October 24 Veterans News

October 24 Veterans News

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California guardsmen ordered to pay back bonuses (Military.com)
The U.S. Defense Department is ordering almost 10,000 one-time National Guardsmen from California to pay back enlistment bonuses, according to a news report. Many of the veterans have to pay back the bonuses, totaling as much as $15,000 or more, or face such penalties as interest charges and tax liens, according to an article published Saturday by David Cloud, a reporter for The Los Angeles Times. Like other branches of service, the Guard used enlistment bonuses to entice more people to enter the ranks a decade ago during the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, California Guard officials were found guilty of mismanaging the program. Indeed, eight current or former members of the California National Guard in 2014 were indicted on federal charges for fraudulently obtaining recruiting referral bonuses, according to The Associated Press. Veterans say they feel “betrayed” by having to return money for an error that wasn’t their fault, The Los Angeles Times reported. … California Guard officials have pledged to work with veterans who wish to file appeals to the National Guard Bureau and the Army Board for Correction of Military Records to wipe out the debts, according to the Los Angeles Times. Other parts of the Defense Department have mismanaged similar bonus programs. Earlier this year, the Pentagon’s bomb squad team was saddled with debt due to an accounting error. One member of the team committed suicide. The department agreed to forgive the debt after Military.com and The Washington Post reported on the case.

Lawmakers call California Guard bonus scandal ‘disgraceful’ and call for solutions (MilitaryTimes)
Lawmakers are demanding answers from Defense Department officials after reports that California National Guard leaders are forcing veterans to repay generous recruitment bonuses a decade after they enlisted because of clerical errors. But it’s not clear whether Congress will take any action to address the issue when members return from their election recess next month. On Saturday, a Los Angeles Times investigation uncovered nearly 10,000 soldiers involved in the enlistment bonus scandal, some of whom are facing significant financial hardships because of the California Guard’s actions. Many of the veterans were enticed to enlist by bonuses topping $10,000, and later served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. But recent audits by defense officials showed widespread overpayments in the program, originally designed to recruit only a select number of high-demand specialties. The military’s response has been to demand that veterans who should not have qualified for the payouts to return the money now, with interest. Lawmakers called that ridiculous. “It is disgraceful that the men and women who answered their country’s call to duty following September 11 are now facing forced repayments of bonuses offered to them,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., in a statement Sunday. “Our military heroes should not shoulder the burden of military recruiters’ faults from over a decade ago. They should not owe for what was promised during a difficult time in our country.” Fellow California Rep. Loretta Sanchez, a Democrat who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, called the news shocking and unacceptable. … In a statement to the Times, California Guard Deputy Commander Maj. Gen. Matthew Beevers said officials have considered absolving the debt, but “we just can’t do it. We’d be breaking the law.” So far, congressional leaders have not indicated a quick legislative fix to the matter. House Speaker Paul Ryan is scheduled to campaign in California this week on behalf of Republican candidates, and is likely to face questions on the issue. McCarthy said he’ll be requesting “a full brief from Army and National Guard leadership” and promised further investigation. Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., and ranking member on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, on Sunday called for Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to make the issue a top priority during the lame-duck session. “The solution to this ridiculous situation is an act of Congress,” he said in a statement. “I am also calling on the California National Guard and the Department of Defense to immediately suspend all efforts to retrieve improper payments while a legislative fix is passed. “This country owes a debt to our service members that we can never fully repay. It should never be the other way around.” On Monday, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said he has begun drafting a legislative fix with hopes of addressing the issue as soon as possible. In a letter, he urged to California National Guard leaders and Pentagon officials to stop the debt collections as Congress conducts a thorough investigation.” Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s veterans and military construction panel, echoed that call. “The administration should immediately intervene in the current collections and Congress should legislate a fix to prevent this mistake from growing larger,” he said in a statement Sunday. “These families have sacrificed enough and should not have to pay for mistakes of government bureaucrats.”

Veterans have fewer protections from shady college chains (MarketWatch)
Veterans are particularly vulnerable when colleges collapse and a new report highlights the extent of the challenges they face. Since fiscal year 2013, nearly 9,000 veterans were pursuing their education at a school that has since shut down, according to a report released Friday by the staff of Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.). “That number will only increase,” said Derek Fronabarger, the director of policy at Student Veterans of America, a student veterans advocacy group. That’s because the Department of Education recently terminated the recognition of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, which oversees hundreds of mostly for-profit schools. Without this accreditation the future of the schools may be in limbo, meaning many could shut down. Many of the veterans who attend college use the post-9/11 GI Bill — a benefit provided to them by the government as a reward for their service — to pay for school and housing. Lawmakers, borrower advocates and others have accused for-profit colleges of aggressively luring veterans in an effort to gain access to their GI Bill benefits. For-profit colleges can only receive 90% of their funding from federal student aid programs to stay in compliance with regulations, butGI Bill benefits don’t count toward that 90%. Since 2009, two schools, Corinthian Colleges, which collapsed last year, and ITT Tech, which closed earlier this year, took in more than $1 billion from taxpayers through the post-9/11 GI Bill, the report found. But there is little that the taxpayers or the veterans themselves can do to get that money back, even if they believe they were provided with a subpar education. When a school shuts down, veterans attending the college immediately lose access to their GI Bill benefits, putting them in a precarious financial situation, particularly if they were relying on the benefits to pay for housing. “While you thought you were going to be able to pay for your rent the next month, you find out you’re not going to be able to,” Fronabarger said. “If you can’t rely on the benefits coming in month to month, that’s a serious problem.” What’s more, once a veteran uses their benefit, that money is gone even if it was wasted on a school that ultimately closes or doesn’t provide them with a useful degree. That’s not commonly the case for federal student loan borrowers. Those who believe they’ve been defrauded by their schools can petition the government to have their loans wiped away. Borrowers attending a college when it closes can also get their federal loans back as long as they don’t finish up their program at another college. Some lawmakers, including Carper, have urged for changes in the law so that veterans affected by the closure of a college can restore the GI eligibility they used up at a school that closed. The report also recommends the Department of Veterans Affairs consider increasing oversight on schools receiving post-9/11 GI Bill funds. “Our nation’s veterans have earned their GI Bill benefits and they deserve to attain a high-quality education,” Carper, a veteran himself, said in a statement accompanying the report. “It is unfathomable to me that these brave men and women, who volunteered to serve their country in a time of war, are now being left in the lurch by some of the largest recipients of Post-9/11 GI Bill taxpayer dollars.”

VA treats patients’ impatience with clinical pharmacists (USA Today)
Something astonishing has happened in the past year to outpatient treatment at the Veterans Affairs hospital here. Vets regularly get next-day and even same-day appointments for primary care now, no longer waiting a month or more to see a doctor as many once did. The reason is they don’t all see doctors. Clinical pharmacists – whose special training permits them to prescribe drugs, order lab tests, make referrals to specialists and do physical examinations – are handling more patients’ chronic care needs. That frees physicians to concentrate on new patients and others with complex needs. A quarter of primary care appointments at the Madison hospital are now handled by clinical pharmacists since they were integrated in patient care teams in 2015. Several VA hospitals – in El Paso, Texas, and Kansas City, Mo., among them – have followed Madison’s approach and more than 36 others are considering it, according to hospital officials. “It’s made a tremendous positive impact in improving access,” said Dr. Jean Montgomery, chief of primary care services at the Madison hospital. That’s critical for the VA, the focus of a national scandal in 2014 after news reports revealed the Phoenix VA hospital had booked primary care appointments months in advance, schedulers falsified wait times to make them look shorter, and dozens had died awaiting care. Further investigations uncovered similar problems at other VA facilities. More than two years later, tens of thousands of vets are still waiting a month or two for an appointment, according to the latest data from the VA. The Obama administration has allowed some veterans to seek care in the private sector if they choose, but VA wait times remain long and more action is needed, the General Accountability Office reported in April. Expanding clinical pharmacists’ role is a solution. They receive two more years of education than regular pharmacists and they can handle many primary care needs for patients, particularly after physicians have diagnosed their conditions. The VA has had them for more than 20 years, but their growing involvement in patient care is more recent. This year it employs 3,185 clinical pharmacists with authority to prescribe medications, order lab tests and perform physical assessments – nearly a 50% increase since 2011. “It’s having a significant impact on reducing wait times and our office is trying to expand more of them nationally to increase access,” said Heather Ourth, national clinical program manager for VA Pharmacy Benefits Management. In 2015, VA clinical pharmacists wrote 1.9 million prescriptions for chronic diseases, according to a report co-authored by Ourth and published in September in the American Journal of Health System Pharmacy. A goal is to increase the use of clinical pharmacists to help patients with mental health needs and pain management. … Clinical pharmacists’ authority is determined at each VA hospital based on their training and knowledge. … “Some physicians feel like it’s a turf war and don’t want to refer their patients because they feel the clinical pharmacist is trying to practice medicine,” said Lanre’ Obisesan, a clinical pharmacist and assistant chief of pharmacy at the El Paso VA. Even so, the El Paso VA’s average wait time fell from two months to two weeks, he said, after it added several clinical pharmacists and gave them independence to help patients. About 30% of the VA patients in El Paso have used clinical pharmacists, Obisesan said.

Bodies switched at veterans’ hospital, family outraged (AOL)
A grieving family was horrified when they learn the body of their loved one was missing. “They lost my father’s body,” said Sara Sandoval, as she sat in her mother’s living room. Anthony Sandoval spent his last days at the VA Eastern Colorado Health Care center. After he died on Oct. 2, Anthony Sandoval’s remains were sent to one mortuary, while another man’s remains were sent to Sandoval’s family for cremation. The Navy veteran’s remains were misplaced for five days, leaving his family with feelings of guilt and a lot of unanswered questions. “Call it intuition call it whatever,” said Anthony Sandoval’s wife, Wilma Sandoval. “But I know he was telling me he was letting me know that I had to go find him.” “She kept telling me the next day ‘we gotta find your dad we gotta find your dad,'” said Sara Sandoval. “‘He’s telling me he’s not where he’s supposed to be, he’s afraid, he’s scared he’s not where he’s supposed to be.'” They learned the VA had mixed up Anthony’s remains with someone else after Newcomer Mortuary alerted them the VA had delivered the wrong remains for cremation. “I understand they were short staffed,” said Sara Sandoval. “But this wasn’t an old pair of boots, this was two human bodies that they mixed up. This is my father. He wasn’t garbage. This was my dad.” Now, the VA is telling FOX31 Denver they admit their mistake and are working to correct the situation. After reaching out to VA administrators, officials sent Problem Solvers a statement that reads in part: “VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System takes full responsibility for the mistakes that occurred at the Denver VAMC. “We can confirm that the Denver VAMC has worked with the family to correct the situation and that the family has been in contact with Chief Counsel and was informed of the claims process. “Additionally, we conducted a thorough review of our procedures and have made the necessary changes to ensure these mistakes are not repeated.” After we contacted the VA, the family was able to get in touch with the agency’s attorney, who told them he would send them the appropriate paperwork to file a claim. “I want to make sure it never happens to anybody else. This is the worst nightmare anybody could imagine,” said Wilma Sandoval. They say no amount of money can compensate for what they’ve gone through.

Aurora VA hospital 78 percent complete, on track for early 2018 opening (Fox31 Denver)
After years of delays and claims of gross mismanagement, the new Veterans Affairs medical center in Aurora is getting closer to opening in early 2018. The cost of building a quarter-mile-long concourse rose from $81 million to more than $120 million, just one of the reasons the project was more than $1 billion over budget when Congress asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to take over a year ago. “It is a collaboration. It’s the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Veteran Affairs working together to build a state of the art medical facility for the veterans of Colorado,” said Eileen Williamson with the Army Corps of Engineers. The complex features 12 buildings covering 1.2 million square feet of space. With more than 200 years of construction experience, the corps said they’re back on schedule for a 2018 opening with the complex more than 78 percent complete. Despite the ongoing controversy about construction costs, 1,000 workers keep working on the complex seven days a week.

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