September 21 Veterans News

September 21 Veterans News

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American Legion celebrates 100 years (The Gazette)
The American Legion is hoping its upcoming 100th birthday will bring renewal to one of the nation’s largest and quickly graying veterans organizations. The Legion’s national commander, Charles Schmidt, said during a weeklong Colorado visit that he wants the organization to focus on its accomplishments and press forward with programs for children in a bid to draw younger veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan to its ranks. “That’s where the rubber meets the road,” said Schmidt, an Air Force retiree from eastern Oregon. Schmidt, who served nearly 27 years in the Air Force, said he was a reluctant Legionnaire at the start. His brother, a longtime Legion member, continually pressed him to join, but Schmidt said he didn’t see the point. “I was a little bit stubborn,” he said. Eventually, he gave in and began seeing the virtue of the group, which was founded in the wake of World War I. Schmidt said that while the Legion provides veterans camaraderie they lack after they leave the military, it also provides advocacy in Congress and hard-fighting help for veterans struggling with benefit claims. Additionally, it provides educational programs for students and its post are loaded with community volunteers – its 2.4 million members provide nearly 4 million hours of community service annually – which Schmidt thinks could be key for growing the Legion. “We have to get out in communities and schools and share those programs,” he said. That could arrest the shrinking of the Legion, which like other veterans groups has suffered declining membership as the generations that battled World War II and the Korean War age, he said. The Legion plans 18 months of celebrations for the centennial of the group. First, the Legion is continuing its fight to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs. The Legion, while nonpartisan, is backing a set of reforms before Congress that would give the VA broader power to discipline employees while streamlining the appeals process for veterans denied benefits. The easier discipline is something organizations including the VA have sought since 2014 after it was revealed that the agency had big backlogs for medical care, leaving some veterans to die while waiting for appointments. … As of Sept. 1, more than 23 percent of veterans seeking care there were waiting a month or more, VA records show. Schmidt said giving VA leaders more power to discipline workers could cause the agency to reform itself, streamlining care. The appeals waits need work, too. The VA has spent two years cutting its backlog of pending claims, but many of those claims have been denied and landed in an appeals process. “Veterans have waited months or years for the appeals to be adjudicated,” Schmidt said. He wants speedy appeals so veterans swiftly get the benefits they have earned, he said. The Legion, though, is resisting a wider reform proposal backed by lawmakers including Washington Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers. That plan, which has drawn admirers including Colorado Springs Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, would give veterans wider access to private care outside the VA. The Legion fears the proposal could damage VA hospitals and clinics while putting veterans with war-caused problems in the care of civilian doctors unfamiliar with their military maladies. “The American Legion’s position is not to privatize,” Schmidt said. “Who has better experience in taking care of veterans than the Department of Veterans Affairs?”

Vets slam Northport VA during congressional hearing on Long Island (CBS New York)
Accusations of patient neglect and suicide consumed much of a congressional hearing on veteran’s affairs at a VA hospital on Long Island on Tuesday. Northport VA Medical Center Director Phil Moschitta says the hospital did not turn away a patient that later committed suicide in the hospital’s parking lot, WCBS 880’s Mike Xirinachs reported. Earlier this year, Peter Kaisen, 76, a retired police officer from Islip, was found in a parking lot at the medical center suffering from a gunshot wound to the head. “There weren’t suicides here,” Moschitta said. “There weren’t two veterans. One was a staff employee, the other one by a car exam, indicated that he died of other issues. So you’re gonna see a continuous array of falsehoods because people have other issues here.” His wife, Joan Kaisen, told Newsday earlier this year he had been suffering from back pain so bad he was unable to sit for more than a few minutes. Doctors at Northport told her husband earlier this year there was nothing more they could do to ease his suffering, she said. As CBS2’s Carolyn Gusoff reported, veterans expressed their frustration with their treatment at the facility. “They don’t care if they help you or not,” Joe Caffiero said. “The medical department is in shambles,” Hutch Dubusque said, “They delayed my operation for over 3 months.” The hearing was called by Long Island’s congressional delegation following a deluge of complaints. “I don’t want to see this with any other vet. They’re there giving their lives for us and this is pathetic,” Kaisen said. Moschitta told the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs that the FBI investigation will clear the hospital of what he called “false charges.” Moschitta instead blamed the accusations on what he called “false agendas.” “I’m not interested in pointing fingers, I’m interested in getting to the bottom of this and getting solutions,” Rep. Steve Israel, who is a member of the Committee on Veterans’ affairs, said. The grilling eventually turned to crumbling infrastructure — leaky roofs, flooding, and the shuttering of operating rooms due to rust particles in ducts. “I’m looking at the ceiling here. Is that bad duct work that has black material?” Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-NY) asked. “I’m not an expert, but we clearly have to clean it.” There have also been allegations of fraud, that the staff cold called patients to pad bills. “There is not fraud,” Moschitta said, “We would welcome someone coming in and taking a look.” Moschitta blamed federal funding — often requested, rarely delivered. “The ultimate responsibility is not to hold a field hearing, it’s to vote on long term veterans budgets,” Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY) said. At the end of the hearing, committee members said it’s just the beginning of the investigation, a possible audit, and improved communication. Members said it shouldn’t have to take a congressional hearing to find out about veterans care. The FBI is reviewing surveillance videos and hospital records to determine if Kaisen was first turned away.

Critics say Trump’s economic plan could cripple VA programs (MilitaryTimes)
Critics of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump are saying his promises to reap big savings through small cuts to nondefense federal spending could have a disastrous effect on Veterans Affairs funding over the next decade. During a speech before the Economic Club of New York on Thursday, Trump outlined plans for a $4.4 trillion tax cut “to stop the outflow of jobs from our country and open a new highway of jobs back into our country.” To pay for that and increased military spending, Trump promised to save $1 trillion over the next decade through “simple, common sense reforms” amounting to a 1 percent cut in nonmilitary federal programs. Other money would come from money theoretically generated by increased trade and economic success. While many economists have disputed those latter savings, officials from the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities focused their concerns on the 1 percent cut, saying it will quickly compound into major cuts for government services once inflation is factored in. “By the tenth year, non-defense appropriations would be about 29 percent below current levels, after accounting for inflation,” the group wrote in a report responding to Trump’s speech. “The category of funding targeted by the Trump plan covers a wide range of basic services, from veterans’ medical care to scientific and medical research, border enforcement, education, child care … and maintenance of harbors, dams, and waterways.” In his speech, Trump reiterated his campaign promise that he would “take care of our vets who are treated so badly” but did not specify whether that would include exempting the Department of Veterans Affairs from budget cuts. Campaign officials did not respond to requests seeking clarification. Trump did specify that military spending and entitlement spending would not be cut, and promised that middle-class families would see their tax bills cut by a third under his plan. Officials from the campaign of his Democratic rival, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, called the potential cut to veterans services another example of Trump being unfit to serve as commander in chief. “Once again Donald Trump has shown his true colors when it comes to our veterans,” said campaign deputy foreign policy adviser Bishop Garrison, an Army veteran. “His latest revamp of his economic plan is for tax cuts that benefit the wealthy and large corporations while cutting investments in important priorities, veterans in particular. “Put plainly, when you cut non-defense discretionary spending, you hurt veterans and their families.” Clinton has promised to prioritize “full-funding and advance appropriations for the entire Department of Veterans Affairs” if she becomes president. The White House has requested a VA budget for fiscal 2017 of more than $177 billion, not including advance appropriations for certain health care programs in fiscal 2018. The agency is the second largest in terms of annual spending, behind the Defense Department. Department officials have argued that annual increases in their funding are needed to keep pace with inflation and new services required by Congress. Over the last two years, they’ve fought against congressional plans to trim the president’s VA budget request by about 1 percent, saying it could seriously hurt their ability to deliver care and assistance to veterans. But a growing number of Republicans on Capitol Hill have questioned whether officials have done enough to improve efficiency and root out waste in veterans programs. Even with their proposed smaller budget for fiscal 2017, the department would see a boost of more than 3 percent from this fiscal year.

$4 million in federal funds allotted to open more veteran treatment courts (Stars and Stripes)
Four days after Tim Wynn return home from Iraq, the former Marine Corps sergeant was arrested in Philadelphia on assault charges. In subsequent years, he was arrested six more times. For Wynn, who participated in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, there was “really no transition back” from war, he said. He struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse. After his last arrest, Wynn was referred to the Philadelphia veterans treatment court, where he was required to meet regularly with a judge while attending treatment sessions and undergoing random testing for drugs and alcohol. The court saved his life, Wynn said. “I got the attention I needed, the right attention,” he said. “All of a sudden, you’re focused on a mission again. That’s what we’re used to. And, of course, that mission was recovery.” Now, Wynn tells his story in an effort to help expand veteran treatment courts across the United States, which the Department of Justice announced Tuesday it would give $4 million to establish. Veterans are more likely to suffer from mental health issues, which can lead to substance abuse and a fall into the criminal justice system, Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald said Tuesday. According to a 2015 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 181,500 veterans were in state and federal prisons or local jails in 2011 and 2012, 43 percent of whom had four or more previous arrests. Veterans treatment courts aim to keep veterans, particularly ones with mental health or substance abuse issues, from relapsing into criminal behavior. Most courts have a VA-employed coordinator to link veterans to resources such as housing, disability compensation and educational benefits. The system also relies on volunteer mentors. To help improve veterans’ access to the courts, the Department of Justice will award the $4 million to establish 13 of them in 11 states, Associate Attorney General Bill Baer said Tuesday. Justice Department grants totaling about $300,000 each will be given to counties and judicial districts in Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Florida, Virginia, Montana, Missouri, California, Texas, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. “They combine rigorous treatment and personal accountability to break the cycle of drug use and criminal behavior,” Baer said. Tuesday’s announcement was made as part of President Barack Obama’s weeklong campaign on heroin and opioid addiction. More so, the Obama administration is pushing Congress to pass the president’s $1.1 billion proposal to increase access to medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction. In terms of veterans treatment courts, there are now 463 across the country, though they don’t exist in every state. … Denise O’Donnell, director of the DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, said besides treatment courts, she’d like to see more efforts put toward treating veterans before they’re arrested. “Ideally, I’d like veterans to be diverted before they come into the criminal justice system,” she said. Part of an approach to stop veterans from being incarcerated is to prevent them from developing substance abuse issues, McDonald said. He said substance abuse often starts with opioids, which veterans are ten times more likely to use than the average American. Caroline Clancy, an assistant deputy undersecretary with the VA, said in the past, the VA and other health care systems were “too enthusiastic” with prescribing opioid painkillers. “All too often, that substance abuse begins with opioids prescribed by [the Department of Defense] or VA doctors for service-related conditions,” McDonald said. Last year, after Marine Corps veteran Jason Simcakoski died at a VA medical center of a toxic reaction to multiple medications, Congress ordered the VA to more strictly limit opioid prescriptions for chronic pain management. The VA has cut the number of VA patients on opioids by 25 percent since 2012, McDonald said.

Sen. Moran chastises VA secretary for employee’s sexual misconduct at VA hospital (cnsnews.com)
Sen. Jerry Moran, (R-KS) chastised Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Robert McDonald for “one of the worst examples of lack of accountability at the VA” in a case involving the alleged sexual abuse of veterans at the VA Eastern Kansas Health Care System in 2014. “We face one of the worst examples, in my view, of lack of accountability at the VA with the case of a physician assistant who abused Kansas veterans at the Leavenworth VA hospital, and potentially other veterans at other facilities within our state,” Moran told McDonald last week during a hearing of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “He’s been criminally charged with multiple counts of sexual assault and abuse on numerous veterans who sought his care and his counsel,” Moran continued. “He had a criminal record, admitted on his application for state licensure when he was hired. The VA hired him anyway. “And clearly, he should never have been hired and should never have been retained as an employee of the VA,” Moran stated. The former VA employee, Mark Wisner, has been charged with aggravated sexual battery and three misdemeanors for allegedly conducting “unnecessary and improper genital examinations” of at least seven patients at the VA hospital. A trial date was set for October 31 in Leavenworth County District Court. McDonald responded by stating that “accusations of sexual assault and molestation are unacceptable,” and said that he personally traveled to Leavenworth to investigate the accusations. “We need to get together and compare our data because what I understand from my visit and the documents I reviewed is when… there was an accusation of this individual’s potential of having done this, we immediately removed him from caring for patients,” McDonald testified. “We immediately started the procedure to do an investigation and to fire him. He resigned, and we went back and we looked at our hiring process, and what I was told at the time, and again you’ve got different data so I’ve gotta find out why I didn’t see the data you may have or where you got your data. There was nothing in his file that suggested that this was a risk, that this occurred. So obviously you’ve got different data than I have. “Because this is not something we would tolerate, and obviously if this showed up in a person’s hiring process we would not hire them,” McDonald testified. The VA Secretary also stated that Wisner resigned while the investigation was still being conducted. “Are you telling me that when someone resigns you lose your ability to fire them? So are you telling me that he beat you to the punch?” Moran asked. “When somebody resigns they’re no longer an employee,” McDonald responded. “That’s true in the private sector or the public sector. If someone resigns, they’ve resigned.” The exchange took place after Sen. Moran sent McDonald a letter on September 6th requesting more information on the VA’s standards regarding employee hiring and firing. “Recent reports and evidence of Mr. Wisner’s medical credentials show that he admitted he was convicted of a crime when applying for his state licensure,” the letter stated. “It is unclear whether the VA investigated Mr. Wisner’s criminal record as part of his application process and hiring by the VA.” According to a statement released by the VA to KSHB-TV in Kansas City, criminal charges were filed against Wisner after the VA investigated the allegations of sexual abuse. The statement added that “all VA employees are required to undergo a background investigation commensurate with their position’s risk level,” but “there were no reports or disclosures” in Wisner’s case “that would have indicated a potential problem.” … At the hearing, Sen. Moran pressed the VA Secretary to respond to his letter “in writing so that we can see your response and we can have a conversation again.” He also asked McDonald to use this case “as a learning experience. Not only to help prosecute so that we can send the message to veterans about how careful we are, but again, in my view, [it] goes back to [the VA’s] hiring practices and discharge procedure.”

VA warned repeatedly about cost overruns of $1.7 billion hospital (The Denver Post)
A cost overrun of more than $1 billion at the VA hospital under construction in Aurora was the fault of agency officials who ignored repeated warnings about its price and went ahead with plans to build a medical facility that one contractor compared to a shopping mall, according to an investigation made public Wednesday. The 82-page report by the internal watchdog at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs identifies several instances in which VA leaders turned a blind eye toward problems with the new facility, which won’t be finished before January 2018. And even then it won’t be ready. The VA estimates the nearly $1.7 billion facility — once expected to cost $604 million — will need at least six more months and another $315 million before it will have the furniture and equipment it requires. “This means veterans will not likely be served by a fully functioning facility before mid-to-late 2018 or almost 20 years after VA identified the need to replace and expand its aging facility in Denver,” the investigators wrote. The report by the internal watchdog at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs identifies several instances in which VA leaders turned a blind eye toward problems with the new facility, which is now expected to open no earlier than the middle of 2018. Five years ago, the $1.7 billion facility was estimated to cost $604 million, and VA officials said as recently as October 2015 that it would be ready by early 2018. “VA officials disregarded warnings, internally and externally, that cost estimates were exceeding its budget,” noted investigators with the VA Office of Inspector General. Further, the authors wrote that Glenn Haggstrom, the VA construction chief at the time, knew of the likely cost increases but “did not share this information with Congress” when he was called to testify in May 2013 and April 2014. … A major reason for the cost hike, according to the report, was the design’s over-emphasis on aesthetics — starting with a narrow, 1,100-foot-long concourse that runs through the center of the medical complex like a human spine, connecting with other buildings as if they were limbs. Not only did this feature see its own cost rise, from $81.4 million in 2011 to $120.7 million in 2015, but investigators said the VA was told by one of its consultants, Jacobs Engineering Group, that this kind of layout would increase the whole project’s cost. “A Jacobs official told the former VA Denver project executive that the layout of the hospital was unusual, more closely resembling a shopping mall than a hospital,” according to the report. In addition, an unnamed Jacobs employee said he raised concerns in 2011 about the cost and design but was rebuffed. “He stated that the response from VA officials was that it was too late to make sweeping changes to the design,” investigators wrote. Indeed, the VA reviewed about $402 million in cost reduction proposals as late as January 2013 but either rejected them or ignored them, according to the report. The office of the inspector general also noted that other participants in the project flagged several cost problems early in the process, including Kiewit-Turner, the construction team contracted to build the Aurora hospital. According to the findings, some other design elements that raised the facility’s cost were garden patios, custom walls and floors and the development of an underground parking lot to “preserve mountain views.” Concluded investigators: “The design overly focuses on aesthetic features without adequate regard for associated costs or construction complexities.”

Senators seek inquiry into concerns about veteran’s suicide (CBS Denver)
Two U.S. senators said Tuesday they asked for an investigation into a whistleblower’s report that an Army veteran killed himself while awaiting treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder at a U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs clinic in Colorado Springs. Sens. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said they also asked the department’s inspector general to investigate whether the whistleblower faced retaliation after reporting his concerns. The inspector general’s office is the Veteran Affairs department’s internal watchdog. The department will work with the inspector general and the senators to determine what happened, agency spokesman Paul Sherbo said. The senators did not identify the soldier who killed himself but said he was 26 and had served as an Army Ranger. Gardner said he wanted to avoid a repeat of a 2014 scandal over long wait times that veterans endured to get health care, and allegations that some VA officials falsified records to cover up the problem. The scandal led to the ouster of Veteran Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. Gardner said the whistleblower also reported that the Colorado Springs clinic might have tampered with its wait list records after the veteran’s death. Seven months ago, the Veteran Affairs inspector general said workers at the Colorado Springs clinic incorrectly reported that some veterans got appointments sooner than they actually did. Investigators did not say whether the records were deliberately falsified.

Chicago to consider tax rebate for veterans, social-service volunteers (ilnews.org)
Nine aldermen from Chicago have proposed a property tax rebate for military veterans, Peace Corps volunteers and AmeriCorps volunteers. If approved, the $200 property tax rebate would take effect for fiscal year 2017 for those who apply and qualify. For every year thereafter, the rebate amount would be adjusted based on the Consumer Price Index. To be eligible for the property tax rebate, a person must have served in the U.S. military and been honorably discharged or must have completed service in the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps. Chris Lentino, manager of Chicago outreach for the Illinois Policy Institute, said that of the nine aldermen, six serve on the Chicago City Council’s veterans caucus. The primary sponsor of the measure is Alderman Gilbert Villegas of the 36th Ward. “As of right now, I haven’t heard anything for or against the proposed property tax rebate,” Lentino said. “It has been referred on to the Committee on Finance, which is chaired by Alderman (Ed) Burke, who is one of the co-sponsors and one of the members of the veterans caucus.” Lentino said he wasn’t sure how many property owners this particular tax rebate could benefit, but didn’t anticipate it being a large number. “It looks like it would pass in early October if they have a hearing on it, then take effect Jan. 1 because the city’s fiscal year starts with the calendar year,” Lentino said. Although the rebate is offered by the city, property taxes are managed by the county. Then the city’s comptroller would write a refund check for the determined amount. “The city has offered property tax rebates in the past for various groups, but some of those have had limited success because this relies on the individual to actually apply for the exemption, and if they don’t know it’s out there, you’ll have a limited amount of applicants,” Lentino said.

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