Fifteen months ago, a doctor came out of the operating room at the VA Medical Center in Washington DC and told Monica Fields that her father’s surgery had been a success. Minutes later, she was told that he was dead on the operating table. Confused by the conflicting information, Fields and her family requested an autopsy to determine her father’s cause of death. Then for the next fourteen months, she fought the VA to obtain the results of the requested autopsy, only to be told that it had not been performed because nobody told the medical examiner about the family’s request. The VA admits that it made an error in processing the paperwork, and now Fields wants her father’s body exhumed so the autopsy can be performed.

VeteransFirstActYesterday, the leaders of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs held a press conference to announce that they had reached an agreement on a piece of legislation that would bring changes to many areas of the VA. The bill, known as the “Veterans First Act,” is the product of intense negotiations among Senators from both parties in recent months. The 391-page bill contains provisions dealing with accountability, healthcare, compensation, education, homelessness, and more. Below, we’ve summarized some of the key provisions.

Accountability

If you’ve been following the various VA scandals in recent years, then many of the bill’s provisions concerning accountability may sound familiar to you. The Veterans First Act would give the VA Secretary more authority to hire and fire employees, and allow him to make his personnel decisions more quickly. It would also limit the amount of time that employees can be placed on “paid administrative leave” to prevent bad actors from collecting government salaries during lengthy investigations. Under the bill, healthcare executives who lead a VA medical center would be entitled to significant pay raises to match what they would earn in the private sector. Perhaps most interestingly, the bill would establish an independent office within the VA known as the “Office of Accountability and Whistle-blower Protection.”

Health Care

Regarding healthcare, the proposed legislation would require the VA to make prompt payment to private facilities that have agreed to participate in the Veterans Choice program. This provision was likely included in response to the many headlines alleging that the VA owes millions of dollars to outside facilities, and that some private providers were electing to abandon the program altogether because they weren’t being paid. The bill would also expand the rules allowing family members to serve as caregivers for severely disabled veterans, and make it easier for the agency to hire mental health professionals. Additionally, the bill would attempt to address the over-prescription of opiate painkillers.

Disability Compensation

The proposed legislation would require the VA to launch a voluntary pilot program under which veterans who opt-in are forbidden from submitting additional evidence after filing a Notice of Disagreement. In exchange for giving-up this important right, veterans in the pilot program would skip the issuance of a Statement of the Case and go straight to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals where they would receive a final decision within one year of filing their Notice of Disagreement. The bill would also make it easier for the survivors of recently deceased veterans to receive benefits, and would increase the oversight of VA Regional Offices by permitting reviews by the Government Accountability Office.

Education & Employment

The Veterans First Act would expand the availability of Post-9/11 GI Bill funds to mobilized reservists, and authorize additional educational benefits to the spouses and children of veterans. It would also permit the VA to reinstate a veteran’s educational benefits in the event that the school the veteran was attending permanently closes. The bill would also require the VA to coordinate with the Department of Labor and state agencies to help increase the availability of jobs for veterans, and would require a non-governmental study of job counseling, training, and placement services for veterans.

Homeless Veterans

Homelessness among veterans has been a widely-discussed topic in recent years, and the proposed legislation aims at further reducing the number of veterans without a roof over their heads. Among the provisions of the bill is one would would expand the definition of “homeless” to include those veterans who are escaping from domestic violence, thus increasing the availability of benefits and services to such veterans. The bill would also expand the eligibility of the Department of Labor’s Homeless Veterans’ Reintegration Program and authorize the VA to form partnerships in order to provide legal services to homeless veterans.

U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims

The proposed legislation would once again reauthorize the temporary expansion of the Court from seven to nine judges through the end of the year 2020. This represents a compromise from what has been proposed by several lawmakers and veterans’ advocates which would make the increase to nine judges permanent. Additionally, the Veterans First Act would change some rules concerning the availability of certain benefits for judges, and would alter the manner in which the Chief Judge of the Court was determined.

***

Overall, we are pleased with the provisions of the proposed legislation. We will say that we were somewhat surprised that the bill does not contain a complete overhaul of the Veterans Choice program, which has drawn much scrutiny for its failure to reduce the delays veterans face in receiving healthcare. The expansion of the Veterans Court is an important step, but we’re disappointed that Congress hasn’t decided to require more decision-makers in the locations they are most needed: at the Board of Veterans’ Appeals. Finally, we’re skeptical of the proposed pilot program for streamlining the appeal process because, simply put, it misidentifies the problem. The issue with appeals has never been that veterans are bogging-down the process by submitting new evidence, its that the VA doesn’t have adequate procedures or sufficient staff to handle the number of claims it receives. Thankfully, for now at least, the Pilot program is only a test.

The bill represents only a proposal from the Senate, and differs in some key ways from what has been proposed over in the House. We expect there to be some changes to the ultimate legislative package that reaches the President’s desk, and we will do our best to keep you posted on future developments.

error-102074_640Appeal Problems: A report released yesterday by the VA Office of Inspector General found that workers at the Wichita, Kansas VA Regional Office altered data relating to the claims of many veterans. According to the report, in an attempt to overcome a backlog of mail received at the facility, managers instructed their staff to enter “placeholder” codes into the VA’s computer system with the assumption that the codes would be corrected later. The codes are meant to correspond with specific disabilities. Many of the cases where placeholder codes were used were never corrected in the computer system, leading to subsequent confusion among VA staff because the code used as a placeholder actually corresponded to a rare bone infection. The Inspector General notes that none of the veterans whose data was altered actually suffers from the rare bone infection, and says that in 28 of the cases the Wichita Regional Office did not comply with policy for processing the claims. 

Infestation: A whistle-blower working at a Chicago-area VA Medical Center alleges that the facility’s kitchens are overrun with cockroaches and that the pests often find their way into the food served to patients. According to a social worker at the hospital, the problem with roaches has been going on for years. Another worker says that veterans suffering from PTSD in the mental health unit were served food with cockroaches several times last year, leading the already-traumatized veterans to refuse to eat for days. According to a VA employee who is cooperating with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel in an investigation, when she tried to visit the kitchens to inspect the conditions, the food manager called the VA police to escort her from the area. 

Briefly:

  • Lawsuit Time: Two veterans’ organizations have filed a lawsuit against the VA alleging that the agency is not cooperating with its request for documents concerning its handling of veterans’ claims  related to the contaminated drinking water at Camp LeJeune.
  • Personnel Changes: Draft legislation is apparently circulating among Senators on Capitol Hill which would drastically change the way in which VA executives are hired and fired, while also giving them an opportunity for a serious pay raise.
  • Anti-Whistle-Blower: A few years ago a VA employee and whistle-blower reached a settlement agreement with the VA over her claims of discrimination, but the agreement also contained a bizarre provision barring her from ever discussing the matter with Congress or the Press. Recently, a federal tribunal ruled that the prohibition on her speech was unlawful.

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.

AgentOrangeAgent Orange Update: Veterans and advocates are pressing the VA to recognize bladder cancer as one of the diseases associated with exposure to the herbicides commonly known as “Agent Orange.” For years, these veterans have been trying to get benefits from the VA, only to be rebuffed because bladder cancer had not been officially recognized by the VA as associated with exposure to the chemicals. But a report issued last month now says that research suggests a link between Agent Orange and bladder cancer, and has led the VA to begin reevaluating its stance. This case once again illustrates the VA’s unfortunate treatment of Agent Orange cases. All too often, VA decision-makers simply deny a claim because the disease has not been officially recognized as related to Agent Orange exposure. But studies like this one show that our understanding of the toxic chemicals used decades ago is still evolving, and it is a disservice to veterans to dismiss their claims out of hand simply because research has not caught up to reality.

Fix VA, Improve Scheduling: In an opinion piece published in the Washington Post, Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers argues that the first step towards fixing the VA healthcare system involves overhauling the system for scheduling appointments. She argues that the VA must incorporate self-scheduling technologies into its system to allow veterans to make and confirm appointments online at any time, and says that she has introduced bipartisan legislation that would require the VA to do just that. In our view, this is a good proposal which would integrate a technology widely used in private healthcare into the VA system. But what’s more refreshing is hearing one of our elected representatives actually make a coherent and logical proposal about the VA. We frequently hear members of Congress and other politicians shouting platitudes or decrying the latest scandal to crop-up at the VA. What we rarely hear is one of those politicians actually offering a detailed plan to solve one of those scandals, and Representative Rodgers should be thanked for doing so.

Briefly:

  • Sad Ending: On Monday we told you about an ambulance crew that volunteered to drive across the country so a terminally-ill veteran could spend his final days with his family. Unfortunately, the veteran passed-away just before he would have left to go home.
  • Cincinnati Blues: Remember the scandal several months ago involving administrators at the Cincinnati VA being accused of endangering patients through cost-cutting? Well, now the VA has sent Glenn Costie to temporarily lead the Cincinnati VA out of its crisis. He had a similar assignment when the Phoenix scandals first broke-out.
  • Tomah VA Improving: The interim director of the Tomah VA in Wisconsin says that the facility has been making excellent progress following a recent scandal involving a doctor known as the “Candy Man” who allegedly freely handed-out addictive opiate painkillers.
  • Unauthorized Study: A consumer advocacy group has filed an ethics complaint against the VA in Portland, Oregon alleging that the facility carried-out a clinical trial involving kidney transplants without ever telling the patients that they were being used as test subjects.
  • Veterans Court: Here at brokenVA, we’re huge fans of the idea of “Veterans Courts,” special criminal courts set-up to help down-on-their-luck veterans turn their lives around. Today we want you to see the wonderful results these types of courts can create.

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.

ListeningListening vs. Action: When dealing with an angry person, customer service workers are often instructed to simply let the person vent their frustration without promising any concrete action. It appears that VA and Congress are adopting a similar approach with the town hall meetings they has been holding in communities around the country. On Monday in Michigan, one such event was held at an American Legion Post during which veterans were allowed to voice their frustrations with the VA. One veteran, Bob St. Arnold, spoke about the stonewall he faced trying to get appointments from the VA before he went to a private facility and was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. The VA representative in attendance expressed disappointment in Mr. St. Arnold’s story and noted that the VA is working to reduce wait times. At a similar event in Colorado on Monday, two members of Congress listened to a litany of complaints, offered a few platitudes, and then noted that the House had passed legislation a while ago which might help the problems. In both cases, people with power to change things listened to veterans’ complaints and did nothing about them.

Defrauding Veterans: A Pennsylvania man was recently charged with the crime of defrauding $35 million from veterans and the government in an alleged scheme to pilfer veterans’ GI Bill education funds. According to the U.S. Attorney responsible for the case, David Alvey and others set-up a company called ED4MIL which pretended to enroll veterans in the accredited Caldwell University while actually enrolling them in unapproved online correspondence classes. The criminal complaint alleges that the government was billed between $5,000 and $26,000 per class, an amount that was 10 to 30 times the price of the online courses which were actually being taken. These allegations should serve as a reminder that there are scumbags out there willing to do just about anything to separate you from your money.

Briefly:

  • Privatization and Politics: In the Huffington Post, Dean Baker argues that many of the so-called scandals which pop-up concerning the VA are actually fabrications or exaggerations created by conservatives who hope to privatize the VA healthcare system.
  • Criminal Employees: After testifying before a House committee last week that a VA worker convicted of crimes relating to an armed robbery had been fired, VA Undersecretary David Shulkin back-tracked on Monday, saying that the employee remained on VA payrolls.
  • I Know What You Are, But What Am I?: In a recent Letter to the Editor, Senator Chuck Grassley chided the Des Moines Register for publishing an editorial blaming Congress for the disastrous roll-out of the Veterans Choice program. Grassley says that its all VA’s fault. Really though, who cares who is to blame… just fix it Chuck!

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.

Editor’s Note: It was a slow weekend for news about the VA and veterans. Instead of our daily headlines, today we wanted to share with you a heartwarming story about people stepping-up to help veterans.

Harold Morgan is a terminally-ill Navy veteran living in Mobile, Alabama. His family lives nearly 1,000 miles away in Ohio, and was desperately trying to raise $6,000 to hire a private ambulance to transport him back to Ohio so they could all be together in his final days. When word got out about this heart-wrenching story, an ambulance company stepped-up and volunteered to do transport Mr. Morgan to Ohio for free. You can watch the full story above.

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.

Battling the VA: For reasons that are unclear to scientists, veterans are twice as likely to develop Lou Gehrig’s Disease, also known as ALS, than the general population. Those diagnosed with the disease are typically entitled to a 100% disability rating plus additional benefits that help improve quality of life. But a North Carolina veteran and his family say that they have had a harder time dealing with the VA than adjusting to life with Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Don Koenig has been rendered unable to move or even speak due to the disease, and his wife says that she must battle VA for the simplest of things. She says the VA wouldn’t provide a ventilator to help him breath, refused to give him a special hospital bed to prevent sores, and refuses to provide a nurse to watch Koenig over night so that she can get some rest. You can watch the whole story above.

No New Patients: As attention continues to be focused on how long veterans are waiting to see a doctor, several VA clinics from around the country are adopting a new approach to keeping wait times low: they are not accepting any new patients. At first, this might seem unfair or even illegal, but the fact of the matter is that many VA healthcare facilities are operating above capacity and this contributes to long wait times and scandals. One clinic in Kentucky has not taken new patients in over a year, and is instead referring people to nearby clinics or telling them to seek appointments through the Veterans Choice program. When the choice was made to restrict new patients, the clinic had wait times of three or four months for new appointments, and the facility’s managers felt that restricting new patients was the “lesser of two evils.” Its difficulty to know how common it is for VA clinics to stop accepting new patients, but NPR was able to find nearly a dozen that had done something similar in recent years, typically due to overwhelming demand for services or staffing shortages. In the end, it seems like the VA clinics are presented with a choice between doing a poor job for everybody or doing a good some for some.

Briefly:

  • Wait Times Improving?: Despite a report from the Government Accountability Office claiming that the VA is manipulating data, VA Secretary Bob McDonald says that he is “confident” that medical wait times are improving.
  • Obstructing Investigations: Senator John McCain of Arizona penned a letter this week accusing managers and supervisors at the Tucson VA Medical Center of interfering with an investigation into reports of sub-par care at the facility.
  • Buddy Check 22: As more and more attention is being given to the epidemic of suicide among veterans, some vets are starting an informal program to check on their fellow warriors every month. (If you or anyone you know has thoughts of suicide, we encourage you to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255, or chat online by visiting their website. You can also call 911.)

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.

vets_wait_timesReal Wait Times: The Government Accountability Office is raising questions about the VA’s claim that nearly 97% of veterans receive medical appointments within one month of their initial request. As part of an investigation, the GAO followed 180 veterans and found that the average wait times for an appointment ranged from 22 to 71 days. The GAO found that approximately half of veterans waited 30 days to get an appointment, while 12 veterans waited more than 90 days for medical care. The GAO also found that 60 veterans who requested healthcare did not receive an appointment, and that 17 of these veterans were never even contacted by the VA to schedule an appointment. The GAO, like so many others, blames the VA’s practice of calculating wait times from a “preferred appointment date” rather than from the date the veteran actually tries to schedule the appointment. Due to the VA’s bizarre practices in recording wait times, veterans should be sure to tell schedulers that their preferred appointment date is “today.” Doing so will force the VA’s numbers to reflect the reality for veterans across the country.

New Inspector General: After months of delay, the senate unanimously confirmed Michael Missal as the next Inspector General of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Missal had been nominated to the post over six months ago but, due to political grandstanding by some members, no vote was allowed on the nomination until this week. The strange thing about the whole ordeal is that no senator actually seemed to believe that Missal was unqualified for the position of Inspector General. Instead, various senators put a stop on his nomination proceedings for flimsy reasons unrelated to the qualifications of Mr. Missal. In the end, these senators who habitually surround themselves with veterans for political purposes, did nothing but deprive veterans of an independent watchdog responsible for rooting out problems within the VA. The senators responsible for the delay include: James Inhoffe (Oklahoma), Tammy Baldwin (Wisconsin), David Vitter (Louisiana), and  Roger Wicker (Mississippi).

Appeal Delay: The VA Inspector General’s office has found that officials at the Roanoke VA Regional Office inappropriately favored newer, less complicated appeals over older appeals involving more issues. According to the report, the Roanoke VA focused on newer and simpler cases in order to meet a national directive to reduce the case backlog by 50 percent. The only exception to the rule was if Congress or the VA Central Office requested them to process an older appeal more quickly. The findings of this report highlight the fact that the VA has become a statistics-driven agency, more concerned about meeting certain thresholds than doing its job well. The VA will, unquestionably, respond to this revelation by arguing that it is time to take rights away from veterans in order to make the claims process easier for entrenched bureaucrats. But experience tells us that such measures will harm veterans without improving the agency’s efficiency.

Briefly:

  • Therapy Dogs: Some are criticizing a VA program designed to gauge the efficacy of therapy dogs for veterans suffering from PTSD. Some allege that the VA’s methods are flawed while other suggest that the dogs are being trained to reinforce irrational fears that should be overcome during therapy.
  • Deaths in Phoenix: According to the Daily Caller, internal emails from the Phoenix VA suggest that three veterans died after not receiving the care that could have prolonged their lives. The emails were part of an ongoing medical review of approximately 40 veteran deaths at the facility.
  • Strange Donation: VA Secretary Bob McDonald has pledged to donate his brain to science after he dies. McDonald’s past includes a youth playing football and rugby, training as a West Point cadet, service as a paratrooper, and other things likely to cause brain injury.
  • VA Benefits Fraud: A Kentucky veteran is facing ten years in prison after the Department of Justice accused him of lying about the severity of his eye disorder to obtain $800,000 in fraudulent benefits, grants, and healthcare.
  • Deporting Veterans: In recent months, we have brought you the stories of the men and women who served in our military only to be deported due to fairly minor crimes. Now, legislation has been introduced in Congress which would put a stop to these injustices.

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.

Editor’s Note: We’ve been away for a few days on a quick vacation. We’re back now and our daily headlines will resume on their normal schedule.

JailCellsWrist Slap: An Oklahoma Physician’s Assistant who had been charged with two counts of murder for the deaths of two of his veteran patients will serve only 90 days in county jail. Authorities allege that Kenneth Adams was playing around on the internet seeking a “sexual liaison”  when one of his patients was scalded to death in a bathtub and another suffered a stroke. Unfortunately for the families of the deceased veteran, the investigator who uncovered Mr. Adams’ wrongdoing was himself a felon, and this put his investigations in jeopardy. As a result, the murder charges against him were dropped and instead he was sentenced to a mere 90 days in county lock-up for lesser crimes. (Thanks to Kirk for sharing this story with us)

Discipline Time: As the result of the recent scandal involving hundreds of thousands of veterans waiting to receive permission to visit VA healthcare facilities, Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson says that he is handing-down discipline to those involved. The scandal centered around the discovery that there were nearly 850,000 pending applications for VA healthcare services, some of them dating back 20 years. Among these applications were more than 300,000 veteran who died waiting to be approved for healthcare. Now, workers in several departments within the VA will face discipline, including two senior executives within the Veterans Health Administration. Gibson did not indicate what discipline had been imposed, but did say that the employees had been informed and that they had 30 days to respond.

Into the Shredder: The VA Inspector General’s office announced the results of a startling investigation that found that officials at VA Regional Offices in Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Reno were inappropriately shredding important documents. Perhaps most alarming is the fact that the documents being shredded related to veterans’ claims for VA benefits. The report concluded: “Considering that there are 56 [VA regional offices], and if weekly shredding is conducted, it is highly likely that claims-related documents at other VAROs are being improperly scheduled for destruction that could result in loss of claims and evidence, incorrect decisions and delays in claims processing.”

Briefly:

  • Under Oath: During a hearing on Capitol Hill yesterday, a VA executive was forced to correct himself after he suggested that an individual convicted of armed robbery no longer worked for the VA. In fact, she still holds her job at the San Juan VA in Puerto Rico.
  • First at Being Last: The San Diego VA has the unfortunate distinction of having the longest wait times for veterans seeking mental health care of any VA facility in the nation. Doctors at the San Diego VA say that they are short-handed and are working to hire more physicians.
  • Pretend Scandal: Although there is always a lot of depressing news coming out of the VA, you can’t believe everything you hear. Recently, some have been spreading a rumor that President Obama diverted funds from veterans to Syrian refugees. The politically-motivated claim is entirely false.

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.

AppealsBacklogReworking Appeals: The VA has been on Capitol Hill in recent weeks lobbying in support of its plans to overhaul the claims appeals process. At a point in time where the number of appeals has swelled to more than 440,000, the VA says that the current system is failing veterans. The agency has been floating ideas for several years now about how to reform the appeals process, most of which center around shortening deadlines and barring veterans from submitting evidence after their appeal has begun. As the Obama administration prepares to leave office at the end of the year and legislators wind-down their working calendar to prepare for elections, the VA has adopted a “now or never” approach to appeals reforms. Reforming the appeals process is a laudable goal which we here at brokenVA support, especially when it comes to the elimination of unnecessary bureaucracy. However, we are unabashedly opposed to any reform which would alter the existing rights of veterans to submit evidence in support of their claims. The appeals backlog is a problem of the VA’s own creation, and veterans should not be penalized because the VA can’t get its shit together. Eliminating the decades-old right of veterans to submit evidence in support of their claims for benefits might make things easier for hapless bureaucrats, but it would be disastrous for veterans.

No Preference: For decades, laws have been in place which give preference to veterans who are seeking employment with the federal government. This is especially true at the VA where approximately one-third of the people hired are veterans. Several years ago, a dentist who happened to be a veteran filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission because he had not been considered for a position with the VA. In the course of investigating the complaint, the commission interviewed the hiring manager involved in the case who said that veteran status was not considered in selecting a qualified dentist, adding “thank God.” This case reveals apparent tension between the traditional civil service system and “Title 38” jobs, which includes doctors and other professionals. According to some advocates, veterans are often given preference in the lowest-paying jobs, but they don’t get any credit for their service in the more substantial, higher-paying positions.

Briefly:

  • Bad Info: In recent months, there have been numerous reports that the VA’s public database contains misleading information on the certifications and expertise of its doctors. Now VA Secretary Bob McDonald says that the VA is working to fix the publicly-available information about its doctors credentials.
  • False Alarm: VA officials are investigating after a message was inadvertently sent to some 23,000 VA healthcare employees warning them of an “active shooter.” Officials have not said whether the message was sent due to human error or because of a computer glitch.
  • Money Talks: Both the House and the Senate are moving closer to agreeing on a budget for the VA for the coming year. Although this might not sound like much, it is significant in that it is the only appropriations bill that has made it out of committee this year.
  • VA Archives: The VA has announced a plan to construct its national archives on the campus of a VA medical center in Dayton, Ohio. The facility would become VA’s central repository for archival records, and will be housed in a century-old building currently undergoing renovation.

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.