September 12 Veterans News

September 12 Veterans News

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VA seeks feedback on Camp Lejeune toxic water claims ruling (MilitaryTimes)
The Veterans Affairs Department on Friday moved a step closer to granting presumptive status for eight diseases associated with contaminated drinking water at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. VA officials on Friday opened the public comments period required to finalize the proposed regulation, according to an interim ruling published in the Federal Register. According to the announcement, the rule would designate the illnesses as service-connected and therefore eligible for disability compensation. Former troops, reserve and National Guard members who served at Camp Lejeune for no fewer than 30 days between Aug. 1, 1953, and Dec. 31, 1987, could be eligible if they have one of the eight following conditions: kidney cancer, liver cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, adult leukemia, multiple myeloma, Parkinson’s disease, aplastic anemia and other myelodysplastic syndromes, or bladder cancer. The days of service would not have to be consecutive, according to the announcement. Nearly 1​ million people — including troops, family members and civilian employees — were exposed to volatile organic chemicals and other cancer-causing agents in the base’s drinking water system from the 1950s through the 1980s. The contamination at the massive Marine Corps base was caused by the infiltration of runoff from dry cleaning companies, leaking under ground storage tanks and industrial spills near two water treatment facilities that supplied drinking water to the base’s housing complexes and barracks. The VA provides health care or reimbursement for related medical costs to affected veterans or family members with 15 illnesses known to be caused by chemical exposure, but it has not granted service connection for any conditions until now. Interested parties have until Oct. 11 to weigh in on the proposed rule via www.regulations.gov. The comment period is shorter than the usual 60 days, the VA noted, because at least 30 veterans have terminal illnesses that would qualify for compensation but may not live to see the ruling enacted if the comment period was extended. According to the proposed rule, claims received after the publication of the final rule and any pending claims that meet the criteria will be approved. Claimants who previously filed and were denied must file a new claim. North Carolina’s senators, Republicans Thom Tillis and Richard Burr, described the announcement as a “relief to see movement” in the effort to bring justice to affected troops and family members. “Now we begin the process of providing meaningful feedback to the VA about the details of the proposed program,” Tillis said. “I hope that the comment period will be substantive but swift.”

Learn More about Camp Lejeune’s Toxic Water

Contested VA reform bill going up for debate in House (Stars and Stripes)
The House is set to debate veterans legislation Tuesday containing contentious reform on how Department of Veterans Affairs employees are demoted and fired. In the bill, called the VA Accountability First and Appeals Modernization Act, are measures to do away with a lengthy appeals process, allowing the VA to fire employees more quickly. Also packaged in the bill is a set of new rules intending to shorten veterans’ waits to appeal a denial of disability benefits. Lawmakers will vote Wednesday on the bill, said Drew Florio, a staff member for Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the House majority leader. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., introduced the bill in July in response to a federal appeals board reversing a series of disciplinary actions against VA executives in malfeasance cases. “The biggest obstacle standing in the way of VA reform is the department’s pervasive lack of accountability among employees at all levels,” Miller said when introducing the bill. “Until this problem is fixed once and for all, long-term efforts to reform VA are doomed to fail.” In February, the Merit Systems Protection Board, which hears appeals from federal employees when they’re demoted or fired, reversed the VA’s attempt to fire Linda Weiss, the director of the Albany Stratton VA Medical Center, after revelations of mismanagement of patient care. Earlier board decisions reversed disciplinary actions against two executives, Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves, who collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in relocation incentives. The actions frustrated veterans service organizations and Deputy VA Secretary Sloan Gibson, who has said the board took away his ability to hold senior executives accountable. While VA leaders have agreed the process to dole out disciplinary action needs altered, the agency on Monday called some of the changes in Miller’s bill unconstitutional. “VA is committed to ensuring that employees are held accountable, but a number of the accountability provisions included in this legislation may be unconstitutional and may hinder VA’s ability to attract and retain the top talent necessary to ensure that our veterans are given the treatment and attention they have earned,” according to a VA statement. Under the bill, the MSPB would be removed from the process of disciplinary action against executives. Instead, the act would establish a new, three-member Senior Executive Disciplinary Appeals Board that would have 21 days to make a final decision on the termination or demotion of executives. The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents about 230,000 VA employees, sent a letter to the House on Friday also opposing Miller’s bill. Marilyn Park, with the AFGE, said it does away with employees’ due process rights. The bill would shorten the length of notice that employees receive before they’re fired or demoted, meaning they would have less time to build a case in their defense, Park said. The bill would also require the MSPB to issue a decision on a demotion or termination in 60 days. If the board failed to get to a case in that time, the VA’s decision would automatically be final. The latest data from the board shows it takes an average of 281 days to issue a decision. “It’s terrible for people to wait,” Park said. “But the reality is, if it takes 281 days now to get to most peoples’ cases, and you say 60 days, most people are going to get cut out.” In response to AFGE’s ongoing critique of the bill, Miller wrote an opinion piece for Military.com last week, saying the organization was demanding “to preserve the dysfunctional status quo of our federal personnel system.” McCarthy, in a written statement Friday, said the bill “represents the continued problem-solving needed to help transform and modernize the VA into a more responsive, effective and accountable institution.” In the statement Monday, the VA said it supports the part of the bill altering an “antiquated” system for appealing decisions on veterans’ benefits claims. Without reform to the appeals process, the number of cases pending would jump to 2.17 million by the end of 2027, and veterans would wait an average of three years to hear the outcome of their claims, according to the statement. For months, the VA has thrown its weight behind competing legislation, the Veterans First Act. That bill has been stalled in the Senate since it passed the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee in May with unanimous support. The Veterans First Act contains dozens of changes. Like Miller’s bill, some of the proposals are intended to streamline the appeals process for disability compensation and shorten the length of time – though less drastically — that a federal board has to decide whether an employee was rightly fired. Under the Veterans First Act, the MSPB would have a deadline of 90 days to issue a decision. VA Secretary Bob McDonald has said the VA “can’t fire our way to excellence.” In interviews and speeches to veterans service organizations the past few months, McDonald pushed Congress to pass a VA budget and stressed the importance of other reform measures. “We created a new law. It’s ready to go,” McDonald said of the Veterans First Act in a C-SPAN interview last week. “We simply have to get it passed. We can’t get it to the floor to get voted on.”

VA responds to distance, delays and denial investigation (KVUE)
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says it stands by its decision to send veterans thousands of miles away for transplant care. The KVUE Defenders teamed up with investigators around the country. They uncovered how the VA forces veterans to face distance, delays and denial for transplant care. The VA has 13 transplant centers. The investigation revealed some of those VA hospitals don’t do the work. Texas lung transplant recipients fly from Texas to Wisconsin to go to a partnering hospital. “I had an awesome career. It was a great honor to have served our nation,” said Aaron Arch, a veteran in need of a lung transplant. He flies from San Antonio to Madison, Wis. to get regular check-ups. “Our patients fly to Madison, Wisconsin, to go across the street to the local university,” said VA Whistleblower Jamie McBride. “The continuity of care is not there.” The VA delayed our request for an interview. Weeks passed. Excuses continued. The VA said their director was busy until KVUE’s nationwide story aired. Dr. William Gunnar, the VA Director of Surgery, agreed to meet in Washington with KVUE’s sister station in Atlanta, WXIA. “I can tell you that the risks imposed by distance did not translate to a risk of death,” said Gunnar. We showed him our notes based from a University of Pennsylvania study. It said VA patients with a “greater distance from a VATC or any transplant center was associated with lower likelihood of being waitlisted… and greater likelihood of death.” “Veterans that were more than 100 miles away from the closest transplant center are disadvantaged. They have less access to a lifesaving transplant which directly correlates to a higher chance of dying,” said Dr. David Goldberg, one of the researchers behind the study. Gunnar said the VA did its own study, prompted by the U Penn results. That VA study, Gunnar said, claims no increased death risk for the distance. We asked for a copy of the study. They wouldn’t release it. The VA’s findings are secret for now. Gunnar would only admit veterans who lived closer to a VA transplant center, like the one in Madison, do get faster care. “It is true that if you live within 100 miles of a transplant center, a VA transplant center, you will have your information evaluated in a few days ahead of those who live beyond 100 miles,” said Gunnar. The distance caused delays and, possibly, death for Pam Moore’s family. Moore claims the VA let her husband, John, die. They traveled from Minnesota to Texas trying to get a liver transplant. The day of John’s death, the VA called saying a liver was ready. “If it would have been done here, I think he would have had lived. I think he died unnecessarily. That’s truly what I believe,” said Moore. “It’s easy to criticize, it’s hard to provide a solution,” said Gunnar. A solution may already exist. McBride suggests all VA centers work like the transplant center in Madison: contract with local hospitals, save money and lives. “And my response to that is, I’ve provided a substantive response to that which is VA has established a long history or providing quality and timely transplant services. Yes, people travel. They generally have to travel,” said Gunnar. The VA changed its mind about Aaron Arch’s case. Immediately following our investigation, the VA agreed to pay for Arch’s transplant care in San Antonio. His medical file isn’t transferred, officially, yet. He still flies back and forth to Madison.

Senator wants answers from VA after Army veteran’s suicide (Stars and Stripes)
U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson wants answers from the Veterans Administration after a Wisconsin veteran killed himself. Johnson on Friday sent a letter to Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald, asking for all documents about 29-year-old Brian Rossell of Wausau, whose body was found Thursday in Lake Wausau. Rossell’s mother says her son had sought help from the Tomah VA this summer and was turned away. Johnson chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. In his letter, Johnson says Rossell’s apparent suicide “underscores concerns that the VA has yet to take full ownership of the systemic failures of the Tomah” facility. The Tomah facility was dubbed “Candy Land” by some veterans for its prescribing practices. The VA did not immediately respond to requests from The Associated Press for comment Saturday.

Veterans Affairs conducts internal investigation into Oklahoma City VA Medical Center (KOCO)
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is conducting a federal investigation into the Oklahoma City VA Medical Center, officials said. Wade Vlosich, director of the Oklahoma City VA Medical Center, said this investigation comes after multiple issues were discovered at the VA hospital over the summer. “As I arrived at this hospital, multiple things have come up,” Vlosich said. “What we are trying to do, is we’re trying to address any issues as they arise.” Vlosich began serving as director of the Oklahoma City VA Medical Center in June. The VA director would not tell KOCO 5 specifically what specific problems he has encountered or what department is being investigated. “In this instance, it was not one person involved in particular,’ Vlosich said. The investigation comes as the associate director of patient care services put in her resignation. VA officials said that her departure is for personal reasons and they would not confirm if it was related to this investigation. Vlosich said that multiple people have been interviewed and there are multiple investigations going on throughout the Oklahoma City VA. “The problem we have in this facility is that they have been without leadership for so long and now that I’m here, I’m looking through everything with a fine toothed comb and I’m going to correct any issues that come up,” Vlosich said. The director said veteran’s care will not be impacted during this investigation. Vlosich told KOCO 5 that since June 1 primary care wait times have gone from 7.41 days to 2.90 days. In addition, specialty care wait times have gone from 12.59 days to 10.26, days and mental health wait times have gone from 3.79 days to 2.44 days. Vlosich said they have hired 13 new doctors since June 1, which include both physicians and psychologists. The current investigation is being done internally, which means no other agencies are involved. The last time the Oklahoma City VA Medical Center was under federal investigation was in January 2016 when there were allegations of missed diagnoses and poor patient care.

Older veterans struggle to find employment (Cincinnati.com)
James Boggan, a 58-year-old Marine Corps veteran, says despite five months of joblessness his confidence is as high as ever. “I have a lot to offer employers – I’m versatile, I’m disciplined and on time and I don’t look 58,” the Hartwell resident said, holding a small stack of pamphlets and job search documents at the American Legion convention job fair last month. The job fair, focused on providing employment opportunities solely for veterans, was filled with a variety of mostly men of all ages and backgrounds. Some young, some old, others clean cut and others wandering in rumpled suits. Boggan, freshly shaved and slightly distracted by recruiters surrounding him, said he sometimes wonders if his age plays a part in the rejections he gets from employers. He quickly dismisses the idea. “I have no doubt I’ll get a job soon,” he said. Boggan is one of a growing group of veterans who cannot find work, where among the half million unemployed veterans in the U.S. in 2015, almost 60 percent are age 45 and over, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This number, which is steadily increasing, comes despite the plummeting veterans unemployment numbers in the last seven years. Veterans who have served since September 2001 saw their annual unemployment rise as high as 12.1 percent in 2011, and the rate for post-Sept. 11 veterans fell to 5.8 percent last year. Coupled with the fact that almost 20 percent of Americans 65 and older are now working, many older vets are out there looking for work but to no avail. Locally, 67 percent of the 145,870 veterans aged 45 and older in the Tristate are unemployed, according to the Tristate Veterans Community Alliance. While the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, prohibits employment discrimination based on age, according to AARP, two-thirds of older job applicants say they have seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace. “Of those, a whopping 92 percent say it is somewhat or very common,” states the study published in 2013, called Staying Ahead of the Curve. Dan Knowles, a spokesman for the Tristate Veterans Community Alliance, said there is an added layer of difficulty for older vets who look for work because of misconceptions about them. “Because of stereotypes, there are unconscious biases people have about former military members,” Knowles said. “There’s this idea that they have PTSD, or can’t fit into company culture. That’s untrue.” Knowles said other major barriers to employment in the region include lack of reliable transportation, lack of computer skills and lack of work history. … Knowles said there is a lack of communication and organization between the non-profits that provide services, which can hinder the employment situation. He added that many organizations are too reactive to the needs of out-of-work vets. “While many services are designed to provide crisis care, fewer are available for preventative services, under-employment, and peer support,” an August 2016 report for the Tristate Veterans Community Alliance says. “This leads to many veterans only able to seek emergency care for chronic debt, depression, substance abuse, and homelessness when they become a crisis.” “We should not wait until vets are homeless to help,” Knowles said.

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