doctor-1149149_640Unqualified Doctors: After a local news station in Minnesota found that 300 brain-injured veterans in their area had been given medical evaluations by unqualified doctors, members of Congress asked the VA to look into the matter. After conducting an investigation, the VA has concluded that over 25,000 veterans had their compensation examinations performed by doctors who, by the agency’s own standards, were not qualified. As a result, the VA is now in the process of contacting these veterans to ask them to return for new examinations to address the severity of their Traumatic Brain Injuries. Moreover, VA Secretary Bob McDonald is taking the extraordinarily rare step of granting equitable relief for veterans who were wrongly denied benefits based on examinations by unqualified doctors. This means that some veterans could be received years of back-pay if it is discovered that the unqualified doctors indicated that their disability was less severe than it truly was. 

Appeals Reform: Both houses of Congress have proposed legislation which would alter many things at the VA. But fixing the broken appeals process is not among the proposals, despite the repeated requests of VA leadership. In a speech in Washington yesterday, VA Secretary Bob McDonald called the need for appeals reform an urgent matter, and claimed that if Congress does not act soon, the delays built in to the appeals process could persist for years to come. We wholeheartedly agree with Secretary McDonald that reform is needed to speed-up the appeals process, but we disagree with him on how to achieve that goal. McDonald has proposed, among other things, a ban on veterans submitting additional evidence in support of their claims once an appeal has been initiated. In our view, the elimination of unnecessary procedures and realignment of staff would achieve similar results without decimating the rights of veterans to support their claims for benefits.

Briefly:

  • Babies for Veterans: Veterans groups are unanimously supporting legislation which would permit the VA to offer In Vitro Fertilization treatment for veterans who suffered injuries to their reproductive systems during their military service. Currently, the VA is not permitted to offer such treatments due to legislation aimed at limiting abortion.
  • No More Choices: Several of the most prominent veterans groups, including VFW and Legion, are speaking-out against the many proposals that would expand the Veterans Choice program to allow any veteran to see private doctors at any time.
  • White House Chimes-in: In a blog post on the White House’s website, a veteran describes his frustration with the VA appeals process and thanks the President for his work on streamlining appeals. Somewhat ironically, the veterans describes seeking-out and submitting additional evidence in support of his appeal… something which Obama administration officials which to prevent veterans from doing.

Did you see an interesting story about veterans or the VA in the news today? Let us know by sending us an email (links@brokenVA.com) or by visiting the contact page. We’ll try to include your link in our next edition of Headlines.

GravesKimberlyDemotion Overturned: Late last week it was revealed that an administrative judge had reversed the demotion of Kimberly Graves (pictured), one of the VA employees implicated in the relocation scandal. A written decision has not yet been released, and the judge’s rationale is unclear.

Dangerous Phone System: When veterans experiencing emotional crises call the VA, they encounter a complex phone menu telling them to hang-up and dial a different number if they are having thoughts of suicide. One veteran wants that system changed. (If you or anyone you know has thoughts of suicide please reach-out for help: call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255, or chat online by visiting their website. You are not alone.)

Taking-Away Support: Across the country, many people who receive modest stipends from the VA to care for their severely disabled veteran family members are being told by the VA that their family members don’t need their support anymore.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy: VA Secretary Robert McDonald gave a speech last Friday during which he told the audience that people focus too much on the negative aspects of the VA while ignoring positive progress the agency is making.

For-Profit Education: As more and more controversy surfaces regarding the practices of for-profit colleges, some are calling for the VA to stop allowing veterans to spend their GI Bill money at these institutions.

Stop Pandering: As we reach the height of the Presidential primary season, many veterans are speaking out and demanding that candidates stop using veterans to score political points.

Did you see an interesting story about veterans or the VA in the news today? Let us know by sending us an email (links@brokenVA.com) or by visiting the contact page. We’ll try to include your link in our next edition of Veteran Links.

WWP_LogoMore Money, More Problems: The veterans’ charity Wounded Warrior Project has once again come under fire over its lavish spending habits, allegedly spending money on expensive hotels, plane tickets, and executive salaries rather than using the funds to help veterans.

Overhaul Appeals: VA Secretary Bob McDonald appeared before Congress yesterday to plead with the elected representatives to pass legislation that would overhaul the process for appealing VA decisions.

Appealing Punishment: Yesterday in Philadelphia, an administrative hearing was held to examine claims by Diana Rubens–one of the VA executives implicated in the relocation scandal–that her demotion and pay-cut were improper.

Deadly Delay: Barry Coates, a veteran who encountered long delays in receiving simple medical treatments at VA facilities, has died of Colon Cancer. He used the last years of his life to advocate for change within the VA so that other veterans could avoid similar fates.

Drug Cost Controversy: Jeff Miller, Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, is lashing out at a drug company that manufactures a cure for hepatitis C, saying that it is unconscionable that the company sells the pills for $900 in Egypt but charges $40,000 to American veterans.

Jailhouse VSO: Although incarcerated veterans cannot receive very many VA benefits, some imprisoned veterans in California have become Jailhouse Veterans Service Officers to help veterans get their disability benefits.

Lawmakers for Marijuana: A team of Senators and members of Congress have written to VA Secretary Robert McDonald urging him to lift restrictions which prevent VA physicians from discussing medical marijuana with patients.

People not Politics: After presidential candidate Donald Trump announced a fundraiser for veterans, one veterans organization says that it does not want the money, asserting that Trump is using veterans for “political stunts.”

Did you see an interesting story about veterans or the VA in the news today? Let us know by sending us an email (links@brokenVA.com) or by visiting the contact page. We’ll try to include your link in our next edition of Veteran Links.

DianaRubensBreaking the Silence: After invoking her Fifth Amendment rights during a hearing before Congress and escaping from criminal charges, Diana Rubens (pictured), one of the VA employees at the center of the relocation scandal, is expected to share her side of the story during a hearing challenging her discipline.

Overpayment Nightmare: After getting sent to jail on weapons charges, a Washington veteran diligently notified the VA of his status. The VA did not reduce his benefits due to his incarceration, but later said they made a mistake and demanded nearly $40,000.

Banished Veterans: An alarming number of foreign-born veterans of America’s armed forces have been deported from the United States over things as minor as possession of marijuana or getting into a bar fight.

Pills and Pesticides: After years of research, scientists are growing more confident that the mysterious disorder known as “Gulf War Illness” was caused by exposure to pesticides and the ingestion of pills meant to protect troops from nerve gas.

Medical Marijuana: A urologist who serves as the mayor of a California town and used to work at the VA says that in 1979 he provided marijuana to a patient at a VA hospital in order to help him cope with the effects of cancer treatment. His revelation comes amid increasing conversations regarding medical marijuana.

Delayed Veteran Card: Those veterans tired of carrying around their DD-214 to demonstrate their veteran status will have to wait a little longer for a new federal ID card for veterans, which the VA says will not be ready until 2017.

Did you see an interesting story about veterans or the VA in the news today? Let us know by sending us an email (links@brokenVA.com) or by visiting the contact page. We’ll try to include your link in our next edition of Veteran Links.

VAOIGWe all get unwanted magazines, advertisements, and credit card offers in the mail. I usually let them pile up in my kitchen for while until I decide to just throw out the lot of them. A new report from the VA’s Office of the Inspector General reveals that the VA’s St. Petersburg Regional Office has taken a similar approach to mail it receives from veterans who have filed claims for benefits.

According to the report, investigators “observed a large amount of hard copy sensitive veteran information haphazardly commingled with contract company documentation, excess office furniture, and empty computer boxes that appeared to be trash.” The report concluded that the problem appeared to be a consequence of the St. Petersburg VA’s failure to make adequate arrangements for the processing of mail it received.

All told, the investigation found that more than 41,900 mail packages were allowed to pile-up. According to the anonymous tipster who initially brought attention to the problem, due to the delay in opening mail and adding it to the system, “claims were processed in the absence of supporting evidence.” This allegation, coupled with the findings from the Inspector General, offer credence to the notion that the VA’s recent efforts to reduce the backlog of claims has resulted in a push for quantity rather than quality.

The report also raised concerns about security protections for the VA mail and records that were sent to the private facility for processing. The report indicates that they observed “malfunctioning video surveillance of the rear storage area, employees freely roaming in this area, and adjacent unlocked … exit doors to the outside of the building.” This means that just about anyone would have been able to access or even steal confidential information about thousands of veterans, including their social security numbers and medical records.

While this report is alarming for all veterans, those living in Florida should be especially concerned. Not only has the VA exposed them to potential identity theft, it has been deciding claims without reviewing all the evidence that has been mailed to them by veterans. We would encourage any veterans in Florida who have had their claims denied to file an immediate appeal to protect their rights from being squashed by what appears to be a severely mismanaged VA regional office.

CharlesDavisSexual Assault Details: Building on scarce information from yesterday, we now know that Charles W. Davis (mugshot pictured), a VA counselor, was arrested based on allegations that he sexually assaulted female veterans who were receiving treatment for “past military sexual trauma.”

Privacy Scandal: News continues to come out relating to the VA’s failure to protect patients’ privacy, with numbers suggesting that the VA is the nation’s most prolific violator of laws protecting medical information.

Amputee Denied Benefits: After running-over a roadside bomb in Afghanistan leading to many injuries including an amputation, a veteran is now battling the VA after it told him that some of his “blast injuries” were not related to military service.

Recognizing Excellence: The Pentagon is undertaking a broad review of veterans files to determine whether modern veterans have received the proper recognition for their actions in combat.

Homelessness in New York: The largest city in the country has officially met its goal of providing housing for all chronically homeless veterans living within its borders.

Skeptical Veterans: While many people may have differing views on the ongoing standoff in Oregon, many veterans have expressed concern that the public is perceiving those veterans involved in the standoff as representative of all vets.

Did you see an interesting story about veterans or the VA in the news today? Let us know by sending us an email (links@brokenVA.com) or by visiting the contact page. We’ll try to include your link in our next edition of Veteran Links.

SloanGibsonHearingVA Pushes Back: During a hearing on Capitol Hill yesterday, Sloan Gibson (pictured),  the second highest-ranking official at the VA defended his agency to Congress, saying that “you can’t fire your way to excellence” and claiming that alleged ethical breaches have been exaggerated.

Killer Employee: A Louisiana VA employee who faces charges of manslaughter for his alleged role in the death of a veteran at a VA facility has remained on the VA payroll for two years despite the serious allegations against him.

Waiting for Treatment: A Missouri veteran was diagnosed with cancer four months ago and claims that the VA still has not began to treat the disease, which has now spread and worsened.

Painkiller Legislation: A bill that is aimed at curbing the over-prescription of highly-addictive opiate painkillers in VA facilities cleared a Senate committee yesterday and will now be voted on by the whole chamber.

Sexual Harassment: A lawsuit filed in federal court alleges that VA administrators ignored complaints by employees at a VA hospital who state that they were subjected to repeated incidents of sexual harassment and assault.

The VA Hotel: Apparently, the VA owns a ritzy hotel in Paris that was once used by General Pershing during WWI. Now, members of Congress are calling on the VA to sell the property in order to fund projects here at home.

Did you see an interesting story about veterans or the VA in the news today? Let us know by sending us an email (links@brokenVA.com) or by visiting the contact page. We’ll try to include your link in our next edition of Veteran Links.

PearlHarborA Date that Lives in Infamy: Seventy-four years ago this morning, the Japanese attacked America at Pearl Harbor. To some veterans, it seems like it happened yesterday.

Search for Accountability: The House Committee on Veterans Affairs will grill top VA officials on Wednesday in an attempt to get to the bottom of the lack of accountability for VA employees.

Disgraced Inspector General: Reporters have obtained records giving a glimpse into the alarming behavior of a former top official in the VA Inspector General’s office who resigned in 2008.

Troubled Choice Program: The Houston Chronicle takes a close look at the many problems plaguing the program which allows veterans to see private doctors on the VA’s dime.

Reshaping Views of Veterans: In a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed, a veteran who has risen to the top of a prominent financial firm argues that its time for Americans to stop treating veterans like “heroes and charity cases.”

Forgotten Vets Remembered: Up to 25 years after their deaths, 14 veterans were finally laid to rest with proper honors after being discovered as “unclaimed remains” though the help of a unique non-profit.

Did you see an interesting story about veterans or the VA in the news today? Let us know by sending us an email (links@brokenVA.com) or by visiting the contact page. We’ll try to include your link in our next edition of Veteran Links.

CapitolAs I’ve said before, despite an apparent decrease in the amount of delay that veterans face to receive an initial decision, veterans who choose to appeal such a decision face ever-increasing delays. There are a range of ideas floating-around out there about how the VA can fix the enormous backlog of appeals. Today I want to take a minute to take a look at some of the proposals that our elected representatives have put-forth to tackle the real backlog.

CREATE A TASK FORCE

The first member of Congress to take a stab at the backlog this year was Representative Dina Titus of Nevada. Titus’s proposal is for the establishment of a task force to study possible improvements to the appeals process. The task force would then report on its findings to the VA and the VA would be required to either implement those proposals or explain why it will not do so.

While I’m certain that Representative Titus’s proposal is well-intentioned, it lacks any concrete plan for action. As we have seen time and time again, the VA does not act to improve itself unless it is explicitly directed to do so by Congress. Against this backdrop, merely establishing a task force that makes polite suggestions to the VA is not likely to result in any material changes within the agency and, consequently, would do little to reduce the backlog of appeals.

Certainly, we need to know exactly why it takes so long for an appeal to be finally decided by the VA, and a task force might go a long way toward getting us that information. Yet when it comes time for action, Representative Titus’s plan simply does not have the teeth to get the job done.

FAST TRACK APPEALS

Another proposal to tackle the appeals backlog comes from Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas. O’Rourke’s proposal would establish a voluntary pilot program where a veteran can opt to submit a “fully developed appeal” in lieu of the traditional notice of disagreement. Essentially, the program would require veterans to submit all the evidence they believe is needed to support their appeal along with an argument supporting their disagreement at the time they file an NOD. Thereafter, they would not be permitted to submit additional evidence.

Based on my experiences, I believe Representative O’Rourke’s proposal misidentifies the problem that needs solving. While it certainly might cause a minor decrease in delays to require a veteran to submit all their evidence and argument at the same time, my observations convince me that the largest source of delay in the appeals process is caused by the VA itself. Indeed, one need only look at the VA’s own data to see that veterans account for an average of 39 days of wait time compared to the VA’s 1,368 days.

Significantly, systems that begin as “pilot programs” often become standard operating procedure down the line. Were that to happen with this piece of legislation, veterans would be barred from presenting evidence or argument, no matter how meritorious, after the submission of their NOD. Such a rule would be fundamentally unfair in a bureaucratic and complex legal system where veterans often operate without the benefit of any assistance at all, let alone a competent attorney. Stated simply, Representative O’Rourke’s proposal does far more harm than good.

SEND APPEALS TO BOARD FASTER

The final proposal I would like to look at was made by Representative Robert Latta from Ohio. Latta’s proposal is simple: it requires the VA to send a veteran’s case to the Board within one year of receiving the form completing the appeal.

This proposal does not sound like much, but under present circumstances, it would be quite significant. As I explained previously, the stage of the appeal process that is most prone to delay occurs after a claimant submits the form completing his appeal. All the VA must do during this period is drop the claimant’s VA file in the mail, although in practice the VA often uses this period to do additional work that should have been completed earlier. On average, it takes the VA 681 days to wrap-up work on an appeal and forward the case to the Board. Under Representative Latta’s proposal, this delay would be cut in half.

While not earth-shattering, this is the only of the three proposals which would meaningfully reduce the amount of delay associated with filing an appeal. To be sure, this proposal would only impact one of many possible sources of delay. Nonetheless, something is better than nothing and Representative Latta’s proposal would shave 325 days off of the protracted appeals process for the average veteran. If we could only couple this proposal with a plan to eliminate the Statement of the Case, we would cut the average delay in half.

***

A lot could be done to reduce the appeals backlog, and at least one member of Congress has the right idea. Nonetheless, several of the proposals coming from our elected representatives would not significantly reduce the appeals backlog or reduce the years of delay faced by veterans who disagree with an initial VA decision. We must therefore conclude that Congress shares at least some of the blame for the broken appeals process.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: when it comes to decision-making, the VA places quantity ahead of quality. There is perhaps no better example of this dangerous philosophy than the Board of Veterans’ Appeals’ Fair Share program.

The Fair Share program is essentially a performance-measuring system which requires the attorneys who write Board decisions to complete three decisions every week of the year, regardless of circumstances. Once you consider things like federal holidays, family vacations, sick days, or workdays devoted to other tasks, many of these attorneys end-up needing to produce one decision every workday in order to avoid disciplinary action.

Unsurprisingly, the result of these quotas is a decrease in the quality of decisions. James Ridgway, a senior official at the Board, has written that “there is ample evidence that adjudicators at both [the Board and VA Regional Offices] are required to decide a high number of claims each year, which makes it hard to produce quality decisions.”

One of the more troubling aspects of the Board’s Fair Share quotas is that the system does not differentiate between simple cases and complex cases. For example, a decision-maker is given the same amount of credit for writing a 50-page decision deciding 12 claims as he or she would receive for writing a 4-page decision addressing a single claim. The Board’s attorneys have complained that such a system does not permit them “to efficiently manage their own case load” and can require them to “work unpaid overtime during nights and weekends” in order to avoid disciplinary actions.

Fair ShareThe Fair Share program has been around for years, yet we have not seen a significant reduction in the amount of time that veterans must wait to receive a Board decision. With the exception of a couple years, the amount of wait time associated with a Board decision has trended upwards since the mid-1990s. Such statistics clearly show that the Fair Share program has not worked.

The Fair Share program is an ineffective tool to ensure that veterans receive the timely decisions that they deserve. Not only has it not reduced delays, but it has prioritized the issuance of a high quantity of decisions ahead of the issuance of quality decisions. It is time for the VA to abandon the Fair Share program as it currently exists, and find a more functional system under which decision-makers are not threatened with termination for not meeting unrealistic quotas.

Certainly, there needs to be some type of performance evaluation system for Board decision-makers. After all, a Board employee who issues only one decision per year does not deserve a government salary. Yet the current system is hopelessly broken. The easiest answer for the underlying goal of decreasing delays is to simply hire more people to issue Board decisions. Doing so would decrease the burdens on current decision-makers. Moreover, it would allow decision-makers to take more time to more carefully consider the appeals they are presented and would result in the high-quality decisions that veterans surely deserve.