VA’s Claims Backlog Assertions Disputed During Tense Congressional Hearing

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) officials’ claimed to have nearly resolved the VA disability claims backlog during a Congressional hearing this week.  Those claims were widely disputed, not just by members of the U.S. House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs that held the hearing, but even by the VA’s own Inspector General.

According to a July 15, 2014 AP wire story (Matthew Daly, “VA Cites Progress on Backlog; Congress Disagrees“):

Allison Hickey, the VA’s undersecretary for benefits, told Congress that at the insistence of officials from President Barack Obama on down, the benefits backlog has been whittled down to about 275,000 — a 55 percent decrease from the peak.

Hickey’s claims were met with disbelief by some. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, told her flatly that he thinks the VA’s numbers are inaccurate.

“I don’t believe anybody at the table is telling the truth from the VA,” Miller said at a contentious hearing that lasted more than five hours Monday night. “I believe you are hiding numbers.”

Asked if she trusted numbers produced by VA, the agency’s assistant inspector general, Linda Halliday, said no.

“I don’t want to say I trust them,” Halliday said.

A July 15, 2014 Stars and Stripes article was even more critical (Travis J. Tritten, “House hears evidence VA cooked the books on claims backlog“):

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the committee, said the VA manipulation of its backlog of veterans seeking disability and pension ratings by writing off thousands of unresolved cases is analogous to its health care facilities keeping secret patient wait lists to hide months-long waits.  It “created the appearance of success just like cooking the books on scheduling times,” he said.

….Over 7,800 of the unresolved benefit claims disappeared from the backlog after the VA issued what it called a “provisional rating,” a preliminary decision based on incomplete or outdated medical information in a claims file. It is a classification that requires additional work by VA staff to become a final disability or pension rating and cannot be appealed by veterans, the IG found.  ….VA then “lost control” of the provisional ratings cases, which were pushed further to the back burner, where they were ignored. Some veterans might never have received final rating decisions if not for the IG investigation, according to Halliday….

“When we find these individuals, you can rest assured I will respond quickly and take necessary actions,” Hickey said.  Miller and other members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee have said they are skeptical of such reassurances.

Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Mich., said repeated VA claims about the backlog are “baloney” designed to make the department look good while staff was actually hiding the true numbers.  “They are all concerned about numbers and not veterans,” Benishek said. “It is absolutely unbelievable to me that this is going on and nobody seems responsible for it.”

“At this point, I can say ‘No, I do not trust those numbers,’” Halliday said. “They need to be looked at very carefully, so I don’t want to say I trust them.”

A July 15, 2014 Fox News story took a different tact (“VA is making disability payment errors in rush to cut backlog, watchdog says“), but also reported on serious problems identified at various VA claims processing facilities:

Inspectors surveying Philadelphia’s VA benefits center in June found mail bins brimming with claims and associated evidence dating to 2011 that had not been electronically scanned, she said.

Inspectors also found evidence that staffers at the Philadelphia regional office were manipulating dates to make old claims appear newer. The findings are similar to problems that have plagued VA health centers nationwide. Investigators have found long waits for appointments at VA hospitals and clinics, and falsified records to cover up the delays.

In Baltimore, investigators discovered that an employee had inappropriately stored thousands of documents, including some that contained Social Security data, in his office “for an extensive period of time.” About 8,000 documents, including 80 claims folders, unprocessed mail and Social Security information of dead or incarcerated veterans, were stored in the employee’s office, Halliday said.

Kristen Ruell, an employee at the VA’s Pension Management Center in Philadelphia, told the committee that mail routinely “sat in boxes untouched for years” at the pension office. Once, after becoming concerned that unopened mail was being shredded, Ruell opened the boxes and took photos. Instead of addressing the problem, she said, VA supervisors enacted a policy prohibiting taking photos.

“A lot of the mail that should not have been shredded was shredded,” she said.

A July 14, 2014 USA Today article (Gregg Zoroya, “Report cites VA struggles with benefits paid to veterans“) reported even more details of the Inspector General’s reports that stand in sharp contrast to Benefits Undersecretary Allison Hickey’s pollyannaish assertions that all is well with “her” efforts to reduce the claims backlog:

Other mistakes or sloppiness cited by Haliday include:

— The VA failed to follow up with veterans granted temporary 100% disability pending improvement of their physical health. Investigators estimate this has resulted in $85 million overpaid since 2012 and could mean another $370 million wasted in the next five years,

— Other VA processing responsibilities have suffered because of so much emphasis on reducing the compensation backlog. The number of pending appeals of compensation judgments has increased 18% since 2011 to nearly 270,000.

— Federal law prohibits reservists and National Guard troops from receiving drill pay and VA compensation at the same time. But the VA has failed to check on this, resulting in $50-$100 million in overpaid compensation annually.

Halliday cites an assortment of other problems including thousands of pieces of undelivered mail languishing at an Indianapolis VA processing center.

Read the full VA Inspector General testimony here:  http://www.va.gov/OIG/pubs/statements/VAOIG-statement-20140714-halliday.pdf

Posted in Legislative News, VA Claims, Veterans Articles & News | Leave a comment

VCS In the News

Veterans for Common Sense members’ advocacy has been in the press a lot this week.  See the round-up below:

  • Letter to the editor on revenue neutral carbon tax, a national security issue, by John Darovec:  
  • Letter to the Editor in the Sarasota Herald Tribune on corporate personhood, a civil liberties issue, by Kevin Connelly:  
  • Letter to the Editor in the Sarasota Herald Tribune on corporate personhood, a civil liberties issue, by Stephen Scott: 
Posted in Civil Liberties Articles & News, Gulf War, National Security Articles & News, VCS In The News, Veterans Articles & News | Comments Off

228,000 Veterans’ Claims Never Completed, then Dropped by VA

A new investigative report by NextGov’s Bob Brewin (“Hundreds of thousands of VA disability claims not processed”) shows that at least 228,000 veterans’ claims have been dropped by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) because they weren’t completed in time.

The NextGov article details the challenges with the VA’s new online claims system, where claims for service-conected disability are easily initiated but difficult to complete, including the near impossibility of uploading voluminous scans of medical records required to complete the claim.

In all, only 140,000 of the 445,000 claims submitted through the new online system were completed by veterans, leaving roughly 300,000 incomplete — more than two-thirds all of those submitted.

VFW National Veterans Service’s second-in-command told NextGov, the new VA system “was not ‘well thought-out’ when fielded and ‘the whole system was not ready for prime time’.”

By contrast to VFW’s reality check, VA Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey is quoted in the article as touting the new system when it was released in April 2013.  “Veterans can now file their claims online through eBenefits like they might do their taxes online,” Hickey is quoted as saying.

Hickey has been in the news a lot in the last year, including in an April 2014 Military Times expose where she was caught far outside her benefits lane meddling in medical research matters and trying to quash Gulf War veterans’ disability claims.  In a May 2014 Military Times expose, these same claims were revealed to have been denied by VA at an 80% rate — four out of every five.  Then in June 2014, she was outed in a Bergmann & Moore column as trying to block any new presumptive conditions for VA disability claims (“That will kill us!“, Hickey testified).

What’s not clear is whether this broken online claims system was another intentional effort by Hickey to block veterans’ new claims, as is the case with blocking Gulf War Ilness claims any any new presumptives.

What is clear, however, is that two out of every three veterans who began their VA claims through Allison Hickey’s much touted new online system were unable to complete them and are still waiting.

This time, however, they’re not waiting in yet another excessively long VA line, they’re waiting outside the system and when they’re ready to try again, they’ll have to start from scratch with a new date of claim that will save the VA millions of dollars in back compensation costs.

Because an approved VA claim is  the gateway to VA healthcare for a service-incurred condition, this will save the VA countless more budget dollars in the VA’s healthcare arm where Allison Hickey has already shown herself more than willing to inappropriately meddle.

Allison Hickey must be simply delighted to have found yet one more way to deny veterans the help they need so she can meet the overly politicized goals of staying within budget and reducing the VA’s claims backlog.

Read the full NextGov article on VA’s latest veterans’  disability claims foul play here:  

http://www.nextgov.com/defense/2014/07/exclusive-hundreds-thousands-va-electronic-disability-claims-not-processed/87808/

Posted in Gulf War, VA Claims, Veterans Articles & News | 2 Comments

Tampa Bay Times Critical of VA’s “Electronic Wait List” Changes

A new Tampa Bay Times article by journalist Bill Levesque, “VA rule changes eliminated thousands of veterans from waiting lists“, provides insight into the VA’s Electronic Waiting List (EWL) and its relationship to the current VA healthcare scandal.

The EWL was aimed at identifying veterans who had been waiting greater than 30 days for care.  Today, the EWL includes only those waiting longer than 90 days, three times as long as the original scope of the EWL.

Veterans for Common Sense Board Member Anthony Hardie is quoted in the article:

Some critics say the changes were a deliberate ploy by VA leaders to make this much-watched measure of hospital performance look better than it actually was.

“This looks to me like just one more of the VA’s gaming strategies that have been identified in the last year,” said Anthony Hardie, a Bradenton resident who is on the board of directors of Veterans for Common Sense, a nonprofit advocacy group. “It looks like VA leaders simply gave up on trying to fix the problem.”

According to Levesque’s reporting:

VA leaders have long known some hospitals used “workarounds” to make their books look better. “Workarounds,” a 2010 memo by VA leadership noted, “may mask the symptoms of poor access and, although they may aid in meeting performance measures, they do not serve our veterans.”

Read the full article here:  http://www.tampabay.com/news/military/veterans/va-rule-changes-eliminated-thousands-of-veterans-from-waiting-lists/2185509

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Reno Dispatch: Veterans Advocates Weigh In on New VA Secretary Appointment

An unusual new Reno Dispatch article by award-winning journalist and frequent veterans’ issues writer Jamie Reno, “Stepping Into The Fire: Veteran Advocates & Pols Sound Off On Obama’s Choice To Lead Scandal-Plagued VA”, provides an array of veteran advocates’ commentary regarding this week’s nomination of former Procter & Gamble executive Robert McDonald today as the next secretary of the embattled U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

Veterans for Common Sense Board member Anthony Hardie, “a
 Gulf War veteran and advocate who has spoken before Congress numerous times on issues related to veterans,” is quoted in the article:

“I think the last thing VA needs is another General or symbolic war hero. What VA needs is a complete Operation Cleansweep. I hope with Bob McDonald’s experience catering to stakeholders rather than employees that he will be able to clean house at VA and completely shift its focus. VA needs to be a service-oriented organization that goes above veterans’ expectations to serve and help and heal them, rather than continuing to work against so many of the veterans it is supposed to be serving in VA’s benefits, healthcare, and research silos.”

“To retain credibility,” Hardie added, “one of the first goals he must achieve is to utterly destroy VA’s current culture of delays, denial, and retribution against those who speak up and out.” 

Read the full article here:

http://therenodispatch.blogspot.com/2014/06/stepping-into-fire-veteran-advocates.html

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Gene Jones on U.S. Intervention in Syria/Iraq

Gene Jones is President of Florida Veterans for Common Sense (FLVCS) and a member of the Veterans for Common Sense Board of Directors.  He lives in Sarasota, Fla.

***

By Gene Jones

Published: Monday, June 30, 2014 at 1:00 a.m.,  Last Modified: Friday, June 27, 2014 at 3:34 p.m.

In response to the column by Rep. Greg Steube on June 26: The carnage, death and destruction brought about by the Iraq invasion and occupation are heart-wrenching, not only for those who served, like Rep. Steube, but for all Americans.

Steube correctly recognizes that President Bush made a mistake in invading Iraq. The occupation was also a mistake. Although American troops occupied Iraq for eight years, the Iraqi political process never stabilized.

Steube nevertheless blames President Obama for the collapse of the Iraqi army and the fall of a large part of Iraq to the Islamic State of Iraq.

He sets out President Obama’s mistakes as: failure to negotiate an Iraqi status-of-forces agreement and failure to help moderate Sunni insurgents fighting the al-Assad regime in Syria, thus letting al-Qaida take over the insurgency and decimate the moderates.

Steube further argues that Bush redeemed himself “when he green-lighted Gen. David Petraeus’ surge strategy and finally made victory for Americans and Iraqis a reality … and improving Iraqi forces knocked out the insurgency.”

To reach the conclusion that America was victorious, Steube oversimplifies issues and overlooks critical facts and policy considerations.

A central fact is that America invaded Iraq, a weak country unable to defend itself from the most powerful country on earth. The invasion resulted in the death of Iraqis by the hundreds of thousands and massive physical devastation. Many, if not most Iraqis, viewed America as an aggressor.

***

This story appeared in print in the Sarasota Herald Tribune on Monday, June 30th on page A8.  

http://www.heraldtribune.com/article/20140630/COLUMNIST/306309999/0/search

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White House to Congress: “Corrosive Culture” at VA

In a damning report to Congress by White House Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors, VA’s very essence is exposed bare for the world to see.

“A corrosive culture has led to personnel problems across the department that are seriously impacting morale, and by extension, the timeliness of care,” says the Nabors report.

Read the full Nabors Memo here:

http://blogs.rollcall.com/white-house/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2014/06/ROBNABORSVAREVIEW.pdf

Posted in Legislative News, VA Healthcare Crisis, Veterans Articles & News | Comments Off

Steve Robinson, Veterans’ Advocate and VCS Co-Founder, Dead at 51

It is with profound sadness that we write this short tribute to Steve Robinson, co-founder and former staff member of Veterans for Common Sense, who passed on from this life late last week.

Steve served as a member of the Board of Directors of Veterans for Common Sense from 2002 to 2009, and was a member of the staff from 2006 to 2007 during the time that VCS was merged with Veterans for America.

Many of his friends here at VCS had come to know Steve years earlier, when he approached us as leaders of the National Gulf War Resource Center.  Steve, an Army Ranger, had deep ethical concerns about the U.S. Department of Defense Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses (OSAGWI), where he had been working.  Eventually, he was selected as our Executive Director at the National Gulf War Resource Center, and continued in that role until 2006.

Several national media outlets have published fitting tributes to him.  All are worth taking the time to read in silent tribute, including those by CBSPBS NewsHour, and USA Today, where he was a frequent contributor.  And then, there was this 2007 New Republic article that described him, appropriately, as, “The Fixer”.

Together they noted Steve’s leading role in a rare balancing act between his unending passion for helping individual veterans and his life’s work exposing systemic failures and national scandals related to unacceptable treatment of countless thousands of these individual veterans he sought to help.

In one of these, he helped expose a nation to conditions unbefitting their status as wounded troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.  In another, he helped expose systemic problems with military discharges made for “personality disorder”, a “pre-existing” condition convenient for the Department of Defense to quickly be rid of them but with the serious consequence that left the veteran generally ineligible for VA benefits and follow-on care, rather than as would have been the case had they been discharged for the PTSD they were almost certainly suffering from and that almost certainly was caused by their combat service.

Steve was also an integral part of national advocacy efforts to uncover, unravel, and expose the breadth and depth of Gulf War Illness, a condition now known to affect more than one in three veterans of the 1991 Gulf War.  As part of those efforts, he served a vocal role on the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses (RAC) until 2006, and continued to advise and assist as the RAC issued major international findings that “Gulf War Illness is real” in 2008, and that those earlier conclusions had been affirmed and that treatments can likely be found less than two months before his death, in April 2014.

Charles Sheehan-Miles, fellow co-founder of Veterans for Common Sense, wrote the following in tribute:

“Mourning one of my heroes this morning. Steve Robinson came on board at the National Gulf War Resource Center fifteen years ago when we were going through major changes and he was just retiring from active duty service in the army. He went on to become the leading advocate for sick and injured veterans in the country, helping to expose the terrible conditions at Walter Reed early in the Iraq War and individually saving lives, one on one, all over the country.

“No one can replace him. He passed away suddenly night before last, and I don’t know any of the circumstances. I do know that this world will never be the same.

“Rest in peace, my friend.”

Paul Sullivan, another longtime friend, fellow co-founder of VCS, and who worked closely with Steve, said quietly, “My heart is heavy with the loss of a dear friend and fellow advocate.”  

Through his work and his personal care, this great man whom we knew as Steve touched the lives of millions of veterans, including all of us at VCS who had known and worked alongside him for years.  True to form, Steve remained actively engaged in helping veterans until the very end, dying at his desk.

While the cause of death is not yet definitive, those close to him said he had been having heart problems.  Steve was just 51 years old, and gone far too soon.

Our deepest and most sincere condolences go out to his wife Patti, his brother Ken, and his entire family.  Steve, you will always be missed.

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