(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.”