Tagged: Department of Veterans Affairs

Pentagon budgets for 2015; Congress debates changes to 2014 COLA

Posted by Debi Teter

militaryauthority.com federal budget breakdown“The President’s 2015 Budget will be released on March 4. Now that Congress has finished its work on this year’s appropriations, the Administration is able to finalize next year’s Budget. We are moving to complete the Budget as quickly as possible to help Congress return to regular order in the annual budget process,” Steve Posner, a spokesman for the White House’s Office of Management and Budget said in an email last week.

The Defense Department, which receives the most funding of any federal agency, plans to spend about $606 billion in fiscal 2014 and is also expected to release its budget request for fiscal 2015 on March 4.

We would be very surprised, though, if the 2015 budget becomes a settled matter so many months before it goes into effect. After all, the 2014 budget is still being “tweaked” by Congress to fix issues pertaining to COLA and veterans’ health benefits even though it was passed without the usual drama we’re accustomed to seeing in Washington.

The cap on COLA for working-age military retirees was just enacted by Congress last month in an effort to save $6 billion over the next 10 years as part of the bipartisan budget deal. But after military organizations decried the move as yet another broken promise to service members, Congress seems desperate to undo the cap before it becomes a larger political issue.

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt), chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, has introduced a mammoth 400+ page bill called the “Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act of 2014? which ties the COLA cap to an overhaul of other veterans benefits. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev) backs the bill, which seeks to strengthen more than 130 veterans programs of every kind.

The bill won’t sail through Congress as easily as the budget did, however. Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla) blocked a similar, but smaller, bill last month because the spending wasn’t paid for by other offsets. Coburn argued that the VA has increased spending 58% in the last five years while showing that it can’t effectively administer the benefits it already provides, so adding new health and education benefits cannot be justified.

 

#VeteransBenefits #2014COLA #2015Budget

Image source: omnilligence.net


Should We Use Marijuana to Treat PTSD?

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

militaryauthority.com medical marijuana for ptsdIn a move that could cause a massive eastward migration of veterans from Hawaii and California and boost New England Cheetos sales numbers by double digits, the State of Maine has authorized the use of medical marijuana to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. 

A competing therapy – thus far legal, though not yet proven – involves injecting an anesthetic directly into the spine with a horse needle.

We’ll take option A, thanks, and throw in a bag of Doritos. 

Don’t look for the Bangor, Maine VA clinic to start handing out dime-bags like it’s going out of style, though. While a number of states have actually legalized marijuana under their own state laws, and a half-dozen states have specifically authorized medical marijuana as an approved treatment for PTSD, old Mary Jane is still illegal under federal law. Federal policy prohibits VA doctors from prescribing it or even assisting with documentation required to get other doctors to prescribe it. 

Furthermore, marijuana is still listed as a Schedule I drug – a drug for which there are “no currently accepted medical uses,” according to the Controlled Substances Act. However, in 2010 and 2011, the Department of Veterans Affairs relaxed its existing policies against medical marijuana by affirming that veterans who were using marijuana under a legal state program could still participate in VA-sponsored therapeutic activities without fear of punishment.

“VHA policy does not administratively prohibit Veterans who participate in State marijuana programs from also participating in VHA substance abuse programs, pain control programs, or other clinical programs where the use of marijuana may be considered inconsistent with treatment goals,” stated the VA in a fit of clarity.  “While patients participating in State marijuana programs must not be denied VHA services, the decisions to modify treatment plans in those situations need to be made by individual providers in partnership with their patients.”

 

Leadership from the Top

If there’s ever been a president who should be open to legalizing marijuana for this purpose, you’d think it would be Barack Obama, the notorious former head of the pot-smoking “Choom Gang,” while a high school student at the elite Punahou prep school in Honolulu, Hawaii. But this President has been widely seen to have led a crackdown on marijuana users now that he is president. Further confusing the matter, though, the DoJ announced it won’t challenge State marijuana laws and will focus only on serious trafficking cases.

Is marijuana effective? It seems to be – though conducting a full-scale clinical trial is very difficult due to federal restrictions. But a study done on rats from the University of Haifa indicates that a quick hit of marijuana just after a traumatic incident may even help prevent the development of PTSD symptoms…if you believe that people behave like rats. 

Meanwhile, the folks down the road in Tel Aviv have discovered that sleep deprivation may also help mitigate the effects of PTSD.

 

How do you feel about medical marijuana and its potential usefulness in treating PTSD? Should research be allowed despite it being an illegal drug? Tell us in the comments.

VFW “Disgusted” With Current Elected Leadership

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

militaryauthority.com veterans of foreign wars shutdown statementThe Veterans of Foreign Wars has released a statement saying it is “disgusted” with the current crop of politicians in Washington. “Yesterday’s news that the government will not transport or make a death assistance payment to grieving military families was the last straw,” the statement read. “It is absolutely appalling and nothing short of a travesty that elected officials continue to receive paychecks and benefits while not providing for those who deserve it most.”

The statement, attributed to the VFW’s National Commander, William A. Thien, went on: “Because of failed leadership, we have 56 closed Department of Veterans Affairs regional offices, 7,000 furloughed employees, and more than 4 million disabled veterans and survivors who were told next month’s disability or survivor benefits check will be delayed. We also have a hypocritical National Park Service that closes our nation’s war memorials to veterans and a federal government that continues to make foreign aid payments while our own national security is threatened because Congress has failed to pass a defense budget or put an end to the sequester. 

This is totally unacceptable and disgraceful that our elected leaders in Washington would allow this to happen,” said Thien. “We need leadership, not more rhetoric, and if the government is unable to take care of veterans, then the government should quit creating us.”


VA Secretary: Benefits to Cease November 1 If Shutdown Not Resolved

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

militaryauthority.com shinseki VA shutdown November  1 testimonyVA benefits will cease as of November 1st, unless the President and Congress agree to fund the agency, or the government shutdown is resolved. That was the testimony on Wednesday, October 9th, from Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki to the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. 

According to Secretary Shinseki, the Department of Veterans Affairs is due to pay out $6.25 billion in claims on November 1. But the Department has only $2 billion on hand to pay them with. The money would be used to pay tuition for GI Bill beneficiaries and for retroactive claims. Stipends of up to $1,700 per month for veterans attending school would cease. Claims processing for compensation, pension, education, vocational rehabilitation, and employment benefits will be suspended due to lack of funding. Once mandatory funds are depleted at the end of this month, nearly 5,600 Veterans a day will not receive a decision on their disability claims.

This is despite furloughing some 7,800 claims processors – an act that is already beginning to result in an increase in the stubborn backlog of past-due (more than 125 days old) claims. Half of those furloughed are veterans themselves, said Shinseki. 

Additionally, if the shutdown continues through late October, compensation payments to more than 3.8 million Veterans will halt. These include thousands of Veterans who have the most severe disabilities. Payments will also stop for over 364,000 survivors and over 1,200 children receiving special benefits, such as children with spina bifida born to Vietnam Veterans and certain Korean War Veterans as well as children of women Veterans with birth defects, the Secretary said. Furthermore, pension payments will stop for almost 315,000 Veterans and over 202,000 surviving spouses and dependents.

The Secretary also said that while they still had 13,000 claims processors on the job, paid with left-over funds from FY 2013, that money would be exhausted by the end of the month. At that point, the Department of Veterans Affairs would have to lay off all but 1,500 employees. The remaining workers would be assigned to staff call centers and receive and time-stamp new benefits applications. But no more applications will be processed until the Department is funded again. 

The House of Representatives has already passed a bill that would provide for partial funding of the Department of Veterans Affairs. However, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D – Nevada) has indicated that his coalition will not allow the bill to come up for a vote. The President has also said that he would veto the bill if it came to his desk. 

According to Shinseki’s testimony, however, full services to veterans would not restore completely even if the Department itself is fully funded. This is because the Department’s functions integrate with other federal departments that are themselves affected by the shutdown. 

Shinseki’s full testimony is available here.


House Passes Bill to Fund VA

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

militaryauthority.com house funds va during shutdownThe House of Representatives moved to fund the Veterans Administration through the shutdown and into fiscal year 2014. The House passed the bill, H.J. Res. 72., on Thursday, October 3rd, with overwhelming Republican support. Democrat opposition was strong, but they still got 35 Democrats to sign on as well. The final vote was 259 in favor, 157 opposed. 

The bill, dubbed the “Honoring Our Promise to America’s Veterans Act,” restores funding for disability compensation, monthly stipends under the GI Bill and survivors’ benefits. 

The bill required a two-thirds majority for passage. It failed to pass on a first attempt on Tuesday, when just 33 House Democrats voted in favor. 

The House of Representatives, controlled by Republicans, has passed a series of bills providing partial funding for various popular segments of government. This tactic puts Democrats in an uncomfortable position, as it forces Democrats to either go on record voting against funding popular government programs or provide their leadership, Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) and President Obama, progressively less leverage with which to negotiate with Republicans to keep the Affordable Care Act intact. 

“Today, more than 160 House Democrats chose to put politics before the needs of America’s veterans and their loved ones,” said Rep. Jeff Miller (R – FL) in a statement. “November payments to veterans and their survivors for a variety of earned benefits are now in jeopardy in the event of a prolonged government shutdown. Our veterans have already gone above and beyond for our nation. The last thing they deserve is for the country they courageously defended to abandon them. It’s unfortunate that some in Congress seem to be fighting to ensure that happens.”

The bill is not a complete restoration. The House did not authorize funding for IT, nor the VA Inspector General’s office, the National Cemetery Administration and for state veterans homes. 

The total funding package for benefits also results in a $6 billion reduction compared to its own 2014 funding appropriation back in June, according to reporting from Rick Maze at the Military Times.

The Democratic-controlled Senate does not, however, plan to take up the bill, so its own Senators will not be forced into the vote. The White House staff has also indicated the President will veto the bill if it reaches his desk. 

Curiously, the Department of Veterans Affairs itself is not arguing to make the case for its own funding. 

 

The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs has scheduled a hearing tomorrow, October 9th, at 10:30 AM, to gather information and testimony regarding the impact of the shutdown on veterans and their families. 

Government Rolls Back Military Pay While Union VA Employees Get Big Bonuses

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

militaryauthority.com VA gives bonues while military pay is cutThe Pentagon is broke, say Administration officials, citing spiraling personnel costs that threaten to crowd out needed operational, infrastructure and modernization spending. So the Obama Administration, under former Secretary Leon Panetta and the current Secretary Chuck Hagel, has already tried to slash TRICARE benefits, and increase premiums. The have already tried to eliminate the Tuition Assistance program at three of the four uniformed defense services. They held military pay increases to 1 percent for 2014 – well below the 1.8 percent level normally called for by existing pay formulas. Now they are looking to slash military pensions for retired servicemembers and cut BAH rates, forcing military members to pay more out of their own pockets for housing – even as current on-base military housing – already inadequate even at post-cold-war levels, is allowed to decay.

But the Veterans Administration, apparently, is flush with cash. So flush, in fact, that the VA was able to grant lavish bonuses of tens of thousands of dollars to its government employees union work force. Bonus recipients include Michael Moreland, the administrator of the Pittsburgh, PA VAMC, under whose watch at least  five veterans died of legionnaire’s disease – a preventable illness brought about by unsanitary conditions. As many as fifteen other veterans were possibly or definitely infected at the hospital.

The problem wasn’t just in Pittsburgh, however: A GAO report found that a failure to implement precautions against the deadly disease was endemic at VA hospitals nationwide.

In all, more than two thirds of all the VA’s claims processing staff received bonuses totaling 5.5 million dollars in 2012, according to a Stars & Stripes report. Among others, bonuses as high as $50,000 and $60,000 went to construction managers who had significant delays and cost overruns on their projects, to physicians who left interns unsupervised during surgery and who were caught practicing without a license.

Per a report from USAToday,

According to a Government Accountability Office report recently issued, investigators found that during the 2010 and 2011 fiscal years:

  • A $7,663 performance-pay bonus went to a VA doctor who was reprimanded for practicing medicine with an expired license for three months.
  • A $11,189 bonus was given to a surgeon who was suspended without pay for 14 days after leaving an operating room before surgery was completed, allowing residents to continue unsupervised.
  • A $7,500 pay bonus went to a doctor who was reprimanded for refusing to see assigned patients in an emergency room, actions that forced 15 patients to wait six hours to be treated and led nine other patients to leave without treatment. 
  • An $8,216 bonus was paid to a radiologist whose privileges had been reduced for failing to read mammograms and other complex images competently. 

All told, bonuses to VA medical staff totaled $150 million in 2011 alone.

Meanwhile, backlogs of unresolved claims  – now finally starting to decline as an automated system comes online (though some observers believe that the decline happened as workers looking to maximize their bonuses front-loaded “easy cases” to boost case rate, while hard cases continued to decline, and while error rates skyrocketed.)

“You stated the VA ‘can and will do more to prevent future incidences,’” Wrote Representative Tim Murphy (R – PA), wrote in a letter to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki. “While preventing the spread of infectious diseases should be a top priority for VA leadership, the department must also hold responsible those in a position of authority who did not adhere to the VA’s own directives and standards of care. And at the very least, the taxpayers should not be giving them bonuses.”

Uniformed military services personnel, of course, are not eligible for performance bonuses. They also have a less finely graduated pay scale that requires many service members to wait many years before receiving a pay increase based on a promotion, while federal employees even within a GS level can receive as many as 10 interim pay increases without being promoted just by getting bumped up the “step” system. 

Military members, also, are not unionized. The VA, on the other hand, has a largely union labor force – members of the American Federation for Government Employees, or AFGE. 

The net result, of course, is that the Administration would like to fund bonuses for union workers and bureaucrats at the expense of fighters and their families who already endure more hardship and receive lower compensation. 

In Fight Against Backlog, VA Shows Signs of Progress

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

militaryauthority.com department of veterans affairsThe Department of Veterans Affairs is finally starting to show signs of progress in reducing the stubborn backlog of claims pending for 125 days or more. As of last week, the VA was reporting a backlog of 536,400 cases. That is still much higher than it was when Eric Shinseki took the Secretary of Veterans Affairs job in 2009. But at least the number is beginning to decline: The VA reported a backlog of 608,000 claims in March.

The Secretary has established an ambitious goal of eliminating the backlog by 2015. That looks like it’s not going to happen. But the recent progress is encouraging – and is the result of a monumental commitment of both human and technological resources. 

What’s helped? First of all, the Department has been increasingly successful in digitizing the claims process. This is a huge issue, as the old paper-based system was slow cumbersome and prone to routine errors such as transcription problems and lost documents. Merely storing the huge number of records in paper files was becoming an increasingly unmanageable problem for the VA.

Last month, though, the Veterans Administration completed its roll-out its new electronic platform – the Veterans Benefit Management System (VBMS) – in all 56 of its regional offices. Despite some significant hiccups, the rollout was completed six months ahead of schedule.

“This is a big cross-over year for us,” Shinseki said recently to a gathering of VA claims-processing employees in Manchester, New Hampshire. “We have for decades sat astride rivers of paper. Now we are in the process of turning off paper spigots and turning on electronic ones.”

This is an auspicious event for a couple of reasons:

First, the electronic system makes the claims-tracking process itself more efficient. So even if the original file is still on paper, fewer additional man-hours need be spent on the process of entering data into a system to track progress.

Second, the new electronic system means that fewer paper applications are coming in. The process on new claims becomes much more efficient.

Additionally, veterans in the backlog have benefitted from an end to the war in Iraq, which had tragically been contributing a steady stream of new combat and deployment-related claims. Furthermore, the flood of newly-initiated coming from Agent Orange-related incidents has subsided, reducing the new-claims workload. The VA had experienced a surge in claims from Vietnam War veterans once the Obama Administration indicated that they were looking favorably at Agent Orange-related claims. The VA also expanded benefits eligibility for conditions related to service during the Gulf War.

Technically, a claim is categorized as “backlogged” if it is still pending adjudication after 125 days. Appealed claims that receive an initial adjudication are not considered “backlogged.”  In September of 2009, when Shinseki came on the job, the backlog stood at 180,000 claims. Since then, the VA has been processing claims at a higher rate than ever before – but the furious pace was still not enough to keep up with the new claims piling in. 

The Veterans Administration also sought to enlist the support of organizations like Disabled American Veterans and the American Legion to help veterans in the process of documenting and preparing their claims. This led to fewer incomplete applications and quicker processing times, because these claims tended to be more complete and more fully-documented prior to even reaching the VA processing center.

$500,000,000 VA Benefits Processing Software Program is DOA

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

New VA computer system DOAThe $500 million-plus software program that was supposed to eliminate the stubborn VA benefits backlog, the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS), has been taken offline for “troubleshooting,” according to internal VA documents. 

VBMS is supposed to transform the VA benefits administration process by converting to a paperless system. It is the lynchpin of the VA’s efforts to meet Secretary Erik Shinseki’s goal of eliminating the backlog by 2015 and bringing the average waiting time for veterans to receive benefits down to 125 days. 

According to an internal document obtained by the website VAWatchdog.org, the system was causing VA claims processors to experience timeout errors and long latency periods. The errors sometimes even caused the system to boot processors from the system. The whole system has been taken offline. As of this writing, technicians could not provide an estimated time of resolution. 

VA workers have been instructed to go back to the old input system that contributed to the backlog in the first place.

A VA spokesperson minimized the problems with the system, saying occasional glitches were “to be expected” during a rollout of a computer software backbone like this one. As the Stars & Stripes reports, the two top technology officers at the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Chief Technology Officer and the Chief Information Officer, resigned earlier this year. Their resignations came after members of Congress from both parties excoriated the VA last February for abandoning a planned integrated health record system that would coordinate health information between the VA and the DoD. Said Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine), “Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine), ranking member of the House committee, said: “This is a huge setback and completely unacceptable. For years we have been told by both agencies that progress was made and that things were on track.  I’m disappointed that our nation’s two largest government agencies – one of which is the world’s foremost developer of high-tech machines and cyber-systems – could not come together on something that would have been so beneficial to those that served. We have just witnessed hundreds of millions of dollars go down the drain.”

VA Refuses to Rat Out Vets to New York Law Enforcement

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

Department of Veterans AffairsThe Department of Veterans Affairs has announced that it won’t comply with a new New York state law that requires mental health providers to report to authorities any patients they believe may be at risk of harming themselves or other people. According to a VA spokesperson, there are already federal laws protecting the privacy of veterans’ treatment records, and they take precedence over any state law.

The State of New York has recently passed a law that requires mental health professionals to report the names of any patient whom they believe may be likely to harm themselves or someone else. Civil liberties advocates had criticized the measure, saying that the law could be used to deprive veterans of their 2nd amendment right to keep and bear firearms. Some patient advocates also argued that the measure would possibly dissuade veterans from seeking counseling or other mental health care.

The Veterans Administration still refers veterans who have been deemed incapable of handling their own financial affairs to the federal firearms database, and which states have access too, and veterans could be denied a firearms permit on that basis. But the VA does not pass that information on to state authorities.

The law, the New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act of 2013 (also called the ‘SAFE Act’) authorizes NY authorities to revoke gun permits from individuals who have been reported by their mental health professionals, and even authorizes gun confiscation. 

The measure was due to take effect on Saturday.

It is not clear how the VA policy will apply to independent contractors treating veterans under VA contracts. An email to the Department of Veterans Affairs seeking clarification on this point was not returned.

Among its other provisions, the SAFE Act bans the acquisition or importation of any magazine with a capacity of more than seven rounds of ammunition. 10-round magazines previously owned by New York residents can be retained, but cannot be loaded with more than seven rounds.

The law also authorizes New York law enforcement officials to confiscate firearms without a court order or warrant, if they have probable cause to believe an individual is mentally unstable.

Any New York resident who owns a magazine that was legal prior to the 1994 assault weapons ban, such as a 20-round or 30-round AR-15 magazine, must sell or transfer those magazines out of state, or turn them in to law enforcement officials.

The law would effectively criminalize an law enforcement officer in the state who carries a firearm with more than seven bullets. The law has no law enforcement exemption. Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office is working on pushing an amendment to the law crafting a law enforcement exemption. But the Governor signed the law without one, anyway.

Last month, the Governor announced that his prosecutors would not deem law enforcement officials to be in violation of the law if they carried magazines loaded with more than seven rounds. There is no language authorizing the governor to do so within the law, however.

The SAFE Act is facing some legal hurdles – including a warning from the New York Supreme Court. The Court has notified the Governor’s office that the State of New York must show that the law does not violate the state constitution, or the court will impose an injunction on the enforcement of the law on April 29th.

Oregon Man Fined $200k for Fraudulently Claiming Disabled Veteran Status to Land Government Contracts

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

SDVOSB logoThe former owner and operator of Gray Bear Construction Company (“Gray Bear”) was sentenced to a $200,000 fine for fraudulently claiming status as a service-disabled small business owner for the purpose of landing government contracts in hospital construction. He must also perform 100 hours of service at a veterans organization.

In November 2012, Witty pleaded guilty to one count of false statements. He admitted he falsely represented to the VA that Gray Bear was a Service Disabled Veteran Owned Small Business (SDVOSB), even though Witty had never been certified as a service-disabled veteran. Witty admitted that as a result of his false representations, the VA awarded Gray Bear approximately $5,849,372 in SDVOSB set-aside contracts from August 2009 through May 2011, and that Gray Bear was not eligible to receive those contracts.

Inspector General George Opfer, Department of Veterans Affairs, stated that, “Mr. Witty is the 15th individual prosecuted during the past year for defrauding a VA program intended to provide preference to service-disabled entrepreneurs whose sacrifices on behalf of our Nation have earned them the right to compete for Federal set-aside contracts. We are diligently investigating others elsewhere who have similarly defrauded this program and expect additional prosecutions. We are committed to ensuring the integrity of all VA programs and will continue to diligently pursue those individuals who, by fraud and deceit, abuse these programs.”

Witty is no longer listed as a principal on the Gray Bear Construction Website. It still lists Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business on its certifications page, however.

Military Authority was able to speak with Greg Easley, the project manager for the company, who stated that the new owner, Darren Placek, is indeed a service-disabled veteran, and that Placek recently purchased a controlling interest in the company from Witty, though Easley was not aware of the precise nature of the transaction or the amount of ownership retained by either party.

Witty will not spend a single day in jail as a result of the fraud. However, a New York man convicted of the same crime will have a very different experience: John Raymond Anthony White was recently sentenced to 41 months in prison for falsely representing himself as a service-disabled veteran to procure federal contracts.

One big difference between the two cases: Witty admitted to his crime. White, in contrast, went to great lengths to deceive federal investigators, going so far as to attempt to recruit a genuine service-disabled veteran to pose as the owner.

The federal government routinely sets aside federal contracts for qualified small businesses that are owned and controlled by service-disabled veterans. Their preference status is generally greater than those enjoyed by minority-owned small businesses, veteran-owned small businesses, disabled-owned small-businesses and Section 8(a)-certified businesses. There is therefore incentive for businesses to represent themselves as service-disabled veteran small business owners, since these businesses often hold the ‘trump card’ in competitive situations for the award of federal contracts or sub-contracts.