July 26 Veterans News

July 26 Veterans News


Trump pledges better veterans health care, bashes Clinton at VFW meeting (USA Today)
Donald Trump turned his VFW speech into something of a political rally Tuesday, blaming career politicians for problems with the veterans health care system and attacking Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton. “Our veterans are the bravest and the finest people on Earth,” Trump told the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in North Carolina. “Our debt to you is eternal — yet our politicians have totally failed you.” Members of the crowd cheered when Trump bashed his opponent as “crooked Hillary,” and some picked up the chant that Republicans used at their convention in Cleveland last week: “Lock her up! Lock her up! “And to think she was here yesterday,” Trump told the VFW delegates. “I guess she didn’t do very well.” While Trump accused Clinton of downplaying problems with the VA health care system, Clinton told the VFW on Monday that it is one of her highest priorities. “We are not going to privatize the VA — we are going to reform it and make it work for every single veteran in America,” the Democratic candidate said. “We will ensure access to timely quality care (and) improve the coordination of care.” Clinton did not mention Trump by name during her VFW speech but did suggest her opponent’s aggressive style would be ineffective in the White House: “I’m not interested in talking provocatively. I’m not interested in insulting people, including our military. I’m interested in bringing our country together. I’m interested in healing the divisions.” Trump’s speech to the VFW — a frequent stop for most presidential candidates — was part of a weeklong series of events designed in part to counter-program the Democratic convention in Philadelphia. The Republican nominee spent two days in North Carolina, a pivotal southern state. The GOP candidate criticized Democrats for not mentioning the threats of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, during the first night of their convention Monday, but added there may have been a reason: Obama administration policies helped give rise to the militant group. “They don’t want to talk about it. Because in a very true way, they really established ISIS because of weakness,” Trump said. Trump, whose proposals include an anti-immigration wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and demands that NATO allies pay more money for the alliance, discussed little foreign policy before the VFW, though he did blame current politicians for “one calamity after another overseas.” Trump said: “Things have to change, and they have to change right now.” The New York businessman drew loud applause when he again pledged to stop the flow of Syrian refugees into the United States. He also protested “terrible” trade deals and said economic competitors are taking advantage of the United States. In outlining plans to improve veterans health care, the Republican nominee said the country must “never again break our sacred commitment” to those who have fought for the United States. One plan is a new White House “hotline” that veterans can use to file complaints against the health care system, and that he will personally handle valid complaints that are not acted upon. “This could keep me very busy at night, folks,” Trump joked. “This will take the place of Twitter.” VFW delegates punctuated Trump’s speech with applause, standing ovations, and shout-outs that included the candidate’s “Make America Great Again” slogan.

VA secretary: Same-day primary care, mental health appointments coming (MilitaryTimes)
Veterans will have same-day access to primary care appointments and mental health services at Veterans Affairs facilities by December, VA Secretary Bob McDonald promised Tuesday. Addressing the Veterans of Foreign Wars national convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, McDonald said veterans wait an average of five days for primary care, six days for specialty care and two for mental health services, but VA plans to reduce those further by the end of the year. This, he added, while the department continues to set records for completed appointments — 5.3 million at VA hospitals and clinics and 730,000 at community care providers since March 2014. “You’ve heard many times hat VA is broken. So I’ll answer one question: Can the Department of Veterans Affairs be fixed? Can it be transformed? The answer is yes. Absolutely. Not only can it be transformed, transformation is well underway and we’re already seeing results,” he said. VA launched a massive restructuring in 2015 following the appointment of McDonald, who was hired in the wake of a scandal over appointment wait times that led to the resignation of then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. The MyVA reform effort is designed to overhaul the VA’s administrative practices and improve services, including disability claims processing, health care and outreach to homeless veterans. At the convention, McDonald was introduced as the “man with the toughest job in the country.” Veterans of Foreign Wars incoming commander Brian Duffy said the organization supports McDonald’s goals to fix the VA. “Our job as veterans advocates is to ensure the VA’s success,” Duffy said. McDonald’s address came between speeches by the presidential hopefuls at the conventions and following the release late last month of a blue ribbon panel’s review of veterans affairs health. Presumed Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton pledged Monday to reduce wait times for medical care, improve coordination between military and VA health care coverage, boost programs for female veterans and to “end the epidemic of veteran suicide.” Following McDonald’s delivery, Republican nominee Donald Trump promised a massive overhaul of the VA but also pledged not to dismantle the government-backed veterans health care system. McDonald said under the guidance of Undersecretary of Health Dr. David Shulkin, VA is changing its approach to treating patients. “VA health care is ‘whole-veteran’ health care — body, mind and soul, customized to meet veterans needs. Yoga? Acupuncture? Sports therapy, music therapy, writing and art therapy? We validate and embrace what works to heal veterans,” he said.

Commentary: The VA’s luxury art obsession (Forbes)
Adam Andrzejewski, Founder/CEO, OpenTheBooks.com: In the now-infamous VA scandal of 2012-2015, the nation was appalled to learn that 1,000 veterans died while waiting to see a doctor. Tragically, many calls to the suicide assistance hotline were answered by voicemail. The health claim appeals process was known as “the hamster wheel” and the appointment books were cooked in seven of every ten clinics. Yet, in the midst of these horrific failings the VA managed to spend $20 million on high-end art over the last ten years – with $16 million spent during the Obama years. A joint investigation by COX Media Washington, D.C. and our organization, OpenTheBooks.com found that the VA bought Christmas trees priced like cars and sculptures that cost more than five-bedroom homes. Then, there’s the two sculptures – with a price tag of $670,000 – for a VA center serving veterans who are blind. Recently at Forbes, we released our oversight report entitled, “The VA Scandal Two Years Later.” The VA added 39,454 new positions to their payroll between 2012-2015, but fewer than one in 11 of these new positions (3,591) were ‘Medical Officers,’ i.e. doctors. Today, nearly 500,000 sick veterans are still wait-listed for an appointment because there just aren’t enough doctors. Instead of hiring doctors to help triage backlogged veterans, the VA’s bonus-happy bureaucracy spent millions of dollars on art. … In an ironic vignette, at a healthcare facility dedicated to serving blind veterans – the new Palo Alto Polytrauma and Blind Rehabilitation Center – the agency wasted $670,000 on two sculptures no blind veteran can even see. The “Helmick Sculpture” cost $385,000 (2014) and a parking garage exterior wall façade by King Ray Studio for the “design, fabrication, and installation of the public artwork” cost $285,000 (2014). Between 2009 and 2014, the VA spent over $610,000 on artwork for the new healthcare facility in San Juan, Puerto Rico – including transactions with the upscale Omart Gallery ($56,100). The VA spent another $560,000 on art for three healthcare facilities: Minneapolis VA Medical Center ($242,933); Biloxi, MS ($168,467); and Salem, VA ($148,482). The Biloxi VA centers were part of the seven “most troubled” VA facilities during the 2014 wait-time scandal. But at least they were well-decorated. Our data shows millions of dollars spent on seemingly small transactions quickly added up. For example, $55,000 was spent on the “Metal Art Tree of Life with Leaves and Doves” and just two upholstered cornice window treatments cost nearly $16,000. The affinity for art at the VA has been going on for a long time, but since 2008 the sheer amount of artwork disclosed by the VA increased dramatically. According to federal records captured by OpenTheBooks.com, the VA purchased $1.515 million in artwork (2004-2007). Then, during 2008 through 2014, the VA spent 16.2 million on artwork, art consulting and restoration services plus another $2 million on special projects. All of this artwork comes with a long-term price tag in the form of diminished care for our veterans. During the peak of media attention on the wait-time scandal in 2014, the VA contracted with Northern California Art Conservators to “restore, collaborate, and coordinate installation of historical pieces” at a cost of more than $410,000. Now the VA says they are going to change the rules on high-end art procurement. But, there’s a catch – a draft of these rules won’t be public for at least 90 days, and the VA has a terrible history of slow-walking or ignoring reforms. So, let’s make it easy on the VA administrators with a simple, low-cost solution: start using the artwork of veterans. Let veterans benefit from the artwork they create within the PTSD and therapy programs. Blind veterans can’t see fancy sculptures, and all veterans would be happier if they could just see a doctor.

Lawyers sue VA over bogged-down appeals process for vets (Law.com)
Two King & Spalding lawyers in Atlanta, John Chandler and Beth Tanis, are leading an unusual and ambitious pro bono suit with Stephen Raber at Williams & Connolly in Washington to try and force the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs to speed up decisions on veterans’ disability claims. They filed mandamus petitions for 17 veterans and their survivors on July 21 with the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, asking the court to declare unconstitutional the lengthy delays in the VA’s appeals process—which takes on average four years—and to order the VA to expedite appeals for veterans whose disability claims are denied. The lawyers are asking the court to consolidate the 17 individual petitions—and Chandler said they will be filing more. “We’ve got veterans coming in out of the woodwork who want to participate,” he said. According to VA data cited in the suits, it takes an average of 1,448 days from when the VA denies a veteran’s disability claim to when the Board of Veterans Appeals rules on the appeal. Meanwhile, thousands of veterans die before their appeals are decided. This violates the veterans’ due process guarantees under the Fifth Amendment, the petitions say. “All the lawsuits are about the same thing—due process,” Chandler said. “We want this court to decide if a four-year delay in the handling of appeals is a denial of due process. Is this constitutional or is it not?” Chandler and Tanis, who are married, have taken on the litigation through the American College of Trial Lawyers, where both are fellows. The group’s president, Michael Smith, connected them with Raber, who recruited more Williams & Connolly lawyers to help. Chandler said he’s been working on expediting veterans’ disability benefits appeals for three years through an American College of Trial Lawyers committee that he heads. “A lot of us are veterans and are very interested in this issue,” he said. Chandler served two years in the Army in Germany after he was drafted during Vietnam. Tanis is not a veteran, but both her parents served in the Navy during World War II.

Vets groups fight back in constitutional battle over VA’s firing of Sharon Helman (AZCentral)
The legal battle over former Phoenix VA Health Care System Director Sharon Helman’s firing has taken a new twist with a coalition of veterans’ groups asking the federal courts to let them fight for a key reform law that the U.S. Justice Department refuses to defend. The Veterans of Foreign Wars and other service organizations are seeking to uphold a reform statute passed by Congress in 2014 to increase the Department of Veterans Affairs’ authority to remove senior VA executives for misconduct and incompetence. Helman, a convicted felon who was at the epicenter of the nation’s scandal over delayed care for veterans, was fired last year after investigators found she failed to disclose thousands of dollars in gifts from a medical-industry lobbyist who previously was her VA boss. That termination was upheld by an administrative law judge, whose decision was deemed final under the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014. Helman sued in federal court, arguing that the Choice Act violates the so-called “appointments clause” of the U.S. Constitution. Her attorneys contend that, under that clause, an administrative judge is not a presidential appointee and therefore cannot be the final arbiter of termination. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced last month that she agrees with Helman’s lawyers and will not defend the Choice Act’s firing provisions. VA Secretary Bob McDonald followed up by declaring he will not longer use executive-removal authority provided under the law. Those decisions set off a chorus of criticism from Congress. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the Obama administration’s position suggests “the sanctity of a federal bureaucrat’s job is far more important than than the health and well-being of our veterans.” In a subsequent letter to McDonald, McCain added, “You are unilaterally refusing to enforce key elements of this very law. This decision is unconscionable and outrageous.” Lynch’s decision fueled speculation that Helman could be reinstated to her VA job even though she pleaded guilty to filing a false financial-disclosure statement and was sentenced in May to two years of probation. Helman’s lawyers have asked the U.S. Court of Appeals to throw out the entire section of the Choice Act pertaining to executive terminations. They claim she became a scapegoat during the nationwide VA scandal and was fired in a “politically motivated, congressionally driven witch hunt.” The Justice Department wants the court to rule portions of the law unconstitutional while remanding Helman’s case for reconsideration. Now, a dozen veterans organizations are asking to intervene on behalf of millions of active-duty and retired military personnel who rely on the VA for medical care. Their brief, filed last week, says Helman’s attorneys and the Justice Department have teamed up “to have this provision struck down without any adversarial presentation of the issues, analysis of the substantial arguments and authorities supporting the statute’s constitutionality, or even considering less extreme remedies.” The VFW, AMVETS, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and other groups contend that the U.S. Court of Appeals lacks jurisdiction to hear the case. They also say the appointments clause “does not apply.” In their brief, the groups claim to have “a compelling interest in ensuring that our nation’s 25 million veterans … receive the highest quality health care through the VA system.” Neither Helman’s legal team nor the Justice Department has responded to the request from veterans’ organizations. Helman is one of four Phoenix VA officials fired in the aftermath of the nationwide VA crisis that began in April 2014. The other three still have appeals pending before the Merit Systems Protection Board.

Congressional committee seeks Baton Rouge gunman’s VA records (MilitaryTimes)
The chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Veterans Affairs has requested all VA medical records for the former Marine who killed three law enforcement officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Florida Rep. Jeff Miller sent a letter dated July 21 to the Department of Veterans Affairs requesting records for Gavin Long, an Iraq war veteran. The Republican also asked for a briefing about the VA services Long received, saying the committee would “not accept any restriction placed on the information.” VA spokeswoman Walinda West confirmed Monday that the department received Miller’s letter, saying only that the VA would “respond directly to the chairman’s office.” Long’s mother, Corine Woodley, told PBS’ Tavis Smiley that her son had post-traumatic stress disorder and unsuccessfully sought the VA’s help. Woodley said her son received a letter from the VA denying his request for PTSD treatment in 2013, on grounds that it wasn’t related to his military service. She has declined to talk to The Associated Press. Kansas Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a member of the House committee, said Miller was pushing for the information but that VA officials often wait months to answer or “give you a non-answer.” “It seems there might be something there, but we don’t yet know, and the VA is so far stonewalling,” Huelskamp said after a town hall meeting Monday in St. Marys, Kansas. Authorities say Long killed Baton Rouge police officers Montrell Jackson and Matthew Gerald, and East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff’s deputy Brad Garafola during a shootout July 17. The attack followed protests sparked by the death of Alton Sterling, who was black, by white police officers. Investigators said they don’t know if Long was responding to Sterling’s death, but that Long deliberately targeted officers.

Groups seek to help veteran held as motel hostage for years (MarineCorpsTimes)
Veterans’ organizations have reached out to help a Korean War-era veteran who authorities say was held hostage in a motel room for four years by a man who stole his benefit checks. Groups in New York, Ohio and Virginia have offered assistance to David McLellan, an 81-year-old Navy veteran and retired auto plant worker, said Highlands police Detective Joseph Cornetta. Last week, police arrested 43-year-old Perry Coniglio at the motel where both men lived and charged him with grand larceny, menacing and endangering the welfare of an incompetent person. Coniglio used “brute force and intimidation” to get McLellan to hand over monthly Ford Motor Co. pension and Social Security checks totaling several thousand dollars, police said. He also is accused of selling McLellan’s vehicle and keeping the proceeds after telling the buyers that he was the older man’s guardian. Coniglio remained in the county jail on $15,000 bail Monday. Messages seeking comment on the accusations against him were left for his Legal Aid Society attorney. Police said the thefts began soon after McLellan, who has no known relatives, moved out of his condemned house in nearby Fort Montgomery in 2012 and rented a room at the U.S. Academy Motel in Highlands, about 50 miles north of New York City. McLellan was already showing signs of dementia when he moved, the detective said, and Coniglio “immediately sized up the victim” upon renting a room next door to him. When police raided the $200-a-week motel on July 19, they asked McLellan how long he had been living there. His response: “About four days.” “He said that to me over and over again,” Cornetta said. The detective said the initial investigation began earlier this month as a financial crimes probe after someone tipped him off that McLellan’s monthly benefits checks were being stolen. When someone provided video showing the older man being threatened by a stick-wielding Coniglio outside his room, officers working out of the town police station located next door to the motel arrested him, Cornetta said. McClellan’s room was dirty and cluttered, and he likely hadn’t bathed in months when police arrested Coniglio, Cornetta said. Initial reports said McLellan was a Marine Corps veteran, but Cornetta said he served in the Navy as a corpsman, or medic, in the early 1950s. As a corpsman McLellan would have served with Marine units. McLellan remained hospitalized Monday and is now under the care of Orange County Veterans Services, Cornetta said. Veterans groups wishing to help McLellan are being referred to the agency. A county spokesman said state law prevents him from commenting on what services McLellan is receiving. But he said typical services in such circumstances could include food, shelter and counseling. Former Marine Augustino von Hassell of New York City said he was seeking to help McLellan and hopes eventually “to find him a place where he can live in dignity.” “All I’m trying to do is help a fellow veteran any way I can,” von Hassel said