Tampa Bay Times: VA Mislead Congress, Public on Veteran Deaths

During the ongoing investigation into the growing scandal of VA cooking the books on veterans’ healthcare access, disability claims denials, and medical research coverups, a new trend has emerged:  VA officials at every level lying to Congress, the media, and the public.

Such is the case in a story reported this week by the Tampa Bay Times (“VA Numbers on Treatment Delays were Misleading“, Aug. 1, 2014, William Levesque reporting).

According to the investigative report, the VA, “told Congress and the public in April [in a fact sheet] that the agency reviewed 250 million medical consultations, dating back to 1999, and found 76 veterans seriously harmed by treatment delays for gastrointestinal cancers. Of them, 23 died.”

However, the Tampa Bay Times investigation found that all of these cases were in fact in 2010 and 2011, not dating back to 1999, and data from 1999 to 2009, and 2012 to the present, have not yet been released, and VA officials tried desperately to stonewall the media investigating this matter.

According to the TBT article:

“They tried to misdirect Congress and the American people away from the facts,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Pensacola, the committee’s chairman. “I think they got caught and now they are trying to modify their story. . . . The misdirection was, in fact, designed in Washington.”

….

The VA is embroiled in what might be the worst scandal in its history, with disclosures that hospitals across the nation engaged in rampant “gaming strategies” that hid delays in treating veterans and that some facilities tried to hide patient deaths.

Allegations have also been reported that the VA engaged in widespread whistleblower retaliation.

The Tampa Bay Times, based in St. Petersburg, Fla., is one of Florida’s largest print newspapers.  St. Petersburg is also home to the Bay Pines VA Medical Center and Florida’s VA Regional Office, also located at Bay Pines.  The Bay Pines VAMC had the 13th worst wait times in the entire United States, according to data in a recent VA Inspector General investigative report.

Read the full Tampa Bay Times article here:  http://www.tampabay.com/news/military/veterans/va-stats-on-consultation-delays-dont-reach-as-far-back-as-implied/2191157

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VCS Among 35 Organizations Calling for Stronger U.S. Humanitarian Engagement in Iraq

August 4, 2014 (Washington, DC) – This week 35 nationally respected organization, including Veterans for Common Sense, joined together in a call for a robust U.S. response to the growing humanitarian and human rights crisis in Iraq.

At least 8,060 civilians have been killed in Iraq this year and another 13,598 civilians have been wounded according to UN reports and medical sources. The escalating violence has forced more than 1.2 million Iraqis to flee their homes, adding to the 2 million Iraqis who remain displaced within Iraq from previous years of violence.

Addressed to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and other senior members of the Obama administration, the joint NGO letter calls for a greater U.S. commitment to assist and protect vulnerable populations and to further Iraq’s long term development while addressing the root causes of the conflict.

Along with EPIC, which led the effort, signatory parties include Mercy Corps, International Rescue Committee, Save the Children, Amnesty International USA, Human Rights Watch, National Council of Churches USA, the Presbyterian Church USA, and Veterans for Common Sense. (See below for the full text of the letter and list of signatory organizations. The letter is also available here as a PDF.

“The crisis in Iraq intensified in January with little attention from the United States. To date the trend has continued with an underwhelming U.S. humanitarian response,” EPIC director Erik Gustafson continued, “It is time for the U.S. to deliver more effectively on its commitment to assist and protect vulnerable Iraqis, to help other vulnerable populations in Iraq, and to do more to address the root causes of the conflict.”

About EPIC: Founded in 1998 by U.S. veterans of the 1991 Gulf War, EPIC is a 501(c)3 charitable organization dedicated to the advancement of Iraq’s peace and development. In Washington DC, EPIC leads lifesaving advocacy on Iraq, supporting the NGO community as chair of the Iraq Crisis NGO Working Group (Iraq-CWG). On the ground in Iraq, EPIC is supporting the educational needs and aspirations of Iraqi youth and Syrian refugee children through TentEd and PhotoVoice Iraq.

LETTER to SECRETARY OF STATE KERRY and FULL LIST of SIGNATORY ORGANIZATIONS:

July 30, 2014
The Honorable John F. Kerry
U.S. Department of State
Washington, DC 20520

Dear Secretary Kerry:

We, the undersigned organizations, are writing to express our grave concerns about the deepening human rights and humanitarian crisis in Iraq. Together, we call for a stronger response from the United States, including a clear, long-term strategy for addressing what could become a protracted situation.

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), an estimated 1.2 million people have been displaced by fighting in western and northern Iraq this year. Seeking safety in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) and other areas across the country, this new wave of internally displaced people compounds the challenge of assisting more than a million Iraqis who remain displaced from previous years of violence and other vulnerable populations including 212,000 registered Syrian refugees in Iraq. Also contributing to the crisis are reports of targeted killings and other abuses by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and other armed groups, reports of human rights violations by the Iraqi Security Forces and associated groups, and reports of some IDPs being prevented from reaching safer areas, including cases of discrimination against certain minority groups.

The Government of Iraq (GOI) has an obligation to do all that it can to support displaced and vulnerable populations within its borders and resolve issues that impede or prevent the delivery of that assistance. The U.S. can play an influential role in pressing the GOI to live up to that obligation in the near-term, including support for Iraqi civil society organizations that reach underserved areas and encouraging better cooperation with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), while helping the GOI develop more capable, publicly accountable institutions over time. As one United Nations official put it: “The situation is reaching a critical point. As bad as Syria is, the crisis here is growing by day and exceeding the capabilities of the government. Effectively there is no centralized government over all of Iraq now, and in past years, they were already relatively weak (‘A Reignited War Drives Iraqis From Their Homes in Huge Numbers,’ The New York Times, June 29, 2014.)”

Displaced Iraqis—who have primarily sought refuge in the KRI, but are found in locations across the country—face a number of acute needs which are compounded by the extreme heat during the summer months and fuel shortages. With many of the IDPs living in schools, mosques, monasteries, abandoned buildings and other precarious dwellings, the need for safe shelter options is paramount. Cash assistance for basic necessities is also critical as the resources that families fled with dwindle. Furthermore, in the KRI, there is an urgent need to mitigate the impact that large numbers of displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees are having on host communities, public services, and government structures. Baghdad’s withholding of government salaries and resources related to its ongoing dispute between the KRG has only made the situation worse.

In recent weeks, there have been some positive developments. UN OCHA is officially taking the lead in coordinating actors on the ground. Thanks to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s unprecedented $500 million contribution, the United Nation’s $312 million Strategic Response Plan (SRP) is over-funded. According to UN officials, the funds will be shared by the UNHCR and other UN agencies to assist and protect IDPs inside Iraq, and must be spent by the end of winter. While these developments are welcome, the U.S. and other humanitarian donors remain essential to monitor and respond to assistance gaps and protection challenges, such as helping vulnerable populations in hard-to-reach areas, and to formulate a clear, long-term strategy for Iraq’s peace and development.

Recognizing these challenges and opportunities, we are writing to urge you and the U.S. administration to undertake the necessary diplomatic and assistance efforts to respond to the scale, suffering, and dangers represented by this growing crisis.

In particular, we recommend a stronger long-term U.S. response that includes:

* A scale-up of immediate, direct humanitarian engagement in Iraq, including the KRI, to ensure that the U.S. government play a much greater role in addressing the urgent humanitarian and protection needs of vulnerable Iraqis, including those displaced by the escalation in hostilities in Anbar and northwestern Iraq.

* Ongoing consultations with key stakeholders and monitoring implementation of the UN’s SRP to identify assistance gaps and protection challenges – including delays and problems with access – and ensuring appropriate bi-lateral efforts to address those unmet needs.

* A comprehensive approach to assist Iraqis displaced during different waves of violence, including in Anbar earlier in this year and those who have remained displaced since the war.

* Support to help families and communities hosting displaced people in the KRI.

* Encouragement of the KRG to allow all Iraqis fleeing violence safety in the KRI regardless of age, gender, ethnicity or religious background.

* More robust, longer-term engagement in Iraq’s peace and development through a continued presence of the USAID Mission and support for U.N. work in Iraq. This should include ongoing support for good governance, education, civil society, and conflict management programming. Many of these critical programs could be linked to humanitarian programs designed to help displaced individuals in Iraq.

By taking the actions above and coordinating diplomacy and assistance with the United Nations and allies, we strongly believe that the U.S. government can deliver more effectively on its commitment to assist and protect vulnerable Iraqis, to help other vulnerable populations in Iraq, and to further the long-term development of Iraq and the KRI. We thank you for your dedicated attention to this matter and look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

Alliance for Baptists
Alliance for Peacebuilding
Amnesty International USA
Catholic Relief Services
Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce
Church of the Brethren, Office of Public Witness
Church World Service
Community of Christ
EPIC: Education for Peace in Iraq Center
Friends Committee on National Legislation
Global Ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and United Church of Christ
Heartland Alliance International
Human Rights Watch
International Medical Corps
International Orthodox Christian Charities
International Rescue Committee
Iraqi Research Foundation for Analysis and Development
Jubilee Campaign
Life for Relief and Development
Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns
Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Washington Office
Mercy Corps
National Council of Churches, USA
NETWORK, A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby
Open Doors USA
Pax Christi International
Presbyterian Church (USA)
Peace Action
The Peace Alliance
Refugees International
Relief International
Save the Children
Sisters of Mercy of the Americas
Student Peace Alliance
Veterans for Common Sense
Zakat Foundation of America

Cc: Ambassador Samantha Power, United States Mission to the United Nations
Susan Rice, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, White House
Anne C. Richard, Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration, Dept. of State
Dr. Rajiv Shah, USAID Administrator, Dept. of State
Nancy E. Lindborg, Assistant Administrator, Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, USAID

- See more at: http://www.epic-usa.org/press_release_ngo_letter_to_kerry/#sthash.KMT2HTRq.dpuf

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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

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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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