New Bill Would Create VA Whistleblower Protections, More Accountability for Retaliators

SOURCE:  PRESS RELEASE, U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, 1/28/2015

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Miller Proposes New VA Whistleblower Protections, More Accountability for Retaliators

 WASHINGTON, D.C. — Yesterday Chairman Miller introduced the Veterans Affairs Retaliation Prevention Act of 2015. The bill would provide VA whistleblowers with a means to solve problems at the lowest level possible, while offering them protection from reprisals and real accountability for those who reprise against them. 

Specifically, the bill would:

  • Establish a new system employees could use to report retaliation claims that emphasizes addressing problems at the lowest level possible. Supervisors would be required to report all retaliation claims to facility directors, eliminating the possibility for facility leaders to claim plausible deniability of such claims
  • Codify prohibitions against negative personnel actions for employees who file whistleblower complaints or who cooperate with congressional, Government Accountability Office or Inspector General investigations
  • Establish mandatory disciplinary penalties for employees found to have engaged in retaliation against whistleblowers
  • Establish a mandatory whistleblower protection training program for all VA employees

In the months since VA’s medical care wait times and accountability crises were exposed, the department’s treatment of whistleblowers has generated much discussion and controversy. Although VA leaders have pledged that whistleblower retaliation will not be tolerated, many VA whistleblowers contend little has changed in the wake of the department’s vows to protect employees who expose wrongdoing.

Incredibly, even as the department has reached legal settlements with whistleblowers who endured retaliation, those who retaliated against them have gone unpunished. According to Phoenix VA Health Care system whistleblower and settlement recipient Dr. Katherine Mitchell, “the physician chain of command and the HR chain of command that retaliated against me remain intact and, as far as I know, have never been held accountable.” Even after paying out more than $1 million taxpayer dollars to settle recent claims from employees who endured retaliation, VA has refused to say whether it would discipline the retaliators whose actions led to the settlements.

After introducing the bill, Chairman Miller released the following statement:

“Even though Sec. McDonald says VA will not tolerate retaliation against whistleblowers, the fact remains the department still has much more work to do when it comes to fully addressing this issue. This problem went unchecked at VA for years, and it would be naïve to think it would simply vanish upon the appointment of a new secretary and in the absence of the thorough housecleaning the department so desperately needs. VA’s transformation won’t be complete until employees at all levels understand there are tangible consequences for retaliating against whistleblowers.

“This will only be achieved through actions, not words. Though Sec. McDonald and other VA leaders have said protecting whistleblowers is important, they must also ensure the department moves swiftly to fire any employees who have engaged in whistleblower retaliation. That hasn’t happened yet, and this bill will give VA leaders more tools to ensure that it does.” – Rep. Jeff Miller, Chairman, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs

 Read the text of the bill here.

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MILITARY TIMES: “Delay, Deny, Wait ’til they Die” — McDonald must turn around VA

SOURCE:  Military Times editorial board editorial, Jan. 23, 2015

http://www.navytimes.com/story/opinion/2015/01/23/bellwether-va-moment/22224705/

ARCHIVED ARTICLE:

Editorial: A bellwether VA moment:  Bob McDonald must turn around the VA.

2:27 p.m. EST January 23, 2015

New Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald has the Herculean task of trying to right his scandal-plagued department, a mighty challenge forcefully defied by institutional resistance to change and a bureaucratic belief that its core mission is to serve the best interests of the government rather than those of the men and women who served the country in uniform.

VA’s latest success in embarrassing itself involves the Air Force’s fleet of C-123 aircraft that sprayed the toxic defoliant Agent Orange on the jungles of Southeast Asia in the Vietnam War.

After the war, the planes were scrubbed down and kept in service, with 1,500 to 2,100 troops flying on them before they were retired for good in 1982. Many of those troops are now sick with cancer and other illnesses that they’ve long claimed were caused by toxic residue lingering in those C-123 airframes.

That charge was backed up in 2012 in a government report. In customary fashion, VA’s response was complete denial. Now, a new scientific review has come to the same conclusion as the earlier report — “with confidence.”

It’s the latest in decades of VA health controversies: depleted uranium, burn pits, tainted anthrax vaccine, and more. In the pointed words of Rick Weidman of Vietnam Veterans of America, VA’s standard approach to veterans’ environmental health issues is “delay, deny, wait ’til they die.”

McDonald somehow must turn around this massive, calcified outfit that still lacks vision, accountability, and, most importantly, trust among many of the veterans it was created to serve.

VA officials promise to respond to the newest C-123 report. That response will go a long way toward determining whether McDonald can effect the changes so badly overdue at VA.

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BERGMANN & MOORE: Data Show Increased Respiratory, Other Disorders In Iraq/Afghanistan War Veterans

SOURCE: Bergmann & Moore, Kelly Kennedy reporting, 1/21/2015

http://www.vetlawyers.com/respiratory-disorders-go-up-slide-back-down-as-deployments-do-same/

ARCHIVED ARTICLE:

Respiratory disorders go up, slide back down, as deployments do same

Bergmann & Moore compiles 13 years’ worth of DoD morbidity data

Morbidity burdens per 10,000 active-duty service members

 Year

’03

’04

’05

’06

’07

’08

’09

’10

’11

’12

’13

COPD

124

111

142

145

167

179

218

184

178

163

147

Chronic sinusitis

107

115

149

197

221

229

245

236

238

224

221

cardio-vascular

515

549

562

604

622

569

626

638

647

642

612

other neurological conditions

78

77

79

142

132

145

190

229

211

240

251

Source: Bergmann & Moore compilation and analysis of Defense Department morbidity reports

by Kelly Kennedy

Bergmann & Moore

The Supreme Court ruled today that service members and contractors who believe their health was affected by massive, open pits of burning garbage in Iraq and Afghanistan could sue KBR Inc., the businesses charged with operating those pits.

While it’s hard to know how those lawsuits will play out, it could mean that more information emerges about what the troops were exposed to and how it affected them.

Some of those service members lived just a mile from a pit at Balad Air Base that burned 240 tons of trash a day. A thick, black plume—large enough that pilots used it as a landmark while flying—carried smoke from burned Styrofoam used at the dining facility, broken computers and even vehicles deemed unworthy of rehabilitation, and the tons of plastic water bottles used for almost every ounce of water imbibed in the war zone.

An airman tosses unserviceable uniform items into a burn pit, March 10, 2008 at Balad Air Base in Iraq. (Julianne Showalter/U.S. Air Force)

Others worked in the pits, tossing in trash or monitoring from towers to ensure the flames did not spread outside the pit.

The Department of Veterans Affairs says the burn pits likely caused temporary, and not long-term irritation, and cited an Institute of Medicine report as stating there was insufficient evidence to show long-term problems. “Research does not show evidence of long-term health problems from exposure to burn pits at this time,” states VA’s website.

That’s not exactly what the IOM said: They said there was not enough good data taken by the Defense Department in Iraq to show anything at all. And one of the investigators,  David Tollerud, an environmental health scientist at the University of Louisville and chairman of the study, told me when I worked at USA TODAY, “I think the long-term health questions still remain.”

He said research on health outcomes performed five to 10 years after exposure is probably too early to determine if heart and vascular problems or cancers are due to the burn pits. And some groups exposed to similar materials have seen problems: Firefighters have higher rates of heart and vascular problems. Research has linked firefighters and incinerator workers with brain, testicular, colon and prostate cancer.

Now it is five to 10 years later for some vets, and we’re seeing more people come forward with cancers they believe are connected to the burn pits, or with a constant nasal drip that doesn’t respond to allergy medications, or unable to walk up a flight of stairs without becoming winded–even though they ran marathons before they deployed.

The IOM said, in it’s 2011 report, that it would be important to keep watching these service members because of “the carcinogenic nature of many of the chemicals potentially associated with burn-pit emissions.”

Continuing the lawsuits may allow for exactly that: more data, more health evaluations and more answers.

While at USA TODAY, I looked at Defense Department morbidity reports. We found that cardiovascular issues for service members increased from 65,520 in 2001 to 91,013 in 2010. Looking at the latest numbers, they’ve slipped back down to 84,941 in 2013 as deployments slowed and after the majority of the burn pits were shut down after an outcry in Congress and new rules in the 2010 Defense Authorization Act.

The data showed neurological conditions increased from 9,688 to 32,667 in the same time period, and hit 34,873 in 2013.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease increased from 13,554 cases in 2001 to a high  of 30,778 in 2009, before going back down to 20,412 in 2013. COPD usually appears in smokers and, in 92 percent of the cases, is diagnosed in people older than 45, according to the American Lung Association.

Brain, testicular and thyroid cancer numbers also went up, and continue to do so.

At Fort Campbell, Kentucky, military health workers became so concerned when an infantry unit returned from Iraq with several members unable to pass the run portion of a physical fitness test that the soldiers were sent to Vanderbilt University Medical Center for further testing. There, Robert Miller performed lung biopsies and determined that more than 50 of the soldiers have constrictive bronchiolitis, a rare disease that closes the smallest passageways of the lungs. Miller said the disease should have showed up on X-rays, but did not.

Rather than aggressively going after that research, the Army simply stopped sending troops to Miller, saying the biopsies were unnecessary. Miller said that’s troubling because, without the biopsies, it’s hard for veterans to prove they’re sick for disability benefits.

Another researcher, Anthony Szema,  an assistant professor at Stony Brook School of Medicine who specializes in pulmonology and allergies, found that 14 percent of service members who went to Iraq or Afghanistan experienced shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing and chest tightness.

Szema’s research has shown that 14% of servicemembers who deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan had new-onset respiratory problems, including shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing and chest tightness.

Again, rather than pushing for more of this research, whistle blower Steven Coughlin, a former epidemiologist in the VA’s public health department, told Congress VA didn’t release any data that showed there might be problems.

Perhaps with some outside help, the veterans will be able to prove what they’ve suspected all along and get the health care and benefits they earned while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Bergmann & Moore, LLC, is a national law firm dedicated to serving the needs of veterans in compensation claims before and against the Department of Veterans Affairs. The firm’s partners are former VA attorneys who are very familiar with the VA system. Bergmann & Moore handles all kinds of cases, but has a concentration in claims involving PTSD, military sexual trauma, Gulf War illness and complex medical issues, such as brain cancer or degenerative issues, veterans exposed to Agent Orange often face. For more information, to submit news or to sign up for an email version of this blog, contact Kelly Kennedy at kkennedy@vetlawyers.com

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Congress to Hold Hearing on Veterans’ Claims Appeals

SOURCE:  Press release, U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Veterans’ Affairs

House Veterans’ Affairs Committeee To Examine Appeals System for Veterans Claims

WASHINGTON, D.C.— The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs will hold a hearing on Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015, at 10:30 AM in room 340 of the Cannon House Office Building to examine the litany of issues related to the appeals process used by the Department of Veterans Affairs Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) and Board of Veterans’Appeals (BVA).

BVA is responsible for adjudicating appeals veterans file when they disagree with VA claim decisions regarding issues such as disability benefits compensation. The number of pending claim appeals has risen steadily over the past year and stood at 289,988 as of Jan. 17, 2015, surpassing VA’s backlog of 245,877 pending disability benefits compensation claims.

Currently, VA’s claim appeals process is plagued by long-ignored failures, which are a primary contributor to the current backlog of appeals. In some extreme cases, appeals have been pending for more than 20 years without a final decision.

This hearing will explore problems with VA’s current approach to appeals and what actions may be required to ensure a more efficient and effective appeals process.

The following event is open to the press:

WHO:       Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs

WHAT:    Veterans’ Dilemma: Navigating the Appeals System for Veterans Claims

WHEN:    10:30 AM, Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015

WHERE:  340 Cannon House Office Building and streaming at veterans.house.gov

 

WITNESS LIST

Panel 1

Beth McCoy, Esquire, Deputy Under Secretary for Field Operations, Veterans Benefits Administration, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

accompanied by

Mr. Ronald S. Burke, Jr., Director, Appeals Management Center, Veterans Benefits Administration, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Laura H. Eskenazi, Esquire, Executive-in-Charge and Vice Chairman, Board of Veterans’ Appeals, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Panel 2

Mr. Gerald T. Manar, Deputy Director, National Veterans Service, Veterans of Foreign Wars

Mr. Zachary Hearn, Deputy Director for Claims, Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Division, The American Legion

Diane Boyd Rauber, Esquire, Associate General Counsel for Appeals, Paralyzed Veterans of America

Mr. Paul R. Varela, Assistant National Legislative Director, Disabled American Veterans

James R. Vale, Esquire, Director, Veterans Benefits Program, Vietnam Veterans of America

 

Panel 3

Barton F. Stichman, Esquire, Joint Executive Director, National Veterans Legal Services Program

Kenneth M. Carpenter, Esquire, Founding Member, National Organization of Veterans’ Advocates

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THE DAILY CALLER: VA Inspector General Says We Do Lots Of Reports That We Don’t Publish Or Tell Congress About

SOURCE:  THE DAILY CALLER, Patrick Howley Reporting, 1/15/2015

http://dailycaller.com/2015/01/15/va-inspector-general-we-do-lots-of-reports-that-we-dont-publish-or-tell-congress-about/

 

THE DAILY CALLER:  VA Inspector General Says We Do Lots Of Reports That We Don’t Publish Or Tell Congress About

By Patrick Howley

The Daily Caller

The inspector general for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) knew that a VA medical center was giving out disconcertingly high amounts of morphine to patients, but did not disclose that information to Congress.

VA’s inspector general’s office, which is supposed to serve as an independent oversight body within the VA, admitted in a contentious conversation with The Daily Caller that its internal report on the notorious “Candy Land” facility was not published. The office also admitted that it routinely produces reports that it does not publish or send to Congress.

The inspector general’s office compiled a report in March 2014 which showed that the VA medical center in Tomah, Wisconsin, doled out high amounts of morphine to patients, causing area veterans to refer to the center as “Candy Land.” The inspector general’s report was first noted in a Jan. 8 article by the Center for Investigative Reporting.

House Committee on Veterans Affairs chairman Rep. Jeff Miller never got a copy of the internal report and did not even know that it existed until the Center for Investigative Reporting article.

“At this time, the Committee is provided electronic copies of all published reports at the time of publication,” Acting VA Inspector General Richard J. Griffin told the committee in a December 30 letter. “These reports can also be found on the Office of Inspector General [OIG] public website. If a report contains information that is protected from disclosure, we provide an unredacted copy for Committee oversight purposes upon the written request of the Chairman.”

But as a VA spokeswoman explained to The Daily Caller, there is a difference between “published reports” and un-published reports.

“We did not hide any reports from Congress,” Catherine Gromek, a congressional relations officer at the inspector general’s office, told TheDC over the phone.

“The [Office of the Inspector General] does many types of reports. Some are administrative,” while “some are published reports.”

“We had some conversations up on the Hill with congressmen about why we did what we did.”

Gromek told this reporter that “it gets under my skin” when she sees a question in her inbox asking why her office concealed a report instead of simply asking for a statement.

“It’s too long,” Gromek said, explaining that her answer to my question was complicated and that she expected TheDC was “just going to take the blurb” that “we did not hide any reports from Congress.” Gromek said she could type out a statement that would “make it seem like I went to college.”

That collegiate statement eventually came in.

“We have 10 public reports on the underlying issue of the use of opioid including a national report that the House Committee on Veterans Affairs received copies of and in some cases briefings on,” Gromek wrote to TheDC.

But Gromek did not answer our question: why did the House committee not receive a copy of the non-public March 2014 report?

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VA Names New Members to Gulf War Advisory Committee

The following is a VA press release.

SOURCE:  http://www.va.gov/opa/pressrel/pressrelease.cfm?id=2669

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

January 15, 2015

VA Announces the Appointment of New Members to Advisory Council

Gulf War-Related Brain Cancer Study Also Announced

WASHINGTON – The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is announcing the appointment of new members to the Research Advisory Committee (RAC) on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses.

VA will appoint Stephen L. Hauser, MD as committee chair for a term through September, 2016. Dr. Hauser is the Robert A. Fishman Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Department of Neurology at the University of California, San Francisco.  A neuroimmunologist, Dr. Hauser’s research has advanced the understanding of the genetic basis, immune mechanisms and treatment of multiple sclerosis.

Additional appointees include Ronnie D. Horner, PhD, who is Professor of Epidemiology in the Department of Health Services Policy and Management at the Arnold School of Public Health, University of South Carolina; Frances E. Perez-Wilhite,a former US Army Officer who served as a Lieutenant in Desert Shield in 1990; and Scott S. Young, MD, a former Navy flight surgeon during the Gulf War, who currently heads Kaiser Permanente’s Care Management Institute, an organization dedicated to creating and supporting high quality care delivery programs. These new members will serve terms through September 2017.

“VA is incredibly excited about the fresh perspective these new members will bring to the RAC, and we will continue to invest in research to understand and treat Gulf War Veterans’ illnesses,” said Secretary McDonald.

VA will also begin a study to examine brain cancer in Gulf War Veterans. The formation of the study was prompted by a discussion between VA Secretary Robert A. McDonald and members of the RAC. The members expressed concerns over the possible association between exposure to chemical nerve agents and brain cancer in Gulf War Veterans.

“Formation of this workgroup of VA subject matter experts to study research literature on the incidence of brain cancer in Gulf War Veterans is the latest VA effort on their behalf,” said Secretary McDonald.

Some Veterans may have been exposed to chemical weapon agents during the demolition of the munitions depot in Khamisiyah, Iraq, in March 1991 after the Gulf War ceasefire. VA expects to complete the brain cancer study by the spring.

The RAC was established by section 104 of Public Law 105-368 to provide advice to VA on proposed research studies, research plans or research strategies relating to the health consequences of military service in the Southwest Asia theater of operations during the 1990-1991 Gulf War (Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm). The Committee periodically releases reports that summarize and make recommendations regarding research on the health of Gulf War Veterans.

Information about the Khamisiyah munitions depot can be found athttp://www.gulflink.osd.mil/library/kham_info.jsp. Information about RAC is available at http://www.va.gov/RAC-GWVI/.

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VCS Weighs in on VA Transparency in Reporting Medical Errors

Everyone makes mistakes.

In the case of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), “institutional disclosures” are the name VA gives to a program that kicks in when its medical facilities have made a medical error that has resulted in medical harm to a veteran being treated in a VA facility.

Or at least, that program is supposed to kick in, and VA is supposed to provide veterans with the information and evidence they need to file a claim against VA, and to assist them in doing so.

However, a new investigative report by the Tampa Bay Times shows that while VA has increased the number of “institutional disclosures” in recent, years, its still failing many veterans and their survivors.

In one example, “76 ‘institutional disclosures’ involving veterans who were hurt by delays in treatment of gastrointestinal cancers might reveal that this confession policy is often not followed, according to interviews and congressional records obtained by the Tampa Bay Times.”

According to the Times, “those disclosures, which included 24 veterans who died, were made only after an extraordinary, one-time investigation of consultation delays by the VA and not in the ordinary course of business, records show. That raises the question of whether any disclosures would have been reported without the VA’s unprecedented inquiry.”

The Times‘ investigative report provides case examples of a large study and of individual examples of Florida veterans who died due to VA medical error but where VA failed to make full “institutional disclosure” until after the news media publicized the cases.

This is why we don’t allow people to investigate themselves,” said Anthony Hardie, a board member of Veterans for Common Sense, a Washington, D.C., veterans advocacy group. “The VA continues to have serious transparency issues.”

According to the Times, “VA acknowledged “obstacles” in reporting mistakes despite its intent of openness,” and, “VA officials in Washington declined requests for an interview on disclosure policy.”

Read the full Tampa Bay Times story, written by investigative reporter Bill Levesque, at the link below.   VA’s Acting Undersecretary for Health, Dr. Carolyn Clancy, is quoted in ht article in a previously released public statement.

http://www.tampabay.com/news/military/veterans/va-policy-to-disclose-errors-in-medical-care-not-always-followed/2210125

 

Posted in VA Claims, VA Healthcare Crisis, Veterans Articles & News | 2 Comments

Florida VCS to Host Public Lecture on the Iraq Insurgency

Terri K. Wonder, Ph.D., will present a lecture, Transformational Guerrillas and the Iraqi Tribes Who Fight Them, for the Florida chapter of Veterans for Common Sense (floridaveteransforcommonsense.org) on Thursday, December, 18 2014 in Sarasota, Fla..

In 2008, Wonder was hired by the United States Army to be a civilian social scientist in a mission-essential “Surge” program in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom. She deployed twice with U.S. combat personnel from Ft. Benning, Georgia.

While working for the Corps Theater Command of Multi-National Forces-Iraq, Camp Victory, Baghdad, from 2009 to 2010, she coined the term “transformational guerillas” to describe a special class of Islamic insurgent fighters who refused to stand down even after being given incentives to do so as part of Iraq’s tribal “Awakening” movement in 2007 and after.

Transformational guerillas are distinct from another class of fighters, “accidental guerillas” — local fighters who become caught up in the contagion of fighting at the outset of insurgent warfare — according to Australian counterinsurgency theorist, David Kilcullen, in his book The Accidental Guerilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One (2009).

From her own research, Wonder concludes that whereas accidental guerillas may be persuaded to stop fighting and even join the other side in a counterinsurgent campaign, transformational guerillas are not easily disillusioned after joining an insurgent campaign. Totally committed to a higher cause, transformational guerillas are not persuadable and will continue to fight until they are captured or killed.

Presented a Superior Civilian Service Award in 2010, Wonder’s cutting-edge statistical and cultural research was credited for saving lives. Wonder ranks among the few people in the world who has had the opportunity to systematically research captive insurgent populations and create a socio-cultural profile of them.

The lecture is free and open to the public and will commence at the 7:00 p.m. at the Waldemere Fire Station, 2070 Waldemere St.  Florida Veterans for Common Sense meets at that location at 7:00 p.m. on the third Thursday of each month.

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