have served since September 2001 saw their annual unemployment rise as high as 12.1% in 2011, well above the 8.7% rate for nonveterans. The rate for post-September 2001 veterans fell to 5.8% last year, the lowest since the Labor Department started recording data for that group in 2006 but still above the national average. Disabled American Veterans, an advocacy group, last year in a survey found a majority of veterans said they valued their service and would do it again, but most felt they hadn’t received adequate support after taking off their uniforms and returning to civilian life. To help bring historically high unemployment rates down, Congress passed and President Barack Obama in 2011 signed into law a program giving employers tax credits for hiring unemployed veterans. Other programs also have encouraged companies and government agencies to hire veterans. Indeed, the federal government has become somewhat of a refuge for post-9/11 veterans: 14% worked for the feds last year, compared with 2% of nonveterans. … Why is the unemployment rate higher for younger veterans? A 2014 study by the Rand Corp. found it is likely because younger veterans are more likely to have just left one job—in the armed forces—and started looking for another. … The report found little evidence that the rate for veterans was higher because of poor health related to their service, employer discrimination, skills mismatch or the characteristics of individuals who sign up for military service. And over time, veterans appear more likely to have a job than the general population.

For the VA’s broken health system, the fix needs a fix (NPR)
The fix is broken. Two years ago Congress created the Veterans Choice Program after scandals revealed that some veterans were waiting months to get essential medical care. The $10 billion program was designed to get veterans care quickly by letting them choose a doctor outside the VA system. Now Congress and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs are pushing through new legislation to fix the program. Irvin Bishop Small served in the Navy for 10 years. Like most VA patients, he doesn’t have a war wound – he has a set of worn out knees and ankles from lugging heavy gear up and down ladders on a ship. Surgery didn’t help, and now it hurts to walk. … Between the pain and the pain killers, and all his medical appointments, it’s been hard to get a job. Small lives with his mom in a split-level house in York, Pa. Driving makes his feet go numb, so his mom takes him to all his appointments. “Our house here is 50 miles from the Baltimore VA medical center and 45 miles from the Lebanon VA medical center,” says Small. The Choice program is supposed to get local, private health care for vets who live 40 miles away, or who the VA can’t see within 30 days. So when his VA doctor prescribed physical therapy and acupuncture last December, Small called Choice. He navigated the phone menu, and was told he would get a call back. Instead it was Small who called back — again and again, for weeks. He’s not alone — the same lawmakers who created Choice now say thousands of veterans are getting lost in the confusing system. “Bottom line is the Choice program is broken,” Sen. John Tester, D-Mt., said this month. “We need to fix it and we need to fix it as soon as possible.” Democrats and Republicans are pushing through reforms to the program, which many now admit was hastily passed back in 2014. The law mandated a complicated new health system but gave the VA just 90 days to create it. The VA turned to outside health care administrators for help, which VA Secretary Bob McDonald says was a primary flaw. “In my opinion, that was the big mistake with the original Choice act,” McDonald told a Senate hearing this month. “We just outsourced customer service to the third-party providers. We would literally just give the veteran a number to call. And that’s just not right.” That was the phone number that Small was calling again and again as he tried to get treatment for his chronic pain, which at times drove him into deep depression. Congress and the VA now agree the system is so confusing that vets, doctors and even the VA itself can’t use it well. Small ran into another problem typical of the program: One of the clinics he had an appointment for stopped accepting Choice patients because the VA has been so slow to reimburse providers. Choice tried sending him to a clinic that didn’t offer the right therapy, and to another that was so far away that he might have just have easily driven 50 miles to the VA in Baltimore, Md. Wait times — the problem the VA was trying to fix — have actually increased under Choice, though the VA says that’s because so many vets are using it. In the meantime, Small is still in pain. “I’m considered 90 percent disabled by the VA. I’m not ready to say I’m done with life, and sit and play on my computer for the next 40 years,” Small says. After waiting since last year, he got physical therapy in February. He finally got the acupuncture this week.

House votes to allow Arlington interments for female WWII pilots (Military Times)
House lawmakers overwhelmingly approved legislation on Tuesday allowing a group of female WWII military pilots to be interred at Arlington National Cemetery, reversing Army officials’ orders. The measure, which passed by a vote of 385 to 0, comes less than a week after lawmakers grilled defense officials over the exclusion of Women Airforce Service Pilots from the well-known cemetery. Bill sponsor Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., praised the women as pioneers as heroes who are being unjustly barred from the memorial site. Almost 1,100 WASPs served from 1942 to 1944, ferrying airplanes, training combat pilots and towing airborne targets. Thirty-eight died during training and support missions. Following the war, the women were denied veterans benefits and services until 1977, when Congress passed legislation retroactively granting active-duty status to WASP pilots. Advocates have blamed that delay on sexist attitudes at the time of their service. But problems have persisted. In 2002, after requests from WASPs’ families, Arlington National Cemetery approved group members for military honors and burial of ashes there. But Army officials ruled in 2015 that under existing rules the women could not be included, and once again barred cemetery space for those individuals. Last week, acting Army Secretary Pat Murphy said that new legislation from Congress would be required to fix the issue. Tuesday’s House vote is the first step in that process. A group of senators has backed similar legislation in their chamber, but no timeline for a possible vote has been unveiled.

Congress, VA debate: Who should schedule Veterans’ appointments? (Federal News Radio)
Congress is getting a clearer picture now of the Veterans Affairs Department’s vision to improve its community health care program. But it’s largely skeptical that VA can effectively manage such a vast overhaul of the program, and it questioned the department’s continued role in scheduling veterans’ appointments. According to the VA’s proposal, the new Choice Program would let veterans choose whether they want to access a VA medical center or a private sector provider in the community for care. If the veteran chooses community care, he or she can pick a VA-approved provider from the network list. The VA organized its provider networks into three tiers:

  • Tier 1: VA medical centers, including Defense Department, Indian Health Service, Tribal health programs and federally qualified health center providers
  • Tier 2: Top quality community providers, which the VA will rate using a series of performance metrics
  • Tier 3: Community providers that meet the VA’s standard criteria

Yet members were concerned and confused by the VA’s three-tiered system and questioned why the department needed to group its care options in the first place. “The way we present it in the plan is just a way to organize providers,” Baligh Yehia, the VA’s assistant deputy undersecretary for health for community care, told the House Veterans Affairs Health Subcommittee at a March 22 hearing on the Choice Program. “From the veterans’ perspective, they will not see tiers. They will see a directory of providers, and those providers, as best as possible, will have information about where they are, what specialty they are, their affiliations, their quality and their satisfaction.” Under the proposal, the VA will also schedule most department and private care appointments for veterans. “We want to be more [of] the face of customer service and scheduling,” Yehia said. “That could mean just saying to the veteran, ‘You’re eligible for community care, here’s the options. Do you want to schedule your own appointment?’ We would be more of the ones that would be having that conversation, rather than the contractors.” But that piece of the proposal scares several members of the committee. “The whole reason for the Choice Program was that there was a scandal in the VA on scheduling,” Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) said. “That the level of corruption, systemic corruption across the VA in scheduling [was] driven by cash bonuses in order to bring down the wait times. They created these secret lists. And now what you want to do and what the VA wants to do is … give it back to those same people.” Yehia said the department heard from many veterans about the scheduling issue, who told the VA they were tired of dealing with a “middleman” when they wanted to make an appointment. Under the current Choice Program, a private contractor calls the veteran to schedule his or her +appointment with a private community care provider — after the VA clears the veteran for eligibility. The department handles appointments for veterans at VA medical facilities. … Some veterans with certain medical conditions or social circumstances want the VA’s help to coordinate their appointments, Yehia said. But he acknowledged that other veterans want to schedule their own. … But for many members of Congress, the VA’s community care plan is too complicated and has too many layers of bureaucracy. For example, several members wanted to know why a VA or private doctor couldn’t simply issue referrals to veterans who need to see another specialist, rather than repeating the long scheduling process with the department. … But as the department reminded Congress, the VA has systems in place to make sure veterans are eligible for care and its providers get paid. “VA’s community care network is not a health insurance plan,” Yehia said. “It’s an integrated system with the direct care and the community.”

VA: No new punishments for Aurora hospital construction failure (The Denver Post)
Following the completion of an internal investigation, the VA said Tuesday it does not plan to punish anyone else involved in the construction of a new hospital in Aurora that saw its cost balloon by $1 billion. The agency did not release the report to Congress or the public. But a news release issued by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs indicated the work of an Administrative Investigative Board was finished and no further action was necessary. “The AIB determined that responsibility for the decisions that resulted in delays and cost overruns for the Denver replacement facility rested with executives who had departed from the VA prior to the AIB’s completion,” the release noted. Specifically, the agency highlighted the work of three employees who had left the agency or had been demoted. The VA did not list any of the individuals it held responsible by name, although it noted their prior positions: a project executive, a senior resident engineer and a senior contracting officer. The Denver Post previously has named Timothy Pogany as the project manager, Thomas Hayden as the senior resident engineer and Thaddeus Willoughby as the contracting officer. “After reviewing thousands of pages of documentation, I determined that the evidence does not support accountability action against any individual still employed by VA,” VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson said. Estimated to cost $604 million in 2011, the price tag of the project last year rocketed to about $1.7 billion. An investigation by The Post found the root of the disaster was mismanagement by VA personnel and a lack of proper oversight. The VA expects to complete the facility in early 2018. Reaction to the latest news was swift among Colorado’s congressional delegation, which has long complained about the VA’s handling of the project’s cost and schedule. “Unfortunately it reflects a pattern in the VA where nobody responsible is ever held accountable,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora. “This little press release they put forward — without the full report — just again reflects that pattern where they don’t care. Who else could get away with this?” Even before Tuesday, the internal review has seen its share of controversy. Lawmakers last year raised concerns that the Administrative Investigative Board initially did not include a construction expert, a problem later resolved by the administration. The VA also has kept its findings under wraps since last summer. Agency officials said they planned to release the internal review along with a second investigation by the VA’s inspector general, its in-house watchdog. Neither the VA nor the VA inspector general responded with comment or clarification on efforts to learn more about either report. No related inquiry could be found Tuesday night on the website for the VA inspector general. In a statement, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet said the VA should take a hard look at the eventual findings of the inspector general.

Chuck Hagel laments the dearth of Veterans in key national security roles (Military Times)
Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel worries that too few veterans are helping shape national security decisions today. On Tuesday, during comments at a HillVets event across the street from the U.S. Capitol, Hagel said the lack of veterans in key political posts has left a “deficit” in critical military and security discussions, and helped widen the knowledge gap between civilians and those who served in the military. “When you look at the presidential candidates today, not one is a veteran,” Hagel told the crowd of more than 200. “Our current president and vice president are not veterans. The entire senior White House security staff, none are veterans. “That doesn’t mean they’re bad people, that doesn’t mean they’re not smart, that doesn’t mean they don’t care about this country. But there is something missing here. And at a time when everything is hair-triggered, everything is nitro glycerine, and miscalculations can lead to a lot of trouble, we need veterans input.” Hagel’s remarks were part of a larger event by HillVets to highlight contributions by military, veterans and advocates in politics and wider cultural efforts. The group honored Shaye Lynne Haver and Kristen Marie Griest, who last August became the first women to graduate from Army Ranger School, with a new leadership and service award. Hagel praised their accomplishments and called the entire U.S. military the best trained and most skilled fighting force in the world. But he also said he worries that too few Americans understand what that means. “You all know the numbers — less than 1 percent of our society serves,” he said. “That does not mean this country doesn’t value our military or doesn’t value our veterans. Of course they do. But there is developing a wider and deeper gap between civilian society and our military, and our veterans.” The former defense secretary and two-term senator said he wants to see veterans in government “in all capacities,” including federal staffers and elected offices. In the late 1970s, more than 70 percent of Congress has military experience in their backgrounds. At the start of the current Congress, that number dropped below 20 percent. “We’re losing that perspective, and it’s not good for our country,” he said. “It’s not good for our policy making. We need the input of our veterans.”

Women Veterans can find a mentor through American Corporate Partners (Military Times)
American Corporate Partners announced Monday a new mentoring program focusing solely on female veterans. ACP and the Army Reserve signed a memorandum of understanding to work together on the Women’s Veteran Mentoring Program initiative that offers yearlong mentorships for transitioning female service members who have served at least 180 days since 9/11. After joining the program, each service member will be matched with a female business leader based on career compatibility. The mentor and mentee talk at least once a month, usually via phone or video call — the mentor can help with anything from resume writing to career guidance to tips on navigating a civilian workplace. The original program, founded in 2008, is open to both men and women vets, but the company’s founder noticed there was more that could be done specifically for women. Sid Goodfriend, chairman and founder of ACP, said more than 7,000 veterans have completed the original program, and about 16 percent were women. Goodfriend thought that number was low, but he discovered 16 percent is roughly the number of active-duty female service members. Even though the number wasn’t that low relative to where it should be, he said he realized he should be evaluating whether they should be higher. … After discussions with his advisory board about diversity and speaking with a wide variety of female veterans and board members, “it struck me that perhaps we needed to do something more than we were doing already for the women who had served and were coming home.” One difference between the original program and the one for female veterans is how mentors are recruited. With the traditional program, veterans are paired with mentors from one of ACP’s more than 60 corporate partners. “We’re going to open this program up to individuals who are successful women professionals whether or not they’re associated with our companies,” Goodfriend said. Female entrepreneurs will be able to mentor veterans in the new program; however, if a female veterans prefers a male mentor, Goodfriend said the program is open to that, as well. American Corporate Partners is putting $400,000 toward the program, with a goal of matching at least 500 female veterans with mentors in the upcoming year.

Phishing emails targeting Veterans are on the rise (Nextgov)
Sometimes, the emails offer fake job interviews conducted via Skype or Google Plus during which scammers try to glean Social Security numbers or bank account information. Sometimes, the email schemes are more convoluted, asking recipients to cash what later turns out to be a counterfeit check to send back some of the money to the fraudsters. To the Web-savvy, these are obvious “phishing” attempts, in which bad guys – many not all that skilled or sophisticated – try to conduct fraud or ferret out personal information with legitimate-seeming emails. But these particular messages target an especially vulnerable population – veterans transitioning to civilian careers or otherwise looking for work. Some suspect emails even appear to originate from reputable employers. And many of them mention where they turned up veterans’ contact information: a career site run by the Department of Veterans Affairs that allows employers to peruse veteran resumes. “After viewing your profile on VA JOB PORTAL We feel you may be a good candidate for a position within our company,” reads one of the many similar-sounding scam emails seeking to ensnare veterans.  A few of the messages even mention, the name of the recently redesigned and relaunched VA website that hosts the career site, by name. But VA’s message to veterans: We feel your pain, but our website’s not to blame. “There has never been a security breach,” said VA Chief Technology Officer and architect Marina Martin in an interview last month, when Nextgov first began looking into the phishing scams. “It’s not that somebody downloaded a bunch of veteran emails. That has never been claimed or found.” VA officials, like Martin, have also repeatedly maintained there’s been no indication any of the supposed companies that have emailed jobseekers actually obtained veteran email addresses, either by being granted access to the site or stealing the information through other means. That’s the same thing Curtis Coy, the deputy undersecretary for economic opportunity in the Veterans Benefits Administration, told the House Veterans Affairs Committee last November when lawmakers requested an update on potential phishing scams brought to their attention. When asked if the job site protected veterans’ personal information, Coy responded, “absolutely.” Later, he added he was “pretty confident” there hadn’t been a breach of the site. “I don’t think in the world of IT, anybody can say 100 percent confident, but we’re pretty sure,” he said. “We’ve not seen any intrusions as of yet.” VA says the emails are the result of persistent scammers targeting a susceptible population – simply slapping the agency’s name on a garden-variety phishing email in an attempt to look legit. “It’s not connected to us,” Martin said. “It’s not coming from a VA address. It’s not linking to VA.” But the problem has persisted – and may be growing. In a March 9 blog post published by the agency’s Office of Information Security, officials wrote, “We’ve had veterans share with us several emails recently purporting to be from VA’s website and the Veterans Employment Center.” The post later added, “While it is unfortunate that anyone would try to take advantage of a veteran, tactics such as phishing are becoming more common.”

Comcast makes push to hire more Veterans (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
During her years of service in the U.S. Army National Guard, Carol Eggert worked full time as a technical consultant and felt stressed during the times she had to leave her job when she was called up for military deployment. Now she’s retired from the military and working at Comcast Corp. … As Comcast’s vice president of military and veterans affairs, Ms. Eggert, a retired brigadier general, is overseeing an initiative to hire more veterans and make the company a welcoming environment for them and active members of the military reserves. Ms. Eggert started in the newly created position last September and reports directly to top executives in the Philadelphia-based company’s corporate subsidiaries, Comcast Cable and NBCUniversal. Comcast has committed to hiring 10,000 veterans by the end of 2017 — about 10 percent to 15 percent of external hires — and though Ms. Eggert acknowledged that figure is ambitious, “We’ve already made quite a dent,” she said. Last year, the company hired almost 2,400 veterans, up 38 percent from 2014, she said. … Because many veterans possess skills that include leadership and teamwork, and can readily adapt to change and technology, they are qualified for a wide range of positions at Comcast and other organizations, she said. But there are challenges for veterans and the employers who hire them. “For two or three or five or six years, these veterans have been told by the military when to eat, when to get up. Their lives have been dramatically controlled,” said Michael Glass, executive director of the Veterans Leadership Program of Western Pennsylvania, a South Side nonprofit that provides housing, job services and other supports to veterans and their families. “Many are young men and women who left their parents’ homes for the military and never applied for a job before or marketed themselves,” said Mr. Glass. .. Among the initiatives that Comcast promotes for veterans and active reservists are its VetNet affinity groups that allow veterans to network and find mentoring opportunities with other veterans. About 5,000 employees are members of 15 chapters of VetNet, said Ms. Eggert. The company also offers help for veterans translating their military skills to civilian jobs, full-time pay up to 15 days for reservists called to duty, and employment options for military spouses, Ms. Eggert said. For its civilian workforce, especially those who work in recruiting and human resources, Comcast is educating them on military terms and acronyms so they can better help veterans assimilate. “They can give our business a competitive advantage as long as we cultivate a military-friendly and military-ready culture,” she said. … “We’re not doing this because it’s the nice thing to do,” she said of Comcast’s efforts to recruit more veterans. “We’re doing this because we need [veterans’] talents and there’s a need for this great talent pool.”