VCS: IOM Gulf War Report “Turns Science On Its Head,” Researchers Say

 

WASHINGTON, Feb. 11, 2016 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ –– Gulf War Illness is the “signature” health problem of 1991 Gulf War veterans, affecting an estimated 24-33% of the nearly 700,000 who served, according to a new report of the Institute of Medicine, but researchers say its recommendations, “turn science on its head.”

“The previous IOM report correctly concluded that the illness is not psychiatric and likely results from the interplay of genetic and environmental factors,” said James Binns, former chairman of the federal Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses. “This report turns that science on its head.”

“This report recommends stopping research on the health effects of Gulf War exposures and focusing instead on ‘mind-body interconnectedness’,” said Gulf War veteran Anthony Hardie, who chairs a treatment research program funded by Congress. “It’s the same old government theme from the 1990’s to deny what happened and deny care and benefits — just when research to understand the illness and identify treatments is finally making real progress.”

The report noted two studies showing an increased risk of brain cancer mortality associated with the wartime demolition of a vast Iraqi chemical weapons depot at Khamisiyah – one conducted by the IOM itself – but then concluded this evidence was “insufficient/inadequate.”

“This is a profoundly sad message for Gulf War veterans with brain cancer and their widows who can’t currently get benefits from VA,” said Hardie, who also serves as director of Veterans for Common Sense.

“IOM committees should not be made up of former VA officials and their friends,” said Rick Weidman, Executive Director for Policy and Governmental Affairs for Vietnam Veterans of America. “It’s outrageous that the VA Undersecretary from the 1990’s who began the policy of minimizing Gulf War Illness was on this committee, or that the committee chair was on record before she was appointed saying you can’t say what caused it. Half the committee was psychiatric advocates. It’s exactly how the effects of Agent Orange were denied for thirty years after Vietnam. We intend to seek legislation to prohibit these corrupt practices.”

“The science is unequivocal, if viewed honestly and in its totality: Toxic exposures were responsible,” said Dr. Beatrice Golomb, Professor of Medicine at the University of California-San Diego and former scientific director of the Research Advisory Committee. “But the IOM doesn’t look at all relevant studies. This ‘don’t look, don’t find’ practice has been a consistent problem in IOM Gulf War reports.”

“Veterans who were more exposed to chemicals – particularly pesticides, PB (a nerve agent pretreatment pill), and perhaps nerve gas — are more likely to be ill, and to have more severe illness. Moreover, exposure to related chemicals in civilian settings has produced similar chronic health problems,” said Dr. Golomb.

***

 

EDITOR’S NOTE:  Other versions of this story appeared in:

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How For-Profit Colleges Hoodwink the G.I. Bill

How For-Profit Colleges Hoodwink the GI Bill
Source: Affordable-Online-Colleges.net

Veterans for Common Sense actively supports common sense efforts to regulate G.I. Bill use at for-profit schools.  Contact us at info@veteransforcommonsense.org .

Posted in Uncategorized, VCS Fact Sheets and Reports | Tagged | Leave a comment

VCS Calls on VA Secretary to “Clean House” at Florida VA Regional Office

(Veterans for Common Sense – Jan. 6, 2016) – According to a Tampa Bay Times news story surrounding a new VA inspector general report, more than 41,000 pieces of mail containing veterans’ disability claim documentation were unopened  during a recent inspection at the troubled Bay Pines VA Regional office that serves the state of Florida.  (Tampa Bay Times, “Report: Veterans’ claims backlogged by the thousands at St. Petersburg VA office,” Kathleen McGrory reporting, Jan. 6, 2016).  The delays resulted in an increase in backlog wait times of nearly 18 percent between 2014 and 2015.

According to Wednesday’s reporting in Florida’s largest newspaper, “more than 41,900 mail packages with unprocessed veterans’ claims materials piled up at the Veterans Affairs office in St. Petersburg last year,” along with “1,600 boxes of claims materials from the St. Petersburg office,” at a scanning facility in Georgia.

“We observed a large amount of hard copy sensitive veteran information haphazardly commingled with contract company documentation, excess office furniture, and empty computer boxes that appeared to be trash,” wrote VA inspectors.

Local VA officials predictably downplayed the seriousness of the findings, just the latest in a growing string of scathing inspector general reports about the Florida VA facility that has been found to be among the worst in the nation.

Veterans for Common Sense continues to be a watchdog on VA’s benefits and medical research operations, including frequently assisting news reporters.

The Tampa Bay Times again quoted Veterans for Common Sense in this latest story about the facility:

Anthony Hardie, director of the national advocacy organization Veterans for Common Sense, pointed out that this is the latest in a string of troubling audits focused on the St. Petersburg office.

In September, the inspector general reviewed 90 disability claims that were filed at the office, and found 19 percent had been inaccurately handled. One year earlier, an inspector general report characterized lost and misfiled records as a “major issue” for the St. Petersburg operation.

“It’s outrageous that there are still problems there,” said Hardie, who lives in Bradenton. “I don’t know when the VA secretary is going to take action to clean house, but that’s what needs to happen.”

The new backlog and latest serious issues at the St. Petersburg VA office earned the scorn of an array of Congressional members on both sides of the aisle, including Rep. Cathy Castor (D-FL), Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-FL), and U.S. Sen. and presidential candidate Marco Rubio (R-FL).

The Tampa Bay Times on Jan. 8 published a sharply critical editorial in response to the latest expose of serious issues at the St. Petersburg VA office, calling on the VA to “move quickly to fix this systemic problem”, which it described as, “shockingly inefficient,” “horrible customer service,” and “inexcusable.”  According to the editorial:

“The VA’s revelations about this unacceptable backlog in claims is the latest in a long line of unacceptable service issues with the agency. For years, veterans have complained about long wait times to get claims processed, secure appointments with doctors or get equipment. More recently, complaints have surfaced about the mishandling of veterans’ private health records and attempts to punish whistleblowers, some who say they have been targeted and had their medical records viewed by VA personnel without their permission. After each accusation of wrongdoing, the VA has repeatedly said it is committed to making improvements. But the changes occur at a ridiculously slow pace — if at all.”

“The unprocessed claims are more than pieces of paper. They represent the lives and struggles of veterans who are in need of care. The VA dishonors veterans’ sacrifices by treating their claims with such callous disrespect.”

As noted in the editorial, the Bay Pines VA Regional Office in St. Petersburg has been the subject of numerous critical reports, stemming back years.  In recent months:

*A May 15, 2014 VA Inspector General report found that the St. Petersburg office had serious issues with veterans’ claims records, including records stored haphazardly with many lost and misfiled records, unopened mail, and serious issues with date-stamping newly received claims documentation.

*On January 30, 2015, McClatchyDC reported on an initiative by two Florida Congressmen seeking answers on the St. Petersburg VA’s “unacceptably long” delays in processing veterans’ disability claims.  (McClatchyDC, “Congressmen push VA for answers on ‘unacceptably long’ delays in Fla.,”  Jan. 30, 2015, Chris Adams reporting).  VCS was quoted as saying, “Veterans who are waiting on their claims to be approved should not have to suffer through the incompetence of the St. Pete regional office,” and noted the problems in the St. Petersburg office have existed for years.

*On August 17, 2015, a scathing VA inspector general report cited the St. Petersburg VA regional office for serious filing errors, unopened mail containing sensitive veterans’ claims documentation, and unrecorded claims documents found in shred bins.

*On August 25, 2015, another critical VA inspector general report found that 19 percent of the 90 claims sampled were in error — roughly one in every five — resulting in 54 overpayments, underpayments, and other errors.

*An August 31 news story quoted VCS as saying veterans will continue to suffer, “until VA leadership in Washington steps in and takes serious steps to right the ship at this badly broken VA regional office in St. Petersburg.”  The issues also received the scorn of Republican Congressman Vern Buchanan (R-FL-13), who was quoted as saying, “It’s obvious much work needs to be done to ensure our veterans are getting the care they need and deserve.”

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How to Help

Are you a U.S. military veteran who is also a Florida resident (Florida only at this time) and you have recently experienced any of the following while you were a Florida resident:

  • VA “lost” your claims documentation?
  • VA put you through unacceptably long delays in processing your VA service-connected disability claim?
  • VA denied your service-connected VA disability claim for one or more “presumptive” conditions (“presumptive” only at this time, please — such as Agent Orange or Gulf War or other VA “presumptive” conditions)?

 

If you are and were a Florida resident veteran and you  answered yes to any of the three questions above, please share what happened to you bey emailing Tampa Bay Times reporter Alexandra Zayas at azayas@tampabay.com and copying your email to Veterans for Common Sense at info@veteransforcommonsense.org .

*****

More Information

Read the full Tampa Bay Times story here:  “Report: Veterans’ claims backlogged by the thousands at St. Petersburg VA office,” Kathleen McGrory reporting, Jan. 6, 2016.

Read the full VA Inspector General report here:  “Veterans Benefits Administration: Review of Alleged Problems with Veterans Benefits Management System and Claims Processing,” VA-OIG 14-04816-72, Jan. 6, 2016.

*****

Posted in VA Claims, VCS In The News, Veterans for Common Sense News | Leave a comment

VCS Helps Expose Cessation of Funding for Unique Burn Pit Exposure Research Program

(Veterans for Common Sense – Dec. 26, 2015) – Veterans for Common Sense helped expose, in a series of news stories by Military.com reporters, that funding has been quietly dropped for a unique federal Burn Pit Exposure medical research program.

The cessation of funding was first reported in a Wednesday, December 23, 2015 story by Military.com (“Congress drops Burn Pit Exposure from Pentagon research list,” Bryant Jordan reporting) after VCS first shared the information with Military.com.

The Burn Pit Exposure medical research program was a “topic” under the Department of Defense Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program’s (CDMRP) Fiscal Year 2015 Peer Reviewed Medical Research Program (PRMRP).  According to the program’s publicly available program announcements, its aims were:

  1. Research on the etiology and treatment of adverse health events related to military deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan associated with exposure to airborne hazards and open pit burning of solid waste and other materials.
  2. Toxicological studies to ascertain toxicity of natural dust, burn pit combustion products, interactions between pollutants, and mechanisms of action.
  3. Characterization of emissions from open air burns, burn boxes, and incinerators. This includes determining relative contributions of background anthropogenic and geogenic sources.
  4. Development and validation of exposure assessment instruments for use in research and clinical validation.

With the possible exception of certain treatment aims of other respiratory health “topics”, these aims were not duplicated elsewhere.

The Dec. 23 story quoted the following:

“‘There’s nothing comparable,’ said Anthony Hardie, director of Veterans for Common Sense. ‘There’s very little [burn pit exposure] research inside the [Department of Veterans Affairs].'”

“Ron Brown, president of the National Gulf War Research Center …. said he didn’t know why the topic was discontinued.”

A follow-on story on Thursday, December 24 (“VA ordered to report to Congress on Burn Pits Registry findings,” Bryant Jordan reporting) reported that in newly passed legislation authored by U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-NC), the federal VA, “has been directed to report to Congress early next year on the findings of its Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, where veterans can detail health problems linked to exposure to burn-pits, oil well fires or other toxins or pollutants during deployments.”

The second story again referred to the discontinued burn pit exposure funding:

“Udall’s directive to VA comes even as the health consequences of burn pit exposure failed to make the 2016 list of peer-reviewed medical research programs that Congress requires the Pentagon to conduct.

“Anthony Hardie, director of Veterans for Common Sense, expressed concern over the loss of the item in the list after being included in the 2015 legislation.

“‘There’s nothing comparable,’ he said on Wednesday. ‘There’s very little [burn pit exposure] research inside the [Department of Veterans Affairs].'”

According to one of the commenters to the second story:

“Typical Congress: they want VA to waste time and money on a report that no one will read, but won’t fund a study that will help define the full nature and scope of the problem.” -Motive25

A radio show with Brendan McGarry, an award-winning Military.com reporter and editor followed the two online stories, adding more exposure to these Burn Pit Exposure funding and reporting issues.

 

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Senate spars on for-profit colleges accused of injuring troops, veterans

In a Senate floor speech this week, U.S. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) defended for-profit colleges accused of injurious practices affecting military service members, veterans, and student loan recipients.

In an Oct. 29, 2015 Huffington Post article, McCain is quoted as accusing U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) as having, “orchestrated” a “shameful … vendetta against for-profit universities.”  (“McCain lashes out at Durbin, defends veteran-abusing for-profit colleges,” David Halperin reporting)

According to the article:

“In fact, it is McCain, by using his power as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee to pressure the Department of Defense to back off a legitimate investigation of the University of Phoenix, who is doing a disservice to service members and veterans, who deserve to be protected against deceptive recruiting, poor quality programs, and other predatory practices.”

The clash comes following a Pentagon crack-down on certain for-profit colleges that have taken financial advantage of military service members and recipients of G.I. bill benefits and student loans.  Some have been found to fraudulently mislead prospective students, with non-accredited programs that leave graduates unable to secure a job in their field of study, courses and credits that don’t transfer and leave students unable to switch to a different school, and exorbitant tuition and fees that leave students saddled with untenable debt burdens.

For military service members and veterans, they also expend valuable months of their substantial but limited G.I. bill educational benefits.  The number of months of available benefits is reduced for each month of schooling paid for by the G.I. Bill.  In addition to the accreditation and lack of transferability issues, G.I. bill recipients have also irretrievably lost their G.I. Bill benefits.

In one recent case, for-profit Corinthian Colleges went bankrupt, leaving students without degrees or transferrable credits, saddled with massive debt and lost G.I. bill benefits, unable to find employment in their field of study and unable to transfer to another school.

Meanwhile, nearly all of these schools’ revenue comes from federal tuition programs like the federal G.I. Bill and federally guaranteed student loans, leaving taxpayers on the hook for billions of dollars and making the issue a growing national public policy concern.

Earlier this week, a coalition of 33 veteran-related and other organizations sent a letter to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, praising the Pentagon’s efforts to clamp down on the University of Phoenix, one of the for-profit colleges in question,
to protect service members from deceptive recruiting, including surreptitious recruiting on military installations.”  The coalition included Veterans for Common Sense (VCS), Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), Student Veterans of America (SVA), and 29 others.

According to the Huffington Post article, McCain in his Senate floor speech even went so far as to accuse Durbin of having a, “well-known record of not supporting the men and women who are serving in the military.”

Sen. Durbin has been perennially instrumental in ensuring continued and increased funding for Gulf War Illness treatment research — a key area of VCS interest — including in joint House-Senate conference committees on appropriations bills for the U.S. Department of Defense.  That funding, part of the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program (CDMRP), would have been banned by an amendment (#1463) authored and introduced earlier this year by Sen. McCain targeting nearly the entire CDMRP portfolio.  VCS and dozens of health advocacy organizations banded together to oppose and defeat the McCain amendment.  And, while Durbin has been a perennial cosigner to Senate Dear Colleague letters leading to funding the Gulf War Illness treatment research program, McCain has never done so.

Durbin also introduced a Servicemember Student Loan Affordability amendment to this year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would expand the reach of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) to limit the interest rate on military service members’  student loans during their military service despite the fact that the student loans were incurred prior to their military service.  VCS remains in firm support of this pro-military measure.

Read the full Huffington Post article here:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/davidhalperin/mccain-lashes-out-at-durb_b_8421060.html

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VA Undersecretary Allison Hickey Resigns, Much Remains Unresolved

(Veterans for Common Sense – Oct. 16, 2015) — “Beleaguered” Department of Veterans Affairs Undersecretary of Benefits Allison Hickey resigned today after the latest scandal on her watch, reports Stars and Stripes. (Stars and Stripes, “Beleaguered Undersecretary Resigns from VA After Hiring Scandal,” Oct. 16, 2015, Heath Druzin reporting).

From the never ending VA claims backlog that has been shifted to denied claims forced to wait in a new long line for appeals to the most recent hiring and moving allowance scandal, Hickey has been in the line of fire for some time as more and more missteps occurred on her watch.

According to a Military Times story, Hickey’s resignation was her own choice and one that VA Secretary Bob McDonald accepted only, “reluctantly”.  (Military Times, “VA Benefits Chief Allison Hickey Resigns,” Oct. 16, 2015, Leo Shane III reporting).

The American Legion, the nation’s largest veterans service organization, had been pressing for removal of Hickey and two other top VA officials.

In a press statement, American Legion National Commander Dale Barnett said today, “Although we called for her resignation, we take no joy in it. The widespread problems at the VA are not the fault of one person. She is one of three leaders that we asked to step down when the problems were first exposed last year. Now that the three senior officials that were in place at VA have left office, The American Legion is optimistic that Secretary McDonald can finally make the cultural changes that he needs so VA can be worthy of the veterans that it serves.”

ThePhiladelphia Inquirer notes that Hickey, “had ties to problems that have beset the Philadelphia benefits office, deemed in April the VA’s ‘most problematic’ site… Emails made public this fall suggested Hickey had a role in – or at least supported – the appointment of Diana Rubens as director of the Philadelphia office last year, [whose] appointment has since drawn scrutiny,” and investigations into, “if she broke the law by orchestrating her own reassignment to a job with fewer duties but the same pay.” (Philadelphia Inquirer, “Under pressure, top VA official steps down,” Oct. 16, 2015, Caitlin McCabe and Tricia Nadolny reporting)

Hickey also came under fire from Veterans for Common Sense and some members of Congress two years ago for her apparent leading role in blocking new presumptives for Gulf War veterans, having secret communications with a medical research panel at the Institute of Medicine to block the use of the term “Gulf War Illness,” and allowing massive numbers of Gulf War and Agent Orange presumptive claims to be denied.  The denial rate for Gulf War Illness claims was an astounding 80 percent, revealed only after documents obtained with VCS assistance were released to the media by a Michigan Congressman.

In recent months, after Secretary Bob McDonald took the helm of the VA, Hickey has appeared to personally lead the reversal of a token number of denied presumptive Gulf War claims, earning her accolades among some in an online group of Gulf War veterans who praise her for her responsiveness and individual assistance.  Others who she did not assist were less kind in their comments.

To date, Hickey has not provided any public acknowledgment of nor an explanation for the apparently systemic denials of thousands of Gulf War and Agent Orange presumptive disability claims.  As she leaves VA, she leaves no public sign of a long overdue, across-the-board VA resolution for the thousands of denied presumptive claims.

The Wall Street Journal today noted that, “a number of VA Office of Inspector General reports documenting claim irregularities and suggesting that some claims are being processed hastily.” (Wall Street Journal, “Top Veterans Affairs Official Resigns“, Oct. 16, 2015, Ben Kesling reporting)

In August, Vietnam Veterans of America President John Rowan noted in a press release, “that the claims appeals backlog has skyrocketed by 22 percent to over 307,700 appeals in the past three years.”  “Simply deciding an initial claim faster and shifting veterans over to a broken appeals process isn’t the answer. Veterans deserve an accurate decision, first time up, and if necessary, a fair, accurate, and timely resolution at the lowest level possible,” said Rowan.

Meanwhile, VA’s Office of Research and Development and the VA’s Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans Illnesses (RAC) have followed Hickey’s lead on “Gulf War Illness,” choosing an elaborate new name for the condition, “Chronic Multisymptom Illness presenting as Gulf War Illness.”  This complex wording choice ignored IOM’s and Gulf War veterans’ recommendations to use the commonly used term, “Gulf War Illness,” — presumably to avoid paying more Gulf War Illness claims.

In a statement today, House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller said VBA needs, “a leader who will put veterans – not VA bureaucrats first – while working to end the backlog without sacrificing quality, accuracy or service to veterans.”

###

 

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VCS Among 35 Groups to Call on Senate to Adopt VA Whistleblower Protections

Groups call on Senate to Adopt VA Whistleblower Protections

Shanna Devine, September 16, 2015

Yesterday, more than 35 organizations and whistleblowers called on Senate leadership to adopt strong whistleblower protections for Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) employees and contractors.

On July 30th, National Whistleblower Appreciation Day, the House passed robust protections for VA whistleblowers as Section 4 of the VA Accountability Act of 2015 (H.R. 1994). On September 14th a diverse spectrum of organizations, ranging from the Taxpayers Protection Alliance to Veterans for Common Sense and American Civil Liberties Union, sent a letter to Senate leadership and VA Committee leadership that urges the Senate to adopt similar reforms.

The letter states –

Section 4 of H.R. 1994 is a major breakthrough in the struggle for VA whistleblowers to gain credible rights when defending the integrity of the agency mission and disclosing quality of care concerns. Further, it would provide a system to hold employees accountable for their actions when they retaliate against those exposing waste, fraud, or abuse.

Specifically, the whistleblower provision approved in the House –

imposes a legal requirement for each level within the chain of command to act on whistleblowing disclosures in a timely, transparent manner

closes the loophole for VA’s primary vehicle to retaliate against agency professionals – retaliatory investigations disguised as peer reviews

imposes stepped up personal accountability through requiring heightened penalties after findings that merit system has been violated

strengthens accountability by forcing merit system violators to repay their bonuses

challenges camouflaged retaliation by reinforcing protection against agency efforts to purge whistleblowers from contractor ranks; and

fosters prevention by integrating Office of Special Counsel and OIG Whistleblower Ombudsman into stepped-up training that spotlights the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act’s new “anti-gag” provisions.

The letter raises concerns, however, about language in H.R. 1994 that would in fact weaken due process rights for non-whistleblowers. It asserts, “Along with whistleblowing, due process rights exist to protect the merit system as the essential foundation for non-partisan, professional public service”

Despite 2012 passage of the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act – legislation that overhauled protections for federal whistleblowers – the need for additional VA rights couldn’t be more urgent. On National Whistleblower Appreciation Day, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) highlighted the unprecedented workload at the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), which has received a near 70% increase in whistleblower complaints since 2008. He was joined by Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), who called for a sea-change in culture at the VA and acknowledged the OSCs proactive efforts to protect whistleblowers, including 40 disciplinary actions against responsible officials at the VA.

To get involved with the campaign to strengthen protections for VA whistleblowers, contact GAP legislative Director Shanna Devine at Shannad@whistleblower.org or 202.457.0034, ext. 132.

The full letter can be viewed here

Letter signatories include:

ACORN 8
American Civil Liberties Union
Bogdan Dzakovic (Aviation Security Whistleblower)
Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists
Collaborative Alliances of America
Council for a Livable World
Drum Majors for Truth
Federal Ethics Center
Federally Employed Women – Legal Education Fund
Golden Badge
Government Accountability Project
Gun Owners of America
International Association of Whistleblowers
Judicial Engineering Documented and Impeded
Law Office of Elaine Mittleman
Liberty Coalition
National Forum on Judicial Accountability
National Judicial Conduct and Disability Law Project, Inc
National Whistleblowers Center
OAK (Organizations Associating for the Kind of Change America Really Needs)
OpenTheGovernment.org
Peace Action
Plea for Justice Program
Power Over Poverty Under Laws of America Restored
Project On Government Oversight
Public Citizen
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility
Robert MacLean (Federal Air Marshal Whistleblower)
Sunlight Foundation
State Community Councils
Taxpayers for Common Sense
Taxpayers Protection Alliance
The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation
The Coalition for Change, Inc.
Thomas Day (Coast Guard Whistleblower)
Veterans for Common Sense
Whistleblower Support Fund

– See more at: https://www.whistleblower.org/blog/105616-groups-call-senate-adopt-va-whistleblower-protections#sthash.M29I6D05.dpuf

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VCS Calls on VA Leadership to ‘right the ship’ at St. Petersburg VA regional office

(Veterans for Common Sense – Aug. 31, 2015) –  A new report by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) inspector general found serious errors in one in every five of a sample of veterans’ disability claims processed by the VA regional office in St. Petersburg, Florida.

According to the VA inspectors, 19 percent of the 90 claims sampled were in error, resulting in 54 overpayments, underpayments, and other errors.  The office processes disability claims for veterans from the entire state of Florida, which with 1.5 million veterans has the third most veterans of among the 50 states.

According to the McClatchyDC story (“Florida office cited for errors handling veterans’ disability claims,” Aug. 31, 2015, Chris Adams reporting):

“Despite improvements in recent months, agency watchdogs said the report shows the VA still has a long way to go.

“‘The countless veterans whose claims and medical files have been lost, never processed, inappropriately denied, underpaid and overpaid will continue to suffer until VA leadership in Washington steps in and takes serious steps to right the ship at this badly broken VA regional office in St. Petersburg,’ said Anthony Hardie of Bradenton, Fla., who is director of the national advocacy organization Veterans for Common Sense.

“Likewise, U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, a Republican who represents the Bradenton and Sarasota areas, said in a statement, ‘It’s obvious much work needs to be done to ensure our veterans are getting the care they need and deserve.’”

The Bay Pines VA Regional Office in St. Petersburg has been the subject of numerous critical reports in recent months.

A May 15, 2014 VA Inspector General report found that the St. Petersburg office had serious issues with veterans’ claims records, including records stored haphazardly with many lost and misfiled records, unopened mail, and serious issues with date-stamping newly received claims documentation.

On January 30, 2015, McClatchyDC reported on an initiative by two Florida Congressmen seeking answers on the St. Petersburg VA’s “unacceptably long” delays in processing veterans’ disability claims.  (McClatchyDC, “Congressmen push VA for answers on ‘unacceptably long’ delays in Fla.,”  Jan. 30, 2015, Chris Adams reporting).  VCS was quoted as saying, “Veterans who are waiting on their claims to be approved should not have to suffer through the incompetence of the St. Pete regional office,” and noted the problems in the St. Petersburg office have existed for years.

On August 17, 2015, a scathing VA inspector general report cited the St. Petersburg VA regional office for serious filing errors, unopened mail containing sensitive veterans’ claims documentation, and unrecorded claims documents found in shred bins.

The McClatchyDC news bureau serves 29 newspapers in 14 states and has 40 million readers monthly.

*****

Read the full VA Inspector General report: (“Veterans Benefits Administration: Inspection of VA Regional Office, St. Petersburg, Florida,” VA-OIG 15-00001-436, Aug. 25, 2015

Read the full McClatchy DC news story:  “Florida office cited for errors handling veterans’ disability claims,” Aug. 31, 2015, Chris Adams reporting

Posted in Legislative News, VA Claims, VCS In The News | Leave a comment

U.S. Senator Baldwin Announces Growing Support for VCS-Supported Major Bipartisan VA Reform Bill

U.S. Senator Baldwin Announces Growing Support for Major, Bipartisan, VCS-Supported VA Reform Bill

Jason Simcakoski Memorial Opioid Safety Act would provide VA with the tools it needs to address the problem of overprescribing practices

Senators Durbin, Franken and Klobuchar join The American Legion, MOAA, AMVETS and others in endorsing legislation

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin today announced that support continues to grow for her bipartisan legislation aimed at providing safer and more effective pain management services to our nation’s veterans, the Jason Simcakoski Memorial Opioid Safety Act.

In just a month, Senator Baldwin’s bipartisan legislation has gained support from: Disabled American Veterans Wisconsin, Disabled American Veterans (DAV), Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), The American Legion, Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA), Veterans for Common Sense, Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), Association of the United States Navy (AUSN), National Guard Association of the United States (NGAUS), Military Officers Association of America (MOAA), American Veterans (AMVETS), American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), and Trust for America’s Health (TFAH).

In the U.S. Senate, the legislation is cosponsored by Democrats and Republicans: U.S. Senate Assistant Democratic Leader Dick Durbin (D-IL), Ranking Member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and U.S. Senators Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Al Franken (D-MN), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Ron Johnson (R-WI), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Joe Manchin (D-WV), Ed Markey (D-MA), Jerry Moran (R-KS), Patty Murray (D-WA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Jon Tester (D-MT).

“The sad truth is that the number of veterans taking opioid painkillers is disproportionately high, compared to the general population,” said Senator Durbin. “The VA is exploring different ways to help veterans alleviate their pain. This bill assesses the scope of the issue and recommends ways to help veterans obtain the best and safest care. I commend Senator Baldwin for her leadership on this important issue.”

“Unfortunately, our veterans’ battles don’t always end when they come home,” said Senator Franken. “Too many of our servicemembers return with mental and physical wounds sustained while protecting our freedoms, and I believe we have a special duty to ensure that they get the care and support they need to cope. But we cannot continue overprescribing and over-relying on medications that all too often lead to tragic consequences. This bipartisan bill would help provide our veterans with safer, more effective pain management plans.”

“As a former prosecutor, I know the havoc drugs can wreak on families and also that every struggle with drugs is unique—there is no one-size-fits-all strategy in this fight,” said Senator Klobuchar. This bipartisan legislation gives the VA the ability to offer our nation’s veterans a diverse set of proven tools that can help combat addiction.”

“Too many of our nation’s veterans have returned from overseas only to fight another battle here at home. Tragically, stories like Jason Simcakoski’s exist all around the country, including in my home state of West Virginia. Far too many young West Virginia veterans have faced the horrors of PTSD and failed to receive the quality of care they deserve. These are heartbreaking examples of the grave magnitude of overmedication, and we must do everything in our power to prevent deadly opioid overmedication in our VA facilities. I am proud to join with Senator Baldwin to strengthen opioid prescribing guidelines and improve pain management services at the VA. This legislation will not only provide our veterans a healthier transition to civilian life, it will save lives,” said Senator Capito.

The American Legion applauds the Jason Simcakoski Memorial Opioid Safety Act and Senator Baldwin’s efforts to reform prescribing practices for veterans,” said Ian DePlanque, Director of the Legislative Division for The American Legion.“Medications in and of themselves are tools – not necessarily good, not necessarily bad – you want to make sure you’re using the right tools in the right situation. There are other tools that are available. Some complementary and alternative therapy might work better for particular veterans or for veterans that may have circumstances that are particularly exacerbating.”

“The Jason Simcakoski Memorial Opioid Safety Act is an extremely important and timely piece of legislation,” said VADM Norb Ryan, USN-ret., President of the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA). “MOAA fully supports this bipartisan effort and commends Senator Tammy Baldwin for championing such a critical bill that will keep veterans safe and provide VA with the necessary tools to more effectively manage pain services.”

AMVETS thanks Senator Baldwin for her ongoing support of all American veterans and especially for her leadership in the development and introduction of the Jason Simcakoski Memorial Opioid Safety Act,” said Diane M. Zumatto, AMVETS National Legislative Director. “Once enacted, this legislation will go a long way towards reducing veteran addiction to prescription medications, thereby greatly improving their quality of life, their ability to secure and retain appropriate, living-wage jobs and to continue their service to our great nation.”

“The Jason Simcakoski Memorial Opioid Safety Act by Senator Baldwin is an important step forward in protecting veterans suffering from debilitating chronic pain. Veterans for Common Sense supports this thorough, thoughtful legislation, which among its many wise provisions would reduce risk of overmedication, improve prescribing guidelines, and advance pain management alternatives. Importantly, the bill would also require new VA accountability, audits, and transparency. Veterans for Common Sense salutes Senator Baldwin’s leadership in authoring this bill, and urges Congress to swiftly pass it to get VA on the right track with regards to opioid safety.” –Veterans for Common Sense Director Anthony Hardie

“AFGE strongly supports the Jason Simcakoski Memorial Opioid Safety Act and commends Senator Baldwin for her leadership on this critical patient safety issue for our nation’s veterans,” said Beth Moten, American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Legislative and Political Director. “This important legislation establishes lifesaving preventive measures that ensure safe opioid prescribing practices while expanding available treatment options consistent with current best practices and research.”

On August 30, 2014, U.S. Marine Veteran Jason Simcakoski died at the Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center as a result of mixed drug toxicity. The Jason Simcakoski Memorial Opioid Safety Act would provide VA with the tools it needs to help prevent this type of tragedy from occurring to other veterans and their families.

“This is an opportunity to take all of this and learn from it. We have a chance to create a new path; or we can continue how we currently are and keep making the same mistakes we are today,” said Heather Simcakoski, Jason’s widow. “When I look back at the past, I want to know we made a difference. I want to believe we have leaders in our country who care. I want to inspire others to never give up because change is possible.”

“This legislation from Senator Baldwin is one of the most important actions we can take to save the lives of our greatest assets, our veterans,” said Marv Simcakoski, Jason’s father.

Senator Baldwin’s bipartisan legislation, crafted in close consultation with medical professionals, veterans service organizations, and the Simcakoski family, focuses on strengthening the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) opioid prescribing guidelines and improving pain management services by putting the following reforms in place:

  • Requiring stronger opioid prescribing guidelines and education for VA providers including stricter standards against prescribing dangerous combinations of opioids with other drugs and for prescribing opioids to patients struggling with mental health issues;
  • Increased coordination and communication throughout the VA with medical facilities, providers, patients and their families surrounding pain management, alternative treatments for chronic pain, and appropriate opioid therapy; and
  • Holding the VA system accountable for appropriate care and quality standards through consistent internal audits as well as GAO reviews and reports to Congress.

In addition to improving opioid therapy and pain management, the Jason Simcakoski Memorial Opioid Safety Act helps strengthen patient advocacy, expand access to complementary and integrative health and wellness, and enhance VA hiring and internal audits.

Learn more about the Jason Simcakoski Memorial Opioid Safety Act here.

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Connecticut the Latest State to Tax-Exempt Military Retirement Pay

(Veterans for Common Sense – July 29, 2015) – Connecticut is the latest state to exempt military retirement pay from state taxation, according to a recent Hartford Courant news story (“Military Pensions Now Fully Exempt from State Income Tax,” July 16, 2015, Andrew M. Duehren reporting).

According to a military.com tally, nine states currently have no or very limited state income taxation.  And, an additional 17 states — including newest addition, Connecticut — exempt military retired pay from state taxation, along with 28 additional states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico that exempt disabled retired pay from state taxation.

Many state governments have recognized the competition between the states to attract military retirees, who frequently have both shallow and diverse geographic ties and often consider state taxation and similar economic factors when determining where to ultimately settle, purchase a home, and spend their retirement income.

Military retirees who move to tax-exempt states like Connecticut and the 25 other states that do not tax military retirement pay can immediately realize a de facto pay raise.

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