April 1 Veterans News

April 1 Veterans News

VetsHQ News UpdateAgent Orange benefit screening process scrutinized in Congress (News Observer) The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs is looking into whether a contractor thoroughly reviewed the files of Vietnam veterans who might deserve benefits for illnesses linked to exposure to Agent Orange. A contractor that pre-screens veteran files for evidence of those illnesses often spent just minutes reviewing each file, internal company documents show. The contractor, QTC Medical Services, reviewed files for 160,000 veterans. They were paid approximately $300 for every file reviewed under 2 inches thick and $350 for files more than 2 inches thick. An unsealed lawsuit and contract documents obtained by McClatchy shed light on the contractor’s pre-screening process. The suit alleges that QTC — a Lockheed Martin company — did not give their employees the necessary training to spot evidence of illnesses linked to Agent Orange and pressured employees to work at a pace that made it impossible to thoroughly review the file. “This lawsuit raises a number of serious questions,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, in a statement to McClatchy. “Every veteran’s VA claim deserves a thorough and objective review. Our investigation will continue until we are satisfied that’s the case in this situation.” QTC Medical Services and Lockheed Martin, citing ongoing litigation, declined to comment. Agent Orange benefits are a moving target for the Department of Veterans Affairs. An ongoing class-action lawsuit — Nehmer v. Department of Veterans Affairs — requires the VA to review old veteran claims when new illnesses are linked to Agent Orange exposure. That gives veterans who were previously denied benefits an updated review. QTC reviewed 65,000 files for ischemic heart disease, Parkinson’s disease and hairy cell leukemia potentially linked to herbicide exposure in Vietnam, as well as 95,000 files for peripheral neuropathy. Only the files flagged by QTC as potentially eligible were sent back to the VA for a final decision. The National Veterans Legal Services Program, who filed the class-action suit, told McClatchy that since 2010, they’ve identified more than 1,600 cases in which the VA failed to recognize and pay the required retroactive Agent Orange compensation, resulting in an additional $42 million being paid to veterans and their survivors. Barton Stichman, NVLSP’s joint executive director, said they are paying close attention to the allegations against QTC to see if pre-screening is where veterans are falling through the cracks. … The lawsuit against QTC, brought by former claims file analyst David Vatan, was dismissed on grounds that Vatan did not know the terms of the contract, so whatever evidence he presented about how QTC performed the reviews, he could not prove the company misrepresented its work. Vatan and his attorneys have appealed. McClatchy obtained the full contract with QTC through a Freedom of Information Act request. QTC’s contract stipulates the company must train its employees before they review files for Agent Orange-related conditions based on a guide provided by the VA. Vatan’s lawsuit alleges he and other analysts were not formally trained and were never given the VA’s training guide. Instead, analysts were given a “reference manual” from QTC that omits much of the background information on relevant medical conditions included in the VA’s guide, as well as details about what supporting evidence for benefit eligibility might look like in a veteran’s file. The contract also states that QTC must review each veteran’s entire file. But QTC’s reference guide permits analysts to abbreviate the process, using summaries of prior benefit decisions printed on colored sheets of paper. QTC’s senior vice president of operations, Dr. Margie Shahani, testified to Congress in 2008 that it would take a qualified analyst 60 to 90 minutes to review each claim file, an equivalent of seven or eight files per day. Internal documents show QTC’s analysts worked much faster under a competetive performance rating system. Some analysts averaged nearly 30 claims per day and those who reviewed fewer than 12 to 15 were reprimanded for poor performance. In the response to Vatan’s complaint, Lockheed Martin’s lawyers argued the contract did not spell out how much time they should spend on each file. “There is nothing inherently wrong with QTC encouraging people to work quickly,” the motion reads. When one of his colleagues reported reviewing 50 files in a day, Vatan complained to a Lockheed Martin ethics officer. Vatan pointed out that 50 files a day would leave the analyst just 12 minutes per file if he or she worked two hours of overtime and took no breaks. “It takes 10-12 minutes for an experienced (analyst) to process one file in the computer system alone,” Vatan said. “How was the review conducted?’ Both the Department of Justice and the VA Office of the Inspector General investigated the allegations in the lawsuit, but neither chose to intervene and neither would comment on their investigation. In fiscal year 2015, QTC’s various contracts with the Department of Veterans Affairs exceeded $175 million.

Canceled VA appts pushed vet to suicide attempt (San Diego Union-Tribune)
An investigation released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says the San Diego VA hospital triggered one veteran’s suicide attempt in 2014 by repeatedly canceling his mental health appointments. The investigation also found that at least two San Diego VA employees instructed appointment clerks to “zero out” wait times in the scheduling database, presenting an unrealistically positive picture of how long patients were waiting for mental health care. The tactics may have affected hundreds of San Diego veterans seeking mental health treatment. The VA’s inspector general found that employees in the San Diego mental health clinic scheduled more than 700 appointments with a 98 to 100 percent rate of zero-day wait times — described as virtually impossible without data manipulation. The findings are among more than 70 investigations the VA has released nationally over the past few weeks. The investigations of VA facilities in several states followed a sweeping scandal in 2014 that started over allegations of falsified wait times at the Phoenix VA hospital. The suicidal San Diego veteran, not named in the report, had three or four appointments canceled in a row by the VA leading up to his attempt to kill himself in 2014. The attempt happened at a VA clinic in San Diego. The investigation found that 13 to 14 percent of his appointments were canceled with less than a day’s notice in 2013 and, in the following fiscal year, that number rose to between 24 and 27 percent for various clinics. According to the report, “the veteran stated he used the cancellation of his appointments as an excuse to act out and attempted to harm himself. He said he regrets his actions and that he received help and now has follow-up appointments.” A spokeswoman for the San Diego VA health care system said seven employees have been held accountable for the scheduling issues, but she declined to say exactly who. In total, three staff members resigned and two retired, while two others faced “accountability actions,” spokeswoman Cindy Butler said Thursday. One of the people who faced “accountability action” was moved to a job with no scheduling responsibility and the other stayed in the position. In a statement released Thursday, San Diego VA officials said the inspector general only examined data from early 2014 — before leaders here made an effort to address the issue. … This is the first official sign of trouble at the San Diego VA, which has been touted as a model by local veteran advocates and even VA Secretary Bob McDonald. … U.S. Rep. Scott Peters, D-San Diego, issued a statement late Thursday saying that he will follow up with McDonald to discuss why anyone involved in the data manipulation still gets a VA salary.

VA processing error held up benefits to 14,000 veterans (Stars and Stripes)
The Veterans Affairs Department has discovered claims processing errors affecting about 14,000 veterans and survivors — a problem that goes back as least 15 years. The errors occurred when veterans and survivors filed claims but, because of disability or age, were deemed unable to manage their benefits without assistance, VA officials said. The VA then failed to appoint a representative for the veteran, a family member in most cases. The department became aware of the issue when it received inquiries in June and July from affected beneficiaries or their families, said VA spokeswoman Meagan Heup. In a March 14 statement, VA officials said they caught the error using an information technology system called the Beneficiary Fiduciary Field System that was first deployed in 2014. Until then, they used an “antiquated, stand-alone database that did not interact with any other VA programs and allowed for only minimal workload management with virtually no oversight.” Before then, regional officers were relying on “manual processes, including email correspondence,” to transfer cases to its fiduciary staff, Heup said. The VA has since modified its system to eliminate the manual elements and “better track this workload.” A review of affected veterans’ cases by the Veterans Benefits Administration was completed in November. It is working to determine how much is due to beneficiaries. “We sincerely apologize to these veterans and their survivors for this regrettable delay,” VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson said in the statement. It’s unclear how long the problem has been going on, Heup said, because the VA is not able to collect data prior to 2000. Additionally, the VA has yet to conduct a review to identify beneficiaries who died waiting for their cases to be processed. VA officials said they have set up a team dedicated to reviewing the cases immediately, with a plan to complete the claims processing steps and appoint an appropriate representative as soon as possible. However, the process could take as long as six months to complete because the law requires the VA to meet with fiduciary representatives face-to-face and check their qualifications, officials said. In the meantime, beneficiaries will receive their monthly benefits. The development comes on the heels of a joint study between Harvard University and veterans advocacy groups that reported the VA had wrongfully denied services to approximately 125,000 post-9/11 veterans who received other than honorable discharges. A few weeks prior to that, members of Congress proposed a bill to return approximately $78 million erroneously deducted from combat-wounded veterans’ severance pay for 25 years by the Pentagon, an error that may have affected upwards of 13,000 troops. For more information, veterans and survivors may call 1-888-407-0144.

Lawmakers demand bill to fix VA’s ‘outright dysfunction’ (Washington Examiner)
Two key lawmakers warned Thursday that the failure of Congress to pass new language allowing the Department of Veterans Affairs to fire corrupt or negligent officials would be a “disservice” to the nation’s veterans. Sen. Marco Rubio, the recent presidential candidate, and Rep. Jeff Miller, who chairs the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, wrote to the chair of the Senate VA Committee to urge him to consider Miller’s bill, which would expand the VA’s authority to fire officials. Miller’s language passed the House easily last year, and was also approved by Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga. Miller and Rubio said they fear that while early talks might have led to the inclusion of Miller’s bill into a broader VA package of legislation, it might now be at risk of being ignored. “[W]e are now concerned that you have halted the aforementioned negotiations and may be taking an approach that favors reaching a deal with the administration or others at any cost, regardless of whether it actually addresses the VA’s many problems or pays for new programs in a responsible way,” they wrote. “We hope you realize that any piece of comprehensive veterans’ legislation that doesn’t provide the VA secretary swift and comprehensive disciplinary authority for all VA employees misses the true mark on what ails the department,” they added. “Not including such strong accountability language would be a disservice to both taxpayers and our nation’s veterans.” Miller has argued repeatedly that the need to fire VA workers has become clear over the last year, since the VA has barely used its new authority to fire or discipline senior employees involved in the healthcare scandal that broke in 2014. The VA has fired just a few workers for that scandal, and Miller says it’s time to expand that authority to all VA employees, not just senior-level workers. The letter noted that most recently, the VA wasn’t able to fire an employee in Puerto Rico who “participated in an armed robbery.” “This is only the latest example in what is a steady cascade of real-life examples demonstrating the outright dysfunction of the civil service rules governing the VA,” they wrote. As of this week, it’s unclear whether Miller’s language will make it into the larger VA bill the Senate is hoping to pull together. Amanda Maddox, a spokeswoman for Isakson, told the Washington Examiner that a bill should be forthcoming in April, but that its exact contents aren’t settled. “We are ironing out last minute details and are looking at introducing in the next week or two,” she said. Efforts to write a tough VA bill have fallen apart before. In 2014, for example, the House passed legislation giving the VA secretary more of a right to simply fire officials who aren’t doing the job of helping veterans. But that language got watered down when it reached the Senate, in large part because of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who chaired Isakson’s committee then. Specifically, Sanders included language giving employees the right to appeal decisions that they be fired or disciplined.

Veteran who was denied VA benefits has died (azfamily)
There has been a devastating development in a story we first reported a month ago. Army veteran John Marshall was fighting terminal cancer while at the same time, fighting the Phoenix VA for service-related benefits for his time served. Sadly, Marshall died this week. He was only 31 years old. Marshall left his hospital bed to share one of his dying wishes back in late February. “I just want the benefits for my family and for the kids and that’s why I’m doing this so it’s very tough,” he said. Sadly, the husband and father of two young children lost his battle with soft tissue sarcoma on Tuesday night. He was still waiting to be granted benefits from the VA healthcare system. Little Riley and her brother Colt don’t know their dad died yet. His wife Ashley doesn’t know how she’s going to take care of them now. “I’m a teacher and you don’t make a lot of money doing that, and that’s something I always wanted to do,” she said. Marshall was a decorated combat veteran who tied his cancer to hours spent over burn pits in Iraq. The VA said it was a developmental defect. “When it came through and he was denied everything, it was very much a shock to him and to us,” she said. It’s something neither would accept, and they questioned how the carcinogens he was exposed to could not be connected. Now the single widowed mother is on a crusade for VA change and says she’s proud of what her husband tried to do for those cases she fears are to follow. “I really hope that his fight, somebody stands up and sees it, you know,” she said. I reached out to the VA to see if they will be awarding Mrs. Marshall survivor benefits and received almost immediate confirmation that they will be reaching out to her to help through this difficult and overwhelming process. It remains to be seen whether the VA will be paying for any of the end-of-life care Marshall had to get from another hospital in the Valley.

Female vets gather to swap stories, gain experience (Military Times)
Air Force veteran Liz Skilbeck recently got a new license plate for her vehicle that identifies it as being driven by a female veteran. Before that, the license plate just identified it as being driven by a veteran, causing people to thank her husband for his service. “It was ‘Thanks for your support. What did your husband do?’ And my husband didn’t,” Skilbeck said. Skilbeck is one of 50 female veterans coming together this weekend in a conference put together by The Mission Continues, an organization that connects veterans with public service projects. The conference aims to bring together the women — all volunteers with The Mission Continues — to share their unique experiences, inspire them with some strong role models and help them learn new skills. … The Mission Continues has been around since 2007, but this is the first time they’ve had an event just for women, said Laura L’Esperance, the organization’s senior vice president of brand and communications. She said they decided to do a women-specific conference after doing a study of their programs and noticing that while women make up about 15 percent of active duty troops, they made up roughly double that share of some of the organization’s programs. But in a society that often equates the military with men, she said female vets often feel invisible when they leave the service. Hopefully through this conference the women will gain a new network and new skills to prepare them for whatever challenges they face next, she said. … The women come from all over the country and a range of ages, although most are post-9/11 veterans. Skilbeck joined the Air Force in early 2001 and specialized in how to dispose of explosive ordnance. She left the service in March 2005 after multiple surgeries made it impossible to continue. Skilbeck said she struggled after leaving the Air Force. Working with The Mission Continues has given her a chance to contribute to society while working alongside veterans who understand what she’s been through: “That’s something I really missed.” The conference comes at a time of immense change for women in the military. The Defense Department this year opened up all combat jobs to women. Some generals have raised the prospect of women registering for the draft. The defense department is also pushing family-friendly proposals such as doubling the fully paid maternity leave for female service members. The conference will feature speakers like Michele Flournoy, co-founder of the Center for New America Security whose name has been mentioned as the possible first woman to head the Pentagon, and sisters Betsy Nunez and Emily Nunez Cavness, who confounded a company to repurpose military waste into bags and purses. Rachel Gutierrez, who joined the Army in 2000 and deployed to Iraq from 2004 to 2005, said she’s looking forward to talking with one of the featured speakers, Brig. Gen. Helen Pratt, and connecting with other women. Like Skilbeck, she’s run into multiple situations where she’s not recognized as a veteran — for example, going to a veterans’ hospital and people assuming she’s a caretaker for a male veteran.

Report: VA program helped reduce homeless veteran hospitalization (KJZZ)
A Veterans Health Administration program has helped reduce hospitalization among homeless veterans, according to a report issued Thursday. The Homeless Patient Aligned Care Team program (H-PACT) provides medical care outside traditional hospital settings. Homeless veterans who used H-PACT services showed a nearly 20 percent reduction in emergency department use, according to the report. Overall hospitalization among those veterans decreased by 35 percent. H-PACT is one of several services offered through the Phoenix VA’s Community Resource and Referral Center near Thomas Road and 15th Street. “It’s supposed to be in the community,” said Shane Groen with the Arizona Coalition to End Homelessness. “It’s a little less daunting for a lot of the veterans that are resistant to the VA and a little easier to get to.” Joan Servis, executive director for AZCEH, said attempts to curb veteran homelessness impacts the larger homeless population. “We’ll take the lessons learned from addressing veteran homelessness and pivot to address family homelessness, and then learn new lessons with that population as well.” The coalition works with the VA to target homeless veterans for placement into permanent housing. H-Pact was started in 2011 as part of a national initiative to end chronic veteran homelessness.

Congressman seeks headstones for WWII Alaska Native militia (The Virginian-Pilot)
Alaska wasn’t even a state yet when thousands of Alaska Natives volunteered for a citizens militia to protect the vast U.S. territory from Japanese invasion during World War II. Yet most of the gravesites of the Alaska Territorial Guard members are marked with aging, rotting wooden markers. Now U.S. Rep. Don Young is urging federal officials to replace the markers with permanent headstones. The Alaska Republican wants the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to make a policy change that would provide headstones made of materials like marble or granite to the families of territorial guard members. Young made the request in a letter Tuesday to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald. Young says such headstones are made available to veterans who died after November 1990. However, the government will only provide such headstones at unmarked gravesites of veterans who died before then. Young is seeking an exemption for guard members, whose graves are marked with deteriorating wooden markers. “However, since the Civil War, wooden markers have not been considered adequate permanent markers for the graves of Veterans,” Young wrote. “Therefore, I urge you to update this policy to recognize the impermanence and inadequate nature of these current wooden markers, and to ensure those who willingly stepped forward to defend the United States are appropriately recognized with true, permanent VA-provided headstones.” The VA did not immediately respond for comment Thursday. Young spokesman Matt Shuckerow said there has been no response to the letter so far from McDonald. In his letter, Young also said some headstone applications have been denied for relatives of Territorial Guard members who did not have Social Security numbers when they died. “This is a small number of Veterans, who likely died within several years of the war, but they are still due the proper respect as all of those who serve our great nation,” Young wrote. When the 6,400-member militia was formed in 1942, Alaska was still 17 years away from statehood. The largely Native unit was activated after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and at points along Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. The militia members, nicknamed Eskimo Scouts and Uncle Sam’s Men, stepped in to watch over the 586,000-square-mile territory, which was vulnerable to further attack with the Alaska National Guard already pressed into federal service. The militia disbanded in March 1947, almost 2 years after the war ended. But it wouldn’t be until 2004 that Territorial Guard members were formally recognized by the Army at U.S. military veterans.

YWCA youth program building tiny houses for homeless vets (WWLP)
It’s called a “tiny house with a big heart” – The Springfield YWCA’s YouthBuild program makes miniature homes for homeless veterans. It also benefits young people who needed something to do to get their lives back on track. The teens learned building skills as part of the YWCA program. Last year, the first youthful class completed the exterior, and on Friday, they showed 22News the tiny house that will soon be home to a once homeless vet. YouthBuild’s Corey Fenancio told 22News of his pride in the work so far accomplished. “Oh, it was a workout- I mean trial and error. We processed the wood from here to there,” Fenancio said. Cody and his fellow trainees have acquired construction skills that will serve them well as they enter the labor force. The work that Cody began, Dominique Cese hopes to complete. 22News will follow up and show you the tiny house once the project is completed this summer, and when the miniature building turns a homeless veteran into a homeowner.

Iowa Governor signs bill into law on unclaimed veterans remains (KHQA)
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad has signed a bill into law that will allow Iowa officials to more quickly identify unclaimed cremated remains of veterans. Branstad signed the bill into law Wednesday, following unanimous support this session from both the House and Senate. The law will give an Iowa funeral director the authority to work with veterans affairs officials to determine if any unclaimed cremated remains belong to a veteran or a dependent of a veteran for inurnment at a national or state veterans cemetery. The funeral director can release the remains for proper inurnment to certain veterans organizations after a waiting period. Lawmakers who spoke in support of the bill say it is part of a national effort to locate, identify and inter such unclaimed cremated remains.