When VA is deciding on Agent Orange benefits, science sometimes takes backseat to politics & cost (The Virginian-Pilot)
Last year, a group of federal scientists was debating whether as many as 2,100 Air Force veterans should qualify for cash benefits for ailments they claimed stemmed from flying aircraft contaminated by Agent Orange. An outside panel of experts had already determined that the scientific evidence showed the vets were likely exposed to the toxic herbicide. The scientists within the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs agreed the airmen had a strong case. But they had a more calculated concern: If the VA doled out cash to these veterans, others might want it too, according to an internal document obtained by The Virginian-Pilot and ProPublica. The group put their worries in writing. In a draft memo, they warned the secretary of Veterans Affairs that giving benefits to the airmen might prompt “additional pressure” from other veteran groups. Such political and financial concerns aren’t supposed to play into decisions about Agent Orange benefits, veterans advocates and some legal experts say. Federal law requires that, in most cases, these decisions be guided strictly by science. But an examination of two recent cases illustrates how dueling considerations of liability, responsibility and evolving scientific evidence weigh into VA deliberations. “This shows what we’ve already suspected: At the VA, they’re more interested in politics, and protecting their turf and their bonuses, than fulfilling their mission to assist veterans,” said John Wells, a Louisiana lawyer who has spent more than a decade advocating for 90,000 Navy vets fighting for Agent Orange benefits. VA officials say they are committed to making sure qualified vets get benefits, and they believe the law allows them to consider the ramifications of their decisions when weighing the eligibility of new groups. “Considering second order effects of a decision does not in any way violate the Agent Orange Act,” the VA’s general counsel’s office wrote in response to questions. … Some 2.6 million Vietnam veterans are thought to have been exposed to — and possibly harmed by — Agent Orange, which the U.S. military used to defoliate dense forests, making it easier to spot enemy troops. But only vets who set foot in Vietnam or the Korean demilitarized zone – earning a status called “boots on the ground” – or served on ships that entered Vietnam’s rivers are automatically eligible for compensation for illnesses linked by the VA to the herbicide. Coverage for other groups may be added at the VA’s discretion, at a cost the VA has estimated could be billions of dollars. As the VA studies whether to expand its list of Agent Orange-related conditions, the possibility that outside factors may be influencing its decisions worries veterans’ advocates and lawyers. … Typically, the VA’s internal deliberations are conducted in secret, with only the final decisions made public. The Virginian-Pilot and ProPublica were able to learn details of two recent Agent Orange decisions by obtaining internal memos and interviewing a participant. One decision involved the Air Force personnel and reservists who, in the years after the war, served on C-123 aircraft that had sprayed Agent Orange in Vietnam. In January 2015, an expert panel of the Institute of Medicine, now part of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, found evidence suggesting these vets “would have experienced some exposure to chemicals from herbicide residue when working inside” the aircraft. In response, the VA formed an internal working group to help senior officials brief VA Secretary Robert McDonald on options for compensating these veterans. The working group drafted a memo acknowledging that the scientific evidence was “fairly straightforward.” In weighing how to respond, however, it listed pros and cons of various options for granting benefits to the reservists that had nothing to do with the science. One con noted that such a decision “may result in additional pressure by other veteran groups to further expand the presumption of exposure.” In parentheses, the report named specific groups of Vietnam-era veterans that might be encouraged by the change, including those who served on a base in Thailand where Agent Orange was sprayed, those who believed they were exposed on ships off the coast of Vietnam, and those who served at U.S. bases where the chemicals were tested. On the pro side, a decision favorable to the vets “would demonstrate commitment by the VA to this group of veterans” and was “supported by science,” the memo said. The working group recommended that the VA review claims from C-123 aircrew on a case-by-case basis rather than automatically approve them for the group. This, VA staffers calculated, could lead to “possibly reduced pressure by other veteran groups” who desired benefits while also satisfying members of Congress worried about the growing tab for Agent Orange-related benefits, according to the memo. McDonald ultimately granted disability benefits to all Air Force and Air Force Reserve personnel who regularly served aboard the aircraft, a group estimated at between 1,500 and 2,100, saying in a statement that it was “the right thing to do.” The VA, in an email, said the process was intended to ensure McDonald had all the information necessary to make a decision. “When making important policy decisions, the Secretary is presented with a broad array of potential courses of action, each of which have their own implications and 2nd/3rd order effects which need to be considered and discussed,” it said. Bart Stichman, co-executive director of the National Veterans Legal Services Program, which has tangled with the VA in court on numerous Agent Orange-related issues, said it’s reasonable to expect the VA to consider a host of issues, including costs, when making decisions. … But Michael Wishnie, a Yale Law School professor who worked with the C-123 veterans seeking benefits, said it was against the law for the the VA staff to point out how the decision to give aircrews benefits could embolden or dampen the enthusiasm of other veterans groups. … Advocates for veterans still fighting for benefits say they are worried about the way in which the VA deliberates such issues. This is especially true among those pushing for benefits for 90,000 so-called Blue Water Navy vets, who served off the coast of Vietnam. … Rory Riley-Topping, a former staff director for the House VA Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, said her sense is that the VA is “very adamantly opposed” to providing benefits to the Blue Water veterans, in part because of the cost. … The VA has estimated that providing benefits to Blue Water vets would cost taxpayers $4.4 billion over 10 years, and the first year would cost the most – $1.3 billion – because of pent-up demand. A recent Congressional Budget Office estimate is substantially lower, pegging the cost at about $1.1 billion over a decade.
VA faces more questions about records shredding at Philadelphia, other centers (The Morning Call)
More training and a switch to electronic files will prevent veterans’ records from being shredded inappropriately, a Department of Veterans Affairs official told members of Congress on Wednesday, some of whom weren’t convinced. Beth McCoy, a deputy undersecretary at the VA’s Veterans Benefits Administration, told a House subcommittee that new procedures are being developed in the coming weeks and months. She said about 99.8 percent of veterans claims for benefits now are processed electronically, minimizing the potential for important documents to be destroyed by mistake. The hearing was prompted by a report from the VA inspector general in April that said benefits claims centers, including the one in Philadelphia that serves veterans in the Lehigh Valley, were inappropriately sending important documents to the shredder, which could have prevented veterans from getting disability and other payments. Six of 10 offices that were audited, including Philadelphia, didn’t have procedures to prevent claims-related paperwork from being improperly destroyed, the inspector general concluded. Sixty-nine of 155 claims-related documents fished out of bins where they were awaiting shredding shouldn’t have been there, the audit said. In Philadelphia, four documents were found in shred bins that shouldn’t have been there. One of them, an administrative decision regarding whether a widow’s marriage entitled her to benefits, potentially could have affected her benefits, the inspector general said. The VA said it didn’t and she was granted benefits before the review. Several representatives expressed doubt that more training is the answer. They noted that the VA previously had said several years ago that training would prevent inappropriate shredding. Among them was Rep. Ryan Costello, a Republican representing several Philadelphia suburbs and parts of Berks and Montgomery counties. “I get concerned when we see information like this and the response from the VA is, well .. we’re looking at revising our rules and regulations, our procedures, our requirements, when in fact there is nothing that prevents those working on these files from just doing their job properly in the first instance. And if you’re not going to properly do your job, then it really doesn’t matter what rules, regulations or requirements are further added,” Costello said at the hearing. The VA inspector general’s office testified it will give the agency time to implement new procedures, then will follow-up on the issue.
Vets blast Trump for implying U.S. troops stole Iraq cash (MilitaryTimes)
Presidential candidate Donald Trump is facing renewed criticism from veterans activists after comments Tuesday that appeared to accuse U.S. troops of stealing money earmarked for reconstruction efforts during the war in Iraq. During a campaign speech in North Carolina, the presumed Republican nominee talked about cutting government waste and improving oversight of taxpayer dollars, then transitioned to the costly war in the Middle East. “Iraq. Crooked as hell,” he said. “How about bringing baskets of money, millions and millions of dollars, and handing it out? “I want to know who are the soldiers that had that job because I think they’re living very well right now, whoever they may be. Think of it, the money that went out.” After the speech, Trump’s campaign issued a statement saying the comments were directed at Iraqi troops, not U.S. forces in charge of managing hundreds of millions of dollars in reconstruction funds. But officials from VoteVets.org, who describe themselves as the largest progressive organization of veterans in the country, called the comments the latest in a series of offensive statements about the military that should disqualify Trump from serving as commander in chief. “Trump’s attack against the courageous American men and women who heroically worked to restore law and order in Iraq is at once uninformed and irresponsible,” said retired Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, senior adviser to the group. “For him to smear our troops and veterans as he has, it is disqualifying, as far as I am concerned.” A Politico report noted that Trump has made similar comments in the past about reconstruction funds theft, and a 2015 Center for Public Integrity report listed 115 cases of U.S. troops committing theft and contract-rigging crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. VoteVets.org officials also listed a series of military missteps by Trump’s campaign in the last year, including comments questioning Arizona Sen. John McCain’s military service because of his capture during the Vietnam War and writings where he compared his boarding school experience to serving in the military. During the North Carolina speech, Trump repeated his assertion that he opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning, even though news reports have cast doubt on that claim. He also repeated his call from earlier in the week that Muslim leaders need to step up efforts to police their own religious communities for signs of terrorism, implying that the recent mass shootings in Orlando, Florida, and California could have been prevented by greater cooperation with law enforcement. “People knew bad things were going to happen, and they didn’t report it,” he said. “We have to have people reporting.” He said most Muslim Americans do not pose any threat, but officials need to better identify the “7 percent or 9 percent or 11 percent or 1 percent” who do. Democratic leaders, including President Barack Obama and presumed presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, have condemned those comments as contrary to American values of religious freedom and due process.
VA deploys mental health staff in Orlando after mass shooting (Military.com)
The Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Orlando is providing emergency mental health assistance to people affected by the bloody rampage at a nightclub early Sunday that killed 49 and left 53 wounded. In a statement released Monday afternoon, the VA said its services would be available to veterans and department employees, as well as the general public “in the wake of the tragic mass shooting.” Police say Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old U.S. citizen and Muslim who lived in Fort Pierce, Florida, entered The Pulse, a gay nightspot, early Sunday morning and opened fire with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and a 9mm Glock handgun. The medical center’s Mobile Medical Unit is located at the Beardall Senior Center, 800 Delaney Ave., about three miles from The Pulse nightclub at 1912 South Orange Ave. The mobile unit will remain open Monday night until 11 p.m., officials said, and can be contacted at 321-277-6672. “This MMU is staffed with world-class mental health professionals and outreach staff ready now to assist anyone experiencing high levels of anxiety or fear due to the mass shooting,” the VA said in a statement. Police say Mateen called 911 to say he had sworn allegiance to the Islamic State group shortly before he began his shooting spree. He was shot and killed as police moved in to rescue club patrons.
No. 2 VA official visits Denver veterans hospital work site (9News)
The No. 2 official in the Veterans Affairs Department is making another visit to the site of the budget-busting VA hospital outside Denver. VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson will meet with contractors and department officials Wednesday at the construction site in suburban Aurora. The medical center is expected to cost $1.7 billion, nearly triple the figure the VA gave in 2014. Completion is expected in January 2018. It will replace an aging hospital in Denver. Investigators blamed the overruns on multiple design changes and a decision by VA officials to use a complicated contract process they didn’t fully understand. Colorado lawmakers have repeatedly criticized the VA for not firing anyone over the problems. The VA says the executives responsible have already left department, and that others were transferred or demoted.
Jesse Brown VA Medical Center offers direct appointments (Chicago Sun Times)
The Jesse Brown VA Medical Center in Chicago is one of the first hospitals to allow veterans to schedule audiology and optometry appointments directly without going through their primary care physicians, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs said Monday. By the end of the year, the VA hopes that all its hospitals will be able to offer direct scheduling, according to a news release. The VA medical system’s wait-time efficiency has come under national scrutiny in recent months. The VA has said the new program is aimed at saving time for veterans and freeing time for primary care physicians to see patients. “Valuable Primary Care access was partially being used for routine Audiology and Optometry referrals, while demand for Primary Care services was outgrowing the capacity of the Primary Care clinics,” the news release said. Under the former system, veterans would have to see their primary care physician to get a referral for an optometrist, said Lina Satele, public affairs officer at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center. According to the VA, this new program is intended to make it easier to schedule routine medical appointments and to shorten wait times for veterans needing to see their physicians for more than a referral. For more information on Audiology and Optometry Direct Scheduling at Jesse Brown VA Medical Center, veterans can contact the Audiology Department at 312-569-6169 or the Optometry Department at 312-569-7501. The direct scheduling program affirms the medical center’s commitment to its veterans, said Dr. James Brunner, acting chief of staff at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center. “We are honored to be a leader in this effort.”
Pitch your veteran small business during nonprofit Bunker Labs’ national tour (MilitaryTimes)
A network of veteran small business incubators is launching a 12-city tour to help veteran entrepreneurs develop their ideas. A nonprofit created in 2014, Bunker Labs aims to connect budding business owners with resources to grow their companies. Headquartered in Chicago, new chapters are popping up across the country. Bunker Labs locations offer options for veterans in different stages of their entrepreneurship. For early-stage companies, Bunker Labs provides space for six months with access to fellow entrepreneurs, mentoring and capital. Aspiring entrepreneurs can apply to become entrepreneurs in residence and intern at one of the Bunker Labs-supported companies. Navy veteran and Bunker Labs CEO Todd Connor said JPMorgan Chase agreed to a $1.5 million commitment to Bunker Labs, which allowed the creation of the 10-month series of events. The first two events were in Columbus, Ohio, and Chicago. The upcoming stops are:
- June 28: Nashville, Tennessee
- Sept. 21: Kansas City, Missouri
- Sept. 23: Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina
- Sept. 30: Madison, Wisconsin
- Oct. 7: Austin, Texas
- Nov. 10: Philadelphia
- Nov. 17: Jacksonville, Florida
- Dec. 8: Washington, D.C.
- Feb. 23, 2017: Seattle/Tacoma, Washington
- March 23, 2017: Los Angeles
The Seattle/Tacoma and Los Angeles stops are at new Bunker Labs chapters in those areas. Each stop is a free, daylong event where vets can pitch ideas to an audience of investors, local leaders and the community at large, Connor said. There are also leaders in the business community and panel discussions throughout the day. Connor said he hopes this will bring “a new community of military veterans and friends who are also interested in being innovators.” “Entrepreneurship is not a single-player sport,” Connor said. “You need people, you need community, you need friends, you need customers, you need employees.” The veteran community has those things, he said, and the issue is connecting them. “Organizations like Bunker Labs pull together community and give them a place to show up both online and in person,” he said. Connor encourages participants to download the Bunker Labs app that allows users to create a profile and connect with others before, during and after the events. He said entrepreneurship doesn’t happen in a day or a year. “It’s probably a thought that begins while you’re still on active duty, and it lingers for a long time,” he said. “Until you figure out how to manifest that, we want to honor that process.”