Tagged: Veterans Affairs

VA Announces More Funding for Effort to Fight Homelessness Among Veterans

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

militaryauthority.com VA funding for homeless veteransWASHINGTON – The Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Veterans Affairs today announced the second round of HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) funding to local public housing agencies across the U.S. and Puerto Rico. The $7.8 million will provide housing and clinical services for 1,120 currently homeless veterans. In May of this year, the two agencies announced $60 million in HUD-VASH vouchers. See state/local distribution of the assistance here.

The supportive housing assistance announced today is provided through the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) Program which combines rental assistance from HUD with case management and clinical services provided by VA. Since 2008, a total of 58,140 vouchers have been awarded and 43,371formerly homeless veterans are currently in homes of their own because of HUD-VASH. 

“Our nation’s veterans have sacrificed and given up so much for our freedom,” said HUD Secretary Donovan. “These vouchers are helping America end veterans’ homelessness one veteran at a time until we see not one veteran living on the street. I look forward to continue working with Secretary Shinseki and the Department of Veterans Affairs to target assistance to our homeless veterans.” 

“These HUD-VASH vouchers are a vital tool in our effort to provide these brave men and women with the earned care and benefits that help them live productive, meaningful lives,” said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki. “So long as a single Veteran lives on our streets, we have work to do. But with the continued support of President Obama, Congress and our community partners, we will end homelessness among Veterans.”

HUD-VASH is a critical part of the Obama Administration’s effort to end Veteran and long-term chronic homelessness by 2015, asserted VA officials. Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness serves as a roadmap for how the federal government will work with state and local communities to confront the root causes of homelessness, especially among former servicemen and women. HUD’s annual “point in time” estimate of the number of homeless persons and families for 2012 found that veteran homelessness fell by 7.2 percent (or 4,876 people) since January 2011 and by 17.2 percent since January 2009. On a single night in January 2012, 62,619 veterans were homeless, according to the Veterans Administration.

The grants announced today are part of $75 million appropriated this year to support the housing needs of homeless veterans. Local public housing authorities provide rental assistance to homeless veterans while nearby VA Medical Centers (VAMC) offer supportive services and case management. This is the second round of the 2013 HUD-VASH funding. HUD expects to announce more HUD-VASH funding this year.

VAMCs work closely with homeless veterans then refer them to public housing agencies for these vouchers, based upon a variety of factors, most importantly the duration of the homelessness and the need for a longer-term, more intensive support to obtain and maintain permanent housing. The HUD-VASH program includes both the rental assistance the voucher provides and the comprehensive case management that VAMC staff provides.

Veterans participating in the HUD-VASH program rent privately owned housing and generally contribute no more than 30 percent of their income toward rent. VA offers eligible homeless veterans clinical and supportive services through its medical centers across the U.S., Guam and Puerto Rico.

VA’s “Fully-Developed Claim” Program Allows for Retroactive Payment of Disability Benefits

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

militaryauthority.com VA fully developed claim programMuch has been made of the stubborn backlog of benefits claims at the Veterans Administration. While we have been critical of the VA on this website, it is also true that the problem is not entirely of their making. When a veteran submits an incomplete claim, the clock starts ticking, and keeps ticking even if the documentation the veteran submitted is incomplete and the VA claims processor has to send it back with a request for additional information. 

The VA is now addressing this with a new incentive program: For original claims submitted between August 6th, 2013 and August 5th, 2015, the VA is paying a higher benefit to those who do the paperwork right the first time.

The bonus compensation does not apply to “supplemental” claims; that is, to claims submitted by veterans already receiving benefits because their medical condition or disability status has changed.

Under the VA’s Fully-Developed Claim Program, however, veterans who have all their ducks in a row when they do initiate a claim may qualify for up to one year retroactive disability benefits – going back to the date they submitted that fully-developed claim. 

Furthermore, the VA, to its credit, has developed a system to make it much easier for veterans to file fully-documented new claims:

  • Log onto eBenefits at www.eBenefits.va.gov
  • Click on Apply for Benefits.
  • Click Apply for Disability Compensation
  • Answer the questions about you claim.

To preserve the date in the system, click SAVE and Continue. This establishes the day from which the VA may be able to pay you retroactively if your claim is approved.

You have one year from the start date to gather your evidence and submit your claim. The VA will not process your claim until you hit Submit.

You should be prepared to tell the VA the following information:

  • Where you have been treated at VA medical facilities and when.
  • Whether you receive Social Security (SSI) benefits for a service-related condition or disability.
  • Where your treatment records or DoD personnel records are located. However, if you have these records, submit them yourself.

Also, gather up all relevant records of private treatment. If you are in the Reserve Component (National Guard or Reserves), you must also identify and submit all relevant private medical treatment records.

You should also submit supporting statements of family, friends, clergy, medical professionals, etc., if you don’t believe the incident resulting in your disability is recorded in your records.

Scan all your documents, and, in the eBenefits section of the VA website, select Upload Documents, then Manage Files. From here, you can upload the documents you scanned into the VA system. 

The VA recommends that you have a Veterans Service Officer, or VSO, review your application for completion. Once you have everything uploaded, you can let a VSO look at your file and advise you on anything missing that could delay or endanger your claim.

The National Care Planning Council – not a federal agency – maintains a listing of state and county Veterans Services Officers here.

Once you have had a VSO look at your claim – or you have elected not to appoint a VSO, click No More Evidence and Submit.

A more detailed checklist is available here.

Again, once you initiate your claim via the Fully Developed Claim program, you have a year to complete it. If your claim is successful, the VA will pay benefits retroactively to the date you initiated your claim. 

For more information, see this brochure published by the VA. 

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.

Maine Man Sentenced to 3 Years in Prison for Stealing VA Benefits

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

militaryauthority.com man steals va benefitsA Maine fisherman and clam-digger, Richard C. Ramsdell, has pled guilty to fraudulently obtaining disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. He is accused of having received up to $200,000 in benefits, though the 39-year-old’s brief service in the Marine Corps was not enough to render him eligible for VA benefits. A judged sentenced him to three years in prison.

According to court documents and local media, Ramsdell told VA officials that he had a debilitating back injury and was unable to work. Meanwhile, he was performing strenuous jobs as a fisherman, painter and clam-digger. He was also doing manual labor while imprisoned last year on a conviction for stealing copper from a Navy base.

According to Bangor Daily News, prosecutors had lined up a VA doctor to testify that Ramsdell would not have qualified for VA benefits – due to his very brief period of service – without providing false statements to the VA. The VA does not, apparently, independently verify disability applicant’s eligibility with the Department of Defense before giving away hundreds of thousands of dollars in benefits.

Also, this week, a convicted sex offender was able to steal a National Guard NCO’s identity for years and obtain care from the VA medical facility at White River Junction, Vermont.

Meanwhile, calls have been mounting all spring for Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki to step down. Concerned Veterans for America produced a 30-second commercial spot calling for his resignation or dismissal. Even the reliable Obama Administration ally, the New York Times, could not ignore the increasing criticism.

At issue, the stubborn backlog of unresolved VA benefits claims, which Ramsdell managed to get, but which seem to be nearly impossible to get for nearly everyone else.

The current backlog is over 600,000 claims – a number that as increased 2,000 percent since Shinseki, 70, took over in 2009. 70 percent of cases now take over 125 days – even including the most routine of reviews. Meanwhile, some VA centers serving urban areas are taking over 600 days to resolve claims.  

Why VA Home Loans Still Make Sense

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

VA Home LoansFor all the problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs, there is one bright, shining light: The VA home loan is still a godsend for veterans.


Easier Qualification Standards

It’s not so much the interest rate. People with excellent credit can qualify for marginally better interest rates with conventional mortgages than with VA loans. But consider this: According to mortgage software and data company Ellie Mae, it’s taking a credit score of well over 768 these days to qualify for the best rates in the conventional mortgage market. People with credit scores in the 600 range? Many of them aren’t qualifying for mortgage loans at all. 

Over the last year, mortgage rates have fallen as low as 3.35 percent last December, and again in May, before rebounding to around 3.9 percent on June 1, 2013. Think about it from a lender’s perspective: That doesn’t leave much margin for defaults. With rates that low, lenders have become extremely picky about who they are willing to lend money to – even where these loans are secured by real estate.

A VA loan, however, is guaranteed by the U.S. government. That means that the taxpayer has stepped in and guaranteed the lender that they will not experience a loss on the loan. If a VA borrower defaults, the Department of Veterans Affairs makes up the difference to the lender. 

This means that VA loans are a lot less risky to the lender than conventional loans. In turn, this means that lenders tend to be more willing to consider loans to those with less-than-stellar credit scores. 

Furthermore, since a VA loan is guaranteed, the lender will not require private mortgage insurance, or PMI. Lenders typically require borrowers to buy this insurance if their loan-to-value ratio (LTV) is 80 percent or greater.

What does this mean? It means that if you owe more than 80 percent of the current value of the home, you have to keep paying PMI premiums. For most homeowners, this will add between $1,500 and $2,500 to your first-year home ownership costs.

The worst part is that the homeowner derives no benefit from this insurance. It protects the lender, not the borrower. But for VA borrowers, there’s no PMI requirement – even on deals that require nothing down. That’s enough of a difference to offset most or all of the lower monthly payments you might get with excellent credit if you made the same deal with a conventional loan.

(Hint: Home prices have gone up quite a bit over the last two years. If you have been paying PMI premiums, think about getting your home appraised, or requesting an appraisal from the lender. If a qualified appraisal pegs your home value at 80 percent or more of the outstanding mortgage balance, the lender has to drop PMI premiums. That’s money that goes back into your pocket.

Furthermore, VA loans do not have a pre-payment penalty. Lenders occasionally charge this to other borrowers to shield themselves from reinvestment risk – the possibility that borrowers will refinance their loans if interest rates fall, forcing the lender to reinvest the money at a lower interest rate. 

But Congress realized that military families have to move a lot – and therefore have to pay off loans repeatedly with each PCS, through no fault of their own. They therefore wrote rules that prevent VA lenders from charging a pre-payment penalty. Typically, this is an amount equal to six months’ worth of interest if you try to refinance or pay off the loan within the first five years. With a VA loan, on the other hand, you can pay down the loan early and often. This makes the VA solution an ideal option if you plan to move in a relatively short period of time, and ideal for those facing PCS moves every three or four years. If you don’t go with a VA loan, then look carefully at the prepayment terms of your mortgage, because they will likely kick in when you refinance.


Zero-Down Option

Many people look at the fact you can get into a VA loan with no down payment as the greatest benefit to a VA loan. But if you can’t swing a 10 to 20 percent down payment on a home, that’s a pretty good sign you can’t afford it! The underwriters figured that out long ago. Furthermore, VA borrowers aren’t immune to swings in house prices, and with zero down, even a slight downward tick in house prices leaves the borrower “underwater,” meaning you will owe more on the house than it is worth. Translated into real world terms, it means that if you do need to sell, you will either need to come up with cash at closing, or you will need to get the lender to agree to a short sale – which they may not be willing to do.

If you do go with a zero down loan, try to have something stowed somewhere else, outside of a retirement account, earning interest or dividends for you. Ideally, this pot of money should be invested in something besides real estate – so that if the value of your home falls, this other stash of money doesn’t fall with it. It’s just another safety net to see you through tough times. The good news: The fact that the VA does allow for no-down-payment mortgages gives you the flexibility to keep your savings in something more liquid than home equity.


VA Backlog is 443 Days in Florida

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

VA backlogThe current average wait time for new Veterans Administration claims in Florida is 433 days.

That’s the latest, according to a report today from WFTV News, serving Central Florida from Orlando to Daytona Beach and Melbourne. The wait time for Florida veterans is therefore nearly twice the national average, which is 273 days.

That’s the result of a mounting backlog at the VA regional office for Florida. There is only one regional office in the entire state. VA officials state the backlog is due to the large concentration of veterans within the state of Florida. However, that’s hardly news – the VA has not mentioned why it wouldn’t staff the Florida office appropriately.

Since President Obama was inaugurated in 2009, the number of veterans waiting a year or more for their benefits has exploded from 11,000 to 245,000. That amounts to a more than 2,000 percent increase, according to reporting earlier this year from the Center for Investigative Reporting. The same organization also reports this week that with the 2012 election safely over, the VA has “backed off” its promise to reduce the claims backlog.

According to WFTV’s reporting, a VA official states that the Administration has decided to devote resources to creating a paperless system, rather than create more regional offices in Florida. 

Legionnaire’s Outbreak at Pittsburgh VA Hospital Kills 5; Director Awarded $63k Bonus

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

legionnaire’s diseaseWhat happens to Veterans Administration employees when they decide close the VA Special Pathogens Laboratory and sack two of the leading experts on legionnaire’s disease mitigation and eradication in 2006 when six years later there’s a legionnaire’s disease outbreak at the hospital they oversee that kills five people?

Well, apparently, in Shinseki’s world, they get a bonus. $62,895 bonus, to be exact. Michael Moreland received the bonus, along with a Distinguished Rank Award, given to just one percent of senior federal employees, in a black-tie banquet last week. 

On April 23rd, three days before Moreland received the bonus, the VA’s Inspector General published this report, which found that while there were some solid efforts underway to mitigate the spread of legionnaire’s bacteria in the hospital water supply (an ongoing challenge for any health care facility), the Pittsburgh VA had not followed through adequately on them.

The findings in the VA report are rather tame. But the VA IG doesn’t go into the backstory with the Special Pathogens lab, documented here.

In 2006, the efforts of Lab director Dr. Victor Yu, chief of Infectious Disease Prevention at the VA, and and Dr. Janet Stout, the director of at the Special Pathogens lab in pioneering legionnaire’s disease prevention techniques were lauded in the Pittsburgh press. Yu, Stout and the other clinical staff were getting noticed in the medical community nationwide for their work.

Nevertheless, just three days after the Pittsburgh Tribune Review published this laudatory article about the lifesaving contributions of the Special Pathogens Laboratory, VA officials in the Bush Administration abruptly shut down the Special Pathogen Laboratory for reasons that are still unclear. Five clinical staff were terminated immediately, while another, Dr. Janet Stout, was demoted to bench technician. The Lab’s director, Dr. Victor Yu, appealed to Michael Moreland’s office, but Moreland affirmed the decision to shutter the lab. 

“This absolutely will jeopardize lives,” Dr. Yu told press at the time. “Outbreaks will be missed; we can’t do testing for any more hospitals. We have been given 48 hours.”

According to correspondence from the last days of the Lab’s operation, Moreland was an obstacle to the orderly closing of the lab and the processing of remaining samples for legionnaire’s bacteria testing. Dr. Yu wrote at the time:

You promised the Special Pathogens Lab personnel 14 days to process clinical and lab specimens. While you have kept your promise, Moreland and the administration have initiated a series of actions that have proven extraordinarily disruptive.  They are now locked out of the lab. The security guard is stationed there today ostensibly to prevent the lab personnel from entering.

Yesterday, a security guard sabotaged Sue Meitzner’s cultures on patient respiratory samples by refusing her to complete her work. The fact that Mr Moreland and his staff walked through the lab before the guard appeared suggests that they ordered the security guard to force her out of the lab.

We insist that two patient specimens be re-processed since they have been ordered by VA physicians for their patients. Unfortunately we need the original sputum specimen and those two specimens were taken by Cheryl Wanzie. We also need the microscopes which were removed from the

lab without our permssion. In addition, there are at least 200 environmental samples that require processing. The samples are from Johns Hopkins University, NY Alice Hyde Hospital, Erie St Vincent Hospital, Bayview Medical Center, SUNY-Buffalo, Phoenix VAMC. These specimens must be performed for humanitarian reasons.

I will not accept the suggestion that these specimens be processed in the clinical microbiology lab. No more disruptions. Let them finish their job in the lab that they have worked in for 10 years.

Finally, let us both agree to assist the laboratory personnel so they can conclude their work. Bureaucratic politics is taking too much of their time and yours. 

Dr. Stout likewise documented several instances of Moreland’s employees interfering with her work, “bordering on harassment.”

On Wednesday and Thursday, at least 14 different individuals paraded unannounced through the lab performing walk-throughs. This included a 5 member labor crew who removed clinical specimens,microscopes, all of the diagnostic test kits, and supplies during while the lab personnel were trying to conclude their work. When Dr Melhelm came, she was accompanied by 2 security guards.

On July 12, 2006, Dr. Yu, still smarting from the closure (he uses the term “destruction”) of the Special Pathogens Laboratory, Dr. Yu requested to be allowed to interview applicants for the Clinical Microbiology Lab directorship position. Moreland and his staff refused the request. When they hired someone who had not been active in the field for many years, Dr. Yu emailed Both Michael Moreland and Dr. Rajiv Jain:

Dear Dr Jain and Mr Moreland

Given our record of clinical excellence, it seemed reasonable for me to interview the new supervisor of the Clinical Microbiology Lab.  However, this reasonable request was denied, and an unqualified individual was hired.?? 

It took over 20 years to raise the VA Special Pathogens Lab to a lab of excellence that was self-sufficient and internationally-recognized.  Similarly, we elevated the VA Clinical Microbiology Lab to be the most responsive lab to clinicians at this hospital. However, the lab also became a lab of excellence as documented below.??

In a period of 2 weeks, both of you took part in the destruction of 2 great labs in the US because of a presumed bureaucratic issue.?? 

In sadness,

Victor L Yu MD 

In early 2007, Yu continued to press the VA over the destruction of numerous samples and cultures that were vital to continued research.

The closure led to Congressional hearings in 2008, however.

Melhem insisted repeatedly that she did not know the thousands of vials — each marked with letters and numbers and placed in racks — were being used for research when she ordered staff to toss them…

Michael Moreland, who headed the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System at the time, said he was unaware of the collection’s significance. 

Although the VA Inspector General’s report does not directly reference the closure of the Special Pathogen Laboratory in 2006, and only mentions Moreland once, they do cite Yu and Stout’s research in legionnaire’s disease pathogen control within the report’s footnotes.

Meanwhile, in addition to the finding published last week, the Veterans Affairs Inspector General’s office is conducting a criminal probe into the way senior VA managers in Pittsburgh handled the legionnaire’s outbreak. The U.S. Attorney’s office is also conducting its own criminal investigation, according to reporting from the Pittsburgh Tribune. According to reporting from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “The Pittsburgh VA first publicly revealed it had an outbreak on Nov. 16, 2012, even though officials, including Mr. Moreland, knew they had a serious problem as early as July 2011.”

Nevertheless, none of the information from the VA Inspector General’ report, nor the background story involving the dismantling of the VA Special Pathogens Laboratory, nor the congressional hearings establishing the reckless disregard for clinical procedure under Moreland’s direction, nor even the fact that Moreland’s operation is under two separate ongoing criminal probes from the VA’s own IG and by the local U.S. Attorney, was enough to slow-track Moreland’s bonus, equal to 35 percent of his $179,000+ annual salary 

Note: the occasional typographical error in quoted correspondence was intentionally retained for accuracy’s sake.

$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.

Number of Veterans Waiting 1 Year or Longer for Claims Explodes 2,000 Percent Under Obama

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

VA claims backlog growsThe number of veterans waiting for a year or more to have their claims processed has exploded by 2000 percent since 2009 – the first year of the Obama Administration.

According to internal tracking documents obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting, the number claimants waiting 365 days or longer for their claims to be resolved has grown from 11,000 in 2009 to 244,000 as of December 2012.

More than 58,000 veterans are waiting at least two years for claims. And despite publicly-released figures that indicate that the VA takes 273 days to process a claim, internal VA documents indicate that new claims – including those from Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran – are taking an average of 315 days to resolve.

In major population centers, the wait times are frequently double that.

That is the conclusion of an investigative report, VA’s Ability to Process Claims Plummets Under Obama, by Aaron Glantz of the Center for Investigative Reporting. The report was released on March 13th. The massive drag on VA processing times occurred despite the expenditure of over half-a-billion dollars on a new computerized system. 

The picture painted by the newly-obtained internal tracking documents is at variance with the rosier picture painted by VA officials for Congress. The inconsistency prompted HVAC Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-FL) to state that “One of the biggest oversight challenges we’ve encountered is just getting VA to engage in an honest conversation,” according to Glantz’s reporting.

Meanwhile, on the same day Glantz published his story, the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee head hearing on the VA backlog, and committee members grilled VA leaders on what was being done to fix the problem.

At the March 13th hearing, Committee Chairperson Sen. Bernie Sanders (Independent – VT) asked Veterans Affairs Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey for any evidence they had that the VA would be successful in keeping the VA’s own goal of eliminating the backlog by 2015 and pushing claims processing times down to 125 days while maintaining 98 percent accuracy. (The current accuracy rate is 86 percent – meaning that when the VA finally does get round to adjudicating a claim, the adjudication is wrong about 14 percent of the time.)

The Military Officers Association of America describes the exchange further:

VA Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey testified that the VA’s three-part plan — “people, process, and technology” — will address the problem. She said the VA has increased its training of claims workers, piloted innovations in processes and procedures, and created “quality review teams” to ramp up accuracy and is fielding a fully-automated Veterans Benefits Management System this year that will enable online access to medical and personnel records. 

The House Veterans Affairs Committee held its own hearing on 20 March. The hearings, entitled “Focusing on People: A Review of VA’s Plans for Employee Training, Accountability, and Workload Management to Improve Disability Claims Processing” is unfolding as of this writing. However, undersecretary Hickey’s remarks have been published in advance. In them, she cites a number of obstacles the VA has had to overcome to keep pace with the flood of applicants – over 1.2 million of them last year alone. She also cited a number of improvements:

  • 1,900 new VA employees who have received Challenge Training decide 150 more claims than their predecessors per day – while posting a 30 percent better accuracy rate.
  • Five more “Challenge Training” workshops are scheduled for this year.
  • Lower-performing VA centers have been targeted for extra training under a new program that debuted a year ago. The first regional office that completed the training, called Station Enhancement Training, or SET, has increased the accuracy rating of the first site targeted by about 8 percent, and claims processing throughput by 27 percent. A second regional office completed the program in January and early indications are likewise positive.

Undersecretary Hickey also affirmed that Generation Two of the Veterans Benefits Management System – the software backbone that will hopefully enable the VA to eliminate the backlog and reduce claims processing time to 125 days by 2015 – still seems like it will roll out as scheduled. Version 4.13 was released in January, and as been a success thus far. The undersecretary stated that the system will be rolled out to all 56 offices within the year.

The American Legion also submitted a statement for the record, urging the VA to reform its internal accounting to reward employees and departments for claims correctly completed without errors, and to hire more veterans.

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America submitted a statement calling for the President to convene a special commission to eliminate the claims backlog.

During the hearing, a member of the audience sat silently, holding a sign reading “Waiting 7 Years & 3 Months Claim – 2650 Days”