Branstad signs POW/MIA Recognition Day proclamation

Friday, September 16, 2016​
Gov. Terry E. Branstad today released a proclamation that was signed on September 9 to honor all Americans still missing and unaccounted for from the Vietnam Way, Korean War, Cold War and World War II.  Gov. Branstad’s proclamation also requests the citizens of Iowa to observe the day with appropriate ceremonies.
The governor’s proclamation coincides with National POW/MIA Recognition Day which is annually observed on the third Friday in September.  The day was established by Congress as one of six days where flying of the National League of Families’ POW/MIA flag is mandatory. 

[Source: Advantage Blog | Tom Philpott | April 14, 2016 ++]

COA Rules in Favor of Staab | $48K

    A three-judge panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims has ruled unanimously that the Department of Veterans Affairs ignored “plain language” of a 2010 statute meant to protect VA-enrolled veterans from out-of-pocket costs when forced to use non-VA emergency medical care. The panel ordered the Board of Veterans’ Appeals to vacate its decision to deny Air Force veteran Richard W. Staab roughly $48,000 in health care costs he was forced to pay following open-heart surgery in December 2010. The board “failed to properly apply the statute and relied on an invalid regulation” to deny Staab’s claim, the court ruled.
    The decision benefits only Staab, for now. But hundreds of other VA-enrolled veterans who had alternative health insurance, and so got stuck paying some of their outside emergency care costs since Feb. 1, 2010, when the ignored law took effect, have new legal ground on which to re-file claims for VA reimbursement, said Bart Stichman, one of Staab’s attorneys. These vets should cite the appeals courts’ April 8 Staab v. McDonald decision to argue “clear and unmistakable error” in deciding previous claims, said Stichman, forcing VA claim adjudicators to determine if there was error. Stichman also is joint executive director of the National Veterans Legal Services Program, a nonprofit veterans service organization that brought Staab’s case to the appeals court as it often does on critical benefit issues

The whole Story
 04/25/2016 08:38 pm ET
Dean Baker

Scamming the Country’s Veterans: Efforts to Privatize VA Health System

There are few areas where there is more bipartisan support than the need to provide adequate health care for the country’s veterans. While many of us opposed the war in Iraq and other recent military adventures, we still recognize the need to provide medical services for the people who put their lives at risk.
This is why it is especially annoying to see right-wing groups invent scandals around the Veteran Administration’s hospitals in order to advance an agenda of privatizing the system. If there was a real reason to believe that the current system is badly hurting our veterans, and that they would be better cared for under a privatized system, then it would be reasonable to support the transition.
But this is the opposite of the reality. All the evidence suggests that a privatized system would make worse any problems veterans now face in getting care — and it is likely to cost more money.

Read More

IG Reports Detail Which VA Facilities Doctored Patient Wait-Times

Apr 08, 2016 | by Bryant Jordan
Two years after whistleblower revelations of manipulated appointment times at the Veterans Medical Center in Phoenix led to findings that the problem was systemic across the Veterans Affairs Department, internal investigations into the matter are finally being released.

The reports, documenting the manipulation of wait-times at VA facilities across 19 states, reveal that in at least seven facilities the dates were falsified per order of supervisors, according to an article in USA Today, which acquired the documents through a Freedom of Information Act request.
The 71 reports are now available for viewing on the department's website. The VA anticipates releasing another half dozen reports at least. It is also completing 30 site-specific investigations that it will release in the coming months, department spokesman James Hutton said.

The reports finally identify VA hospitals and clinics where appointment data was manipulated. In particular, inspector general concluded appointment dates were manipulated in accordance with supervisor instructions in facilities in seven states, including Arkansas, California, Delaware, Illinois, New York, Texas and Vermont.

The investigations were carried out in 2014 after whistleblowers went public with allegations of appointment gaming that resulted in veteran deaths at the Phoenix hospital.

Altogether, 40 VA hospitals and clinics across the U.S. and Puerto Rico were found to be "zeroing out" wait times -- meaning they would adjust the dates to make it appear veterans were getting the appointment dates they desired rather than those that were available.

The manipulation concealed the extent to which facilities were not keeping up with patient demand. In some instances confirmed by the IG agents, wait-times were manipulated as a result of poor training or instruction, though the net results were skewed appointment data in violation of VA procedure.

The department, in anticipation of the reports' release, said last week that it's "important to note that OIG has not substantiated any case in which a [Veterans Health Administration] Senior Executive or other senior leader intentionally manipulated scheduling data."

In about a third of the inspector general investigations, there was no evidence of manipulated appointment data, it said. Of those remaining, investigators substantiated 18 instances of intentional misuse of scheduling systems.

Of those 18 cases, VA says, the Office of Accountability Review found individual misconduct warranting discipline in 12, resulting in 29 employees who were disciplined. VA did not offer a detailed accounting of the actions taken, saying only that they ranged from official admonishment to removal, including three employees who retired or resigned with disciplinary action pending.

Rep. Jeff Miller, a Republican from Florida and chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, on Friday said the inspector general reports "document dysfunction on the part of both the Department of Veterans Affairs and its inspector general."
Miller, who has been the most vocal among lawmakers in demanding VA reform and accountability, slammed the department for sitting on the reports for so long.

"The fact that the IG only released these documents after public pressure from the media as well as Democrats and Republicans in both the House and Senate is proof that it still has much more to learn when it comes to providing the oversight VA needs and the transparency taxpayers deserve," he said. "Nevertheless, the reports outline a host of serious scheduling issues that masked wait times at VA facilities around the country."

At the VA Medical Center in Little Rock, Arkansas, inspectors found that both non-supervisory and supervisory employees manipulating appointment dates in the VA computer system to make it appear patient wait times were significantly lower than they were.
Not only that, but some supervisors "displayed a lack of candor while making statements to [IG] special agents … regarding their knowledge and/or participation in the manipulation of patient waiting times," the report states.

Agents looking into the VA Medical Center in San Diego, California, found employees altering patients' desired appointment date times to show "zero-day wait times," and indicated the change was made on the instruction of a supervisor.
The supervisor, not identified in the report, denied the allegation, though the report cites emails in which employees were told to zero out wait times if patients did not wish to change to an appointment.

At the VA Medical Center in Wilmington, Delaware, agents found employees were "negotiating" with veterans for their appointment desired date instead of simply recording the date they wanted. If they agreed to the date that was also the best available they would be entered into the system and no wait time would be reflected.

The IG found it was not uncommon for employees to negotiate desired dates with patients based on clinic availability.
One supervisor told the IG that negotiated desired dates had to be based on clinic availability even if the date is not the one requested by the veteran. Another said there are times when a desired date is uncertain -- a "gray area" -- the IG report states.

At the VA Medical Center at Audie L. Murphy VA Hospital, San Antonio, Texas, a supervisor acknowledged she "resolved scheduling errors" by changing a veteran's desired appointment date. She also said she may have told other employees to do the same thing, the report states.

Inspectors to the VA Medical Center in Danville, Illinois, found an employee responding to a weekly list of patients with wait times greater than 14 or 30 days between desired and the actual appointment dates by going into the system and reducing the wait time to zero.

"Nobody told her to do this; she just assumed that it should be done," the report states. "[She] felt if such changes were not made, there would be repercussions by management against those which she deemed to be on a black list."

Another employee said she was told to make such changes but couldn't recall who gave her the order. A third worker identified a supervisor who told her that the desired and actual appointment dates must always match, but the supervisor denied giving such instructions, according to the report.

A supervisor with the VA Medical Center in Hines, Illinois, admitted to the IG agent having employees encourage veterans to agree to alternate desired dates closer to those available.  "While arguably practical," the IG wrote, "this violates VHA Scheduling Directive."

At the Community Based Outpatient Clinic in Rochester, New York, the IG found workers and supervisors admitting to using the available date for the desired date.

Supervisors "stated that they trained staff to use the first available date as the desired date because they misunderstood the correct procedure," the report states. The IG also noted that the workers they spoke with were emphatic that managers told them to be upfront with the IG agents and answer questions honestly.

"Many of the employees voiced their opinion that there was no malicious intent by any employee to defraud or mislead anyone regarding wait times," the report states

At the VA Outpatient Clinic in Harlingen, Texas, the report said agents found evidence that an employee "felt pressure from a [VA regional health care system] management official."

And this led the worker, it says, to manipulate the appointment system to keep scheduling numbers within standard.
"We also found evidence indicating that there had been inappropriate training years ago, which carried through into present-day work activities with regard to scheduling," the report states.

Inspectors to the VA Medical Center in White River Junction, Vermont, said they substantiated that facility schedulers inappropriately entered a desired date to match the actual appointment date in order to obtain a zero-day wait time for both new and established patients.

"It was largely corroborated that this manipulation was employed by schedulers at the instruction of a former and current supervisor of the [employees] and with the knowledge of the second-level supervisor," the report said.

See the results of VA wait-time probes in your state

Following the Department of Veterans Affairs' scandal in Phoenix in 2014, the VA inspector general launched more than 100 investigations at facilities across the country. Newly released reports from the probes reveal supervisors instructed schedulers to falsify wait times at VA medical facilities in at least seven states, and employees at 40 medical facilities in 19 states and Puerto Rico regularly “zeroed out” veteran wait times, which masked growing demand as new waves of veterans returned from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and as aging Vietnam veterans needed more care.
Donovan Slack, USA TODAY10:49 a.m. EDT April 8, 2016


By Richard Eckert 5 April 2016
The Veterans Administration is a branch in the federal government, and like most federal organizations it can be quite confusing. Most people do not understand the structure of the Department of Veterans Affairs. It is made up of three divisions that are responsible for specific activities — VA Health Care, Veterans Benefits Administration and Burial and Cemeteries. Each division is independent and are like stove pipes where communication does not necessarily exist.
The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) handles all health care for veterans. It is responsible for the medical centers, outpatient clinics, community based outpatient clinics, and the vet centers. They provide care, medications, and prosthetic devices as needed. They are responsible for setting the veteran’s health care priority and eligibility based on information provided by the benefits section. To enroll and receive treatment, the veteran must fill out VA Form 10-10EZ, enclose their DD 214, and send them to the Fort Wayne or Marion VA Hospital.
There are certain basic eligibility requirements. A person who served in the active military, naval, or air service and who was discharged or released under conditions other than dishonorable may qualify for VA health care benefits. Reservists and National Guard members may also qualify for health care benefits if they were called to active duty (other than for training only) by a Federal order and completed the full period for which they were called or ordered to active duty. Unless the veteran has a service connected disability, had boots on the ground in Vietnam, or served in the mid-east, that person’s annual income, less out-of-pocket medical expenses, must be low enough to enable them to pass a means test to qualify. The VA’s current income thresholds can be located at vagov/healtheligibility/Library/AnnualThresholds.asp.
After the veteran is enrolled, he/she will be assigned to a priority group, scheduled for a blood test, assigned a primary care person and required to attend an orientation class. Veterans are encouraged to keep their private insurance plans if they can afford to do so. The VA will bill the insurance companies for their care and the veteran can continue to use the services of private doctors or hospitals if they choose. However, in order to stay enrolled in the system, the veterans must use the VA facilities at least once a year.
The National Cemetery Association operates the National Cemetery system. It is responsible for the establishment and construction of new cemeteries and the care and maintenance of existing cemeteries. It provides flags for burials of veterans and issues the Presidential Memorial Certificates.
The Veterans Benefit Administration (VBA) is responsible for the payment of all VA gratuitous benefits. It handles claims for compensation, pension, and education, including vocational rehabilitation, burials, home loans, life insurance and just about any other monetary benefit that comes from the VA.
The VBA field operations are located in regional offices where all benefits claims are handled. Each state has at least one regional office (except Wyoming), plus offices in San Juan, Washington D.C., and Manila. Each office varies greatly in size depending on the population served. Each office is guided by a director. The functions are then split among the divisions. The largest division in each office is the Veterans Service Center. This division handles all compensation and pension claims from receipt of the claim to the decision. There are three Pension Maintenance Centers located at Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Philadelphia regional offices. Education claims are handled in Regional Processing offices in four locations.
Every regional office has the capability of handling public contact for their area, both for walk-in clients and telephone calls. When a veteran is not satisfied with the decision made on his claim, he has the right to file an appeal. Appeals are decided on questions regarding all veteran’s benefits by the Board of Veteran Appeals (BVA), which is completely independent from the VBA. As with most bureaucracies, there are contingencies and qualifications in filing claims for compensation. The veteran must have a service connected disability. As an example, if a Vietnam veteran has type II diabetes, the VA recognizes that type II diabetes could be a direct result of being exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam and therefore could be compensated. Each county has a trained Veteran Service Officer to help veterans to file claims.

A Perilous Proposal To Privatize Veterans' Care And End The VA

Forbes, Washington Charles Tiefer, CONTRIBUTOR 4 April 2016

A panel picked largely by Congressional Republicans floated a proposal last week to eliminate all VA medical centers and outpatient clinics, and dump 9 million unprepared veterans on private sector care.
The VA Commission on Care has fifteen members. Of the seven who backed the leaked proposal, the Commissioner who authored this proposal is Commissioner David Blom, president and CEO of the OhioHealth System.  Two others are from the private sector, too – including Commission chairwoman Nancy Schlichting, the CEO of the Henry Ford Health System.  The Koch Brothers – the infamous ultra-right-wing billionaire ideologues – seem to be the driving force.
Specifically, the proposal would funnel veterans’ health care funds to private sector care, primarily for-profit. Gradually VA facilities would get closed.  VA eventually would become “primarily a payer,” under the proposal. The proposal would apparently deny veterans anything like the VA’s recognized expertise in veterans’ special injuries.
Congress created the Commission. The Commission now appears to be a way to capitalize on the tumult about VA problems to promote an extreme privatization agenda. A possible agenda is to promote the proposal in this year’s Congressional races, and then move some version through Congress next year.  The Koch brothers’ well-financed backing would move the proposal forward even in a year in which the electorate might choose a President unenthused about it.
Eight veterans organizations – including Disabled American Veterans, American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Vietnam Veterans of America and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America – sent a letter to Commission Chairwoman Nancy Schlichting denouncing the proposal.
WASHINGTON, DC:  A House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing.  The witness, Ms. Gipson, suffered a severe back injury while en route to Afghanistan. (Photo by Rod Lamkey/Getty Images)
A panel picked largely by Congressional Republicans floated a proposal last week to eliminate all VA medical centers and outpatient clinics, and dump 9 million unprepared veterans on private sector care.
The VA Commission on Care has fifteen members. Of the seven who backed the leaked proposal, the Commissioner who authored this proposal is Commissioner David Blom, president and CEO of the OhioHealth System.  Two others are from the private sector, too – including Commission chairwoman Nancy Schlichting, the CEO of the Henry Ford Health System.  The Koch Brothers – the infamous ultra-right-wing billionaire ideologues – seem to be the driving force.
Specifically, the proposal would funnel veterans’ health care funds to private sector care, primarily for-profit. Gradually VA facilities would get closed.  VA eventually would become “primarily a payer,” under the proposal. The proposal would apparently deny veterans anything like the VA’s recognized expertise in veterans’ special injuries.
Congress created the Commission. The Commission now appears to be a way to capitalize on the tumult about VA problems to promote an extreme privatization agenda. A possible agenda is to promote the proposal in this year’s Congressional races, and then move some version through Congress next year.  The Koch brothers’ well-financed backing would move the proposal forward even in a year in which the electorate might choose a President unenthused about it.
Eight veterans organizations – including Disabled American Veterans, American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Vietnam Veterans of America and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America – sent a letter to Commission Chairwoman Nancy Schlichting denouncing the proposal.
In contrast to these diverse but devoted veterans organizations is the Koch-funded group Concerned Veterans for America. The Koch brothers, through CVA, effectively have two seats on the Commission: one for CVA’s official Darin Selnick, and one for the head of AMVETS, which is closely aligned with CVA positions.  Koch organizations lavishly funded the nationwide push to create such an organization.

Vietnam vet Jim Northrup, noted Native American author, approaches death with humor
By Jana Hollingsworth 
Duluth News Tribune
Published: April 3, 2016

SAWYER, Minn. (Tribune News Service) — To prepare his family for his death, Jim Northrup has made a list of potential tombstone epitaphs.
They include: “Here’s one deadline I didn’t miss” and “Hey, I can see up your dress from here.”
Those who know the award-winning author of short stories, poetry, plays and newspaper columns wouldn’t be surprised that he’s facing death with his signature dry humor.
“There is nothing so serious you can’t make a joke about it,” said Northrup, a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. “And making a joke about it makes it easier for survivors.”
Northrup, 72, has kidney cancer. It’s moved to his lungs, lymph nodes and brain. A veteran of the Vietnam War, he assumes he is succumbing to the effects of exposure to Agent Orange, an herbicide the U.S. military used during the war to remove trees and other foliage that provided enemy cover.
“At first I couldn’t laugh about it,” said Pat Northrup, Jim’s wife of nearly 30 years. “Then I couldn’t keep crying.”
One day she sat outside thinking about her grandmother.
“She once told me, ‘accept death like you accept life,’ ” she said. “It made sense.”
These days, Jim is about minobimaadiziwin: living the good life. And he says he’s already seen what’s waiting for him when he dies, when he completes his four-day journey to a western land where many Anishinaabe believe they go when they die.
Twice in the hospital, “when I was probably circling the drain,” he said, he found himself in a canoe, paddling. He heard voices, laughter and song coming from the shore. He began paddling toward them, he said, hoping to share a story or two of his own. Somebody saw him, and in Ojibwe, told him to leave, that it wasn’t his turn.
“I’ll tell you what I think,” he said, in response to a question about Anishinaabe beliefs regarding death. “I am going to have a great time over there.”
Northrup served in Vietnam from 1965 to 1966. His experiences as a grunt in the war and dealing with the aftermath at home became a major focus of his writing. His darkly humorous poem “Shrinking Away” deals with coming home and trying unsuccessfully to get professional counseling. “Grandma’s Hair” is about an episode of combat in which he discovered an enemy soldier he was exchanging gunfire with was, in fact, a woman. It’s a discovery he made after moving closer and shooting the soldier one last time to make sure the person was dead. The shot made her hair tumble out from her hat; hair that looked like his grandmother’s.
He was asked to recite some of his work at LZ Lambeau, a 2010 gathering of Wisconsin Vietnam veterans and their family members totaling 70,000 at Lambeau Field in Green Bay. When he was done, he was given a standing ovation.
Northrup said he was honored to be asked.
“I knew my poetry was being used in vets’ groups to help people open up (and) maybe even write their own poetry as part of their healing,” he said. “It worked for me, so I hoped it helped (others).”
As a child, Northrup was made to go to a boarding school — one of the federal assimilation schools where Native Americans were forbidden to speak their native language and practice their traditional beliefs. At the Pipestone (Minn.) Indian School, he recalled, he was beaten by both adults and other children and experienced severe homesickness — once attempting to walk home, making it nine miles before he was found.
His work describes that experience, along with the changes on the reservation that resulted from the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, after which enormous poverty transitioned to financial stability for the band. Northrup writes about racism and politics. He has weighed in on local mining and tribal issues and treaty rights with sharp and honest commentary.
“He has really been an articulate witness for incredible and continual change,” said Margaret Noodin, Northrup’s longtime editor, an assistant professor in the English department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and director of the Electa Quinney Institute for American Indian Education.
Northrup is a modern Native American storyteller, she said.
“It wasn’t always from the standpoint of recovery or a victim of colonization,” Noodin said, describing his work. “He’s really good at saying ‘and these are the ways we live our lives right now.’ Of Anishinaabe literature, you’ve got some major voices, and he’s definitely one.”
Despite what happened to him in boarding school, he didn’t fear or avoid the educational system unlike so many others, who had very good reason to, Noodin said.
“What I always saw in Jim’s house was constant encouragement to educate oneself and to engage with education,” she said.
He graduated from Carlton High School in 1961 and has been told he was the first Native American to graduate from the school. An honorary doctorate of letters degree from Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College hangs in his home.
“Jim’s gift of humor has always connected him to the people of the Fond du Lac Band,” said Larry Anderson, president of the Fond du Lac college and a member of the band. “Jim was born to be an ogichida (warrior) and has faced tremendous evils in Vietnam, and many hardships in his life. … He is extremely intelligent, a man of wisdom, and has always been able to translate his Ojibwe knowledge, his Ojibwe heart and soul, to us who need his good words.”
Northrup, whose Ojibwe name is Chibenesi, or large bird, is an ardent keeper of Anishinaabe tradition. He and his wife started a summer Ojibwe language camp on the reservation. They make birch bark winnowing baskets, partake in the yearly sugarbush to make maple syrup and harvest wild rice on the reservation’s lakes. Northrup has been a student of the Ojibwe language for nearly two decades.
“It seemed to me I always had a void in my life because I wasn’t fluent,” he said. “There was a hole in my heart because I couldn’t understand; I couldn’t say what I wanted to say in Ojibwe. … When we came back from boarding school we tried to use the language. The older people said ‘eh, you sound like a white man.’ ”
He’s teaching his 7-month-old great-granddaughter Ojibwe words.
“I want her to be familiar with the sounds of it,” he said. “There are sounds not heard in English. She knows ‘gawain.’ Don’t do that.”
Northrup is a mentor to many who admire his use of Ojibwe in his writing, said Heid Erdrich, a well-known author and member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa.
And his work illustrates how Native Americans are part of the larger picture of America, she said.
“You always feel like the characters and point of view in Jim’s poems are not trying to make Ojibwe people anything special, but at the same time worthy of existing on this earth, having a right to exist on this earth and wanting to hold our way of life and the beauty of that,” Erdrich said. “He gives a sense of what it means to be in a place and love it and live in it, good and bad.”
He also acts as an ambassador, inviting people into his home and his experiences, making lifelong friendships with everyone from neighbors to professors to visitors from other countries, she said, and “there are not many people like that.”
Northrup doesn’t worry about the Anishinaabe traditions he practices dying with him. Two of his sons, who live near him on Northrup Road in Sawyer, come over with their families to gather around the fire when rice is being parched or sap is being boiled.
“They sit and listen to the stories that everybody tells,” he said. “We have time for everybody to tell their own story. I’m not worried. Whatever I am doing, it’ll go on.”
At 72, Northrup says he feels like he’s lived a long life, considering that the past life expectancy of Native Americans was decades lower. But his grandfather lived to be 105, he said.
He’s working on a new collection of short stories, focusing on his longtime character Luke Warmwater. He and his family are in the midst of this year’s sugarbush, which Northrup has juggled with his doctor appointments.
The way he’s handled his illness, Noodin said, has shown many people “how to look death in the eye.”
In a community with “extraordinarily high” suicide rates, that’s important, she said. It’s important “for young people to see getting old isn’t pretty and isn’t easy. But there you sit, holding your grandkids. There you sit, telling your stories. And that kind of strength isn’t to be underestimated.”
Every morning, Northrup goes outside to his yard, overlooking forested land. In Ojibwe, he recites a prayer:
“Thank you for the morning, thank you for the day. Give me a good life today. As the sun comes peeking through the trees, help me help my Anishinaabe people. Help me live a good life. Take care of my wife, my children, my grandchildren and all soldiers. Help me with my health.”
He motions to the spirits in the east, south, west and north, and makes an offering of tobacco.
“No matter what happens during the day, I am prepared,” he said of the prayer. “If I die today, I am ready. If I die a year from now, I am ready.”

Two Iraq veterans strive to be first combat amputees to climb Everest

Gregg Zoroya, USA TODAY11:38 p.m. EDT April 3, 2016
Chad Jukes lost part of his right leg after a roadside bomb explosion in Iraq in 2006. The same happened to Thomas Charles "Charlie" Linville when he was a Marine in Iraq in 2011.
Now Jukes, a former Army reserve staff sergeant, and Linville want to defy their disabilities in the most extreme way — by climbing the highest mountain in the world within the next two months. They could be the first combat amputees to reach that summit.
"There is a pressure to show the world that I can climb Mount Everest," said Jukes, 31, who, like Linville, has become a skilled mountain climber using a prosthesis. "To say, 'I have one leg, but I can climb Mount Everest. I have PTSD, but can climb Mount Everest. I have a traumatic brain injury, but I can climb Mount Everest.'"
Linville, 30, said he went from being a strong Marine to having people have pity for him after the amputation.
"Getting to the top I kind of view as vanquishing those demons, showing all these people that, 'Don't you have pity for disabled veterans because we're capable of so much more than you think,'" Linville said.
The men are part of two separate teams climbing for two different veterans support organizations. Both climbing parties are taking the less-traveled northern route to the summit out of Tibet and will likely come in contact with each other. That route has a soaring final approach to the top that keeps climbers in the so-called death zone more than 26,000 feet high for up to 24 hours or longer — a region where the human body can no longer acclimate and begins to decline.
It will be Linville's third attempt to climb the 29,029-foot mountain with a veterans organization called The Heroes Project. The former Marine attempted in 2014, but climbers were pulled off the mountain after an avalanche killed 16 Nepalese guides. Linville tried again last year, but the season was canceled after an earthquake struck Nepal, killing 8,000.
In January 2011, Linville was a member of a Marine bomb-disposal unit working in Afghanistan when he stepped on a buried explosive. After a series of surgeries to deal with his damaged right leg, the limb was amputated below his knee in 2013.
He and Jukes don't know each other, though they wish each other well. But the circumstance of two separate efforts to put the first combat amputee at the top of Everest has raised criticisms. . Tim Medvetz, who founded The Heroes Project in 2009 to help combat amputees by working with them to climb difficult mountains, says the group sponsoring Jukes' climb, U.S. Expeditions & Explorations (USX), is trying to "steal Charlie's thunder."
The co-founder of USX, Army 2nd Lt. Harold Earls, who said he came up with the idea independent of The Heroes Project efforts to climb Everest, denies this and says he hopes to link up with Medvetz and Linville during the climb.
"There's no point in having a group of veterans not working together," Earls said, 23, from Cumming, Ga. He said the key focus of the USX effort is to raise awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide in the Army.
Nearly 270 active-duty servicemembers killed themselves last year, continuing a trend of unusually high suicide rates that have plagued the U.S. military for at least seven years, the Pentagon reported Friday.
The USX climbing party includes Earls and Army 1st Lt. Elyse Ping Medvigy. If they reach the top, they would be the first active-duty Army soldiers to climb Everest.  "Since I was a little girl, I've always wanted to climb the Himalayas — that's kind of the epitome of climbing,"  said Ping Medvigy, 26, of Sebastopol, Calif., a veteran mountaineer who served nine months in Afghanistan as an artillery officer.
USX's goal is similar to The Heroes Project. USX works to assemble small teams of veterans and active-duty servicemembers to participate in adventure expeditions to foster teamwork and form lasting bonds, Earls said. The group has raised $178,000 toward the Everest climb.
Earls, Jukes and Ping Medvigy will make the ascent with a guide, three sherpas and climber/filmmaker David Ohlson, who will shoot a documentary. The expedition begins Thursday, and the team hopes to reach the summit the week before Memorial Day.
Mevetz has climbed Everest twice, reaching the summit in 2007. His organization has led combat amputees to climb the highest summits on all seven continents with the exception of Everest in Asia.
More than 4,000 people have climbed the mountain, and hundreds have died trying. About two-thirds of the attempts are made from the Nepalese south side. The north face is considered more treacherous.
Ping Medvigy, who will be promoted to captain while on Everest, says she has a passion for climbing and has conquered Kilimanjaro plus the tallest peak in South America, the 22,841-foot Aconcagua in Argentina.
"When it comes to high altitude, it's kind of the purity of the sport. It's just you and the mountain," she said.
The highest peak Earls has climbed is Mount Rainier in Washington state at 14,416 feet.
Jukes  is rated 80% disabled by the Department of Veterans Affairs. In December 2006, he was a truck commander on the lead vehicle of a convoy in Iraq when twin anti-tank mines detonated. The blast didn't rupture the undercarriage of his truck, but the concussion shattered his right heel and broke his right femur.
Following an operation to repair his foot, Jukes was infected with the superbug bacteria MRSA that went undiagnosed. By the time a civilian doctor identified it after Jukes was back home in Colorado to recover, much of the heel bone had been destroyed.
He chose amputation because the alternative of a reconstructed heel with a cadaver bone likely would result in chronic pain, Jukes said. He found that with a proper prosthesis, he could continue mountain climbing, a sport he pursued since childhood.
Jukes said a big concern on Everest will be the risk of frostbite to his stump, where there is reduced blood flow. This could complicate his dream to reach the summit, he said.
"The most important thing for me," Jukes said, "is coming home with the same number of limbs that I left with. Summiting Mount Everest is not worth losing anything more than I've already lost."
The Heroes Project founder, Tim Medvetz, and Charlie Linville looking at Mount Everest in 2014. (Photo: The Heroes Project)

The Heroes Project founder, Tim Medvetz, and Charlie Linville begin their trek to Mount Everest base camp in 2014. (Photo: The Heroes Project)

VA processing error held up benefits to 14,000 veterans

By Matthew M. Burke
Stars and Stripes
Published: April 1, 2016

The Veterans Affairs Department has discovered claims processing errors affecting about 14,000 veterans and survivors — a problem that goes back as least 15 years.
The errors occurred when veterans and survivors filed claims but, because of disability or age, were deemed unable to manage their benefits without assistance, VA officials said. The VA then failed to appoint a representative for the veteran, a family member in most cases.
The department became aware of the issue when it received inquiries in June and July from affected beneficiaries or their families, said VA spokeswoman Meagan Heup.
In a March 14 statement, VA officials said they caught the error using an information technology system called the Beneficiary Fiduciary Field System that was first deployed in 2014. Until then, they used an “antiquated, stand-alone database that did not interact with any other VA programs and allowed for only minimal workload management with virtually no oversight.”
Before then, regional officers were relying on “manual processes, including email correspondence,” to transfer cases to its fiduciary staff, Heup said.
The VA has since modified its system to eliminate the manual elements and “better track this workload.”
A review of affected veterans’ cases by the Veterans Benefits Administration was completed in November. It is working to determine how much is due to beneficiaries.
“We sincerely apologize to these veterans and their survivors for this regrettable delay,” VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson said in the statement.
It’s unclear how long the problem has been going on, Heup said, because the VA is not able to collect data prior to 2000. Additionally, the VA has yet to conduct a review to identify beneficiaries who died waiting for their cases to be processed.
VA officials said they have set up a team dedicated to reviewing the cases immediately, with a plan to complete the claims processing steps and appoint an appropriate representative as soon as possible. However, the process could take as long as six months to complete because the law requires the VA to meet with fiduciary representatives face-to-face and check their qualifications, officials said. In the meantime, beneficiaries will receive their monthly benefits.
The development comes on the heels of a joint study between Harvard University and veterans advocacy groups that reported the VA had wrongfully denied services to approximately 125,000 post-9/11 veterans who received other than honorable discharges. A few weeks prior to that, members of Congress proposed a bill to return approximately $78 million erroneously deducted from combat-wounded veterans’ severance pay for 25 years by the Pentagon, an error that may have affected upwards of 13,000 troops.

Senior VA Health Executives Could Earn More Money Under Department Proposal

By Kellie Lunney of the Government Executive
Senior health care executives at the Veterans Affairs Department could earn more money, but also could be fired more easily under draft legislation that Secretary Bob McDonald has sent to Capitol Hill.
The proposal would create a new personnel system under Title 38 for senior executives in health care leadership at the department, with new rules on hiring, setting pay and disciplining those accused of poor performance or misconduct. Those employees, who would include senior medical directors within the Veterans Health Administration and the Veterans Integrated Service Network, could receive compensation as determined by the secretary up to the president’s annual salary(currently $400,000) and would be subject to a new performance management system for determining bonuses and job ratings. The secretary would review the minimum and maximum market rates for basic pay for senior health care executives at least once every two years.
Affected senior executives also would lose their current Title 5 rights to appeal disciplinary actions against them, such as removal, to the independent Merit Systems Protection Board. Instead, their appeals would be handled internally at the VA by an executive appeals board made up of three career senior health care executives at the department. The secretary would have the final say over the type of punishment meted out, including firing, suspension and demotion. Employees subject to the most serious penalties could appeal the internal board’s decision to U.S. District Court.
The proposal, which could be included in an omnibus legislative package on veterans’ issues that will be unveiled this spring, aims to give the secretary more authority to recruit and retain talented health care professionals to the department -- and, if necessary, discipline those executives more quickly. McDonald, in a March 23 letter to Vice President Joseph Biden and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said he needs greater flexibility to hire and fire “to ensure that VA can operate as a values-based high performance organization rather than a compliance-focused underperforming bureaucracy.”
Right now, roughly 190,000 of the department’s 300,000-plus workforce falls under Title 38, including doctors, nurses and other categories of health care workers. Between 60,000 and 70,000 of those employees are considered “pure” Title 38, meaning they do not have the same standard MSPB appeal rights that Title 5 employees have. Hybrid Title 38 employees, including social workers, pharmacists and psychologists at the VHA, have the same rights to appeal adverse actions to MSPB as Title 5 employees have. The separate title and the two tracks within it emerged as a way to help the VA secretary fill certain jobs faster through the federal hiring process. 
McDonald’s legislative proposal would treat senior health care executives as “pure” Title 38.
The VA’s draft legislation also would amend the disciplinary process for all other non-health care senior executives in the 2014 Veterans’ Access, Choice and Accountability Act “to specify the burden of proof and level of deference the Merit Systems Protection Board must afford VA’s senior executive accountability actions,” stated thedepartment’s analysis of the proposed changes. It would direct MSPB to issue a decision on non-health care senior executive appeals within 30 days, instead of the current 21-day deadline, and require the board “to defer to agency actions that are supported by substantial evidence, lawful and within the tolerable bounds of reasonableness, and would authorize MSPB to mitigate the penalty imposed by the agency in certain limited circumstances,” the analysis said.
The proposed change to the 2014 law is a reaction to three recent appeals cases in which MSPB ruled in favor of the employees. The agency overturned two demotions and one firing that the department had recommended for three senior executives, in part because the administrative judges believed the punishments were too harsh and that they did not have the authority to offer a less severe penalty. The decisions, which the VA and many lawmakers were not happy about, have raised questions about the intent of Congress in passing the 2014 law, implementation of the law by VA and MSPB, and the preservation of constitutional due process rights afforded to Title 5 federal employees.
McDonald’s formal legislative proposal is a scaled-back version of adraft document circulated among VA leadership, lawmakers, and other stakeholders earlier this year that discussed moving all the department's senior executives, roughly 350 employees, from Title 5 to Title 38. 
In a Feb. 18 email to VA senior executives, McDonald said that “running VA like a business requires more flexibility than we currently have in the way we appoint, onboard, assign, develop, appraise, pay, and—if necessary—discipline executives.” He added that one way to do that could include shifting those employees from Title 5 to Title 38. “At the Feb. 10, 2016, House Committee on Veterans' Affairs hearing on the president's fiscal year 2017 budget request, I addressed the idea of a legislative change to make all VA career senior executives Title 38 employees,” McDonald wrote in the email. 
The Senior Executives Association had blasted the VA’s idea to convert the department’s entire SES corps into Title 38 employees. Jason Briefel, interim SEA president, said in February that such a move “will surely lead to the politicization of the delivery of care and benefits throughout the entire VA workforce, as these at-will executives will now serve at the complete pleasure of the political arm of the VA.”
In the last month, VA moved away from proposals that would have shifted the entire SES corps out of Title 5 and into Title 38.
The leadership of the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs committees has been working since December on a big veterans’ omnibus package that includes various items, including changes to the hiring and firing of VA employees, as well as provisions to improve vets’ health care and other benefits. Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., has said he wants to get it passed and to President Obama before Memorial Day in May.
In his letter to Biden and Ryan, McDonald said the VA “faces unprecedented demands for health care services,” and those challenges require the department to “re-examine” how it operates and implement new programs to meet veterans’ needs.
“As a result, VA is in the midst of a radical transformation to improve its relationship with and service to veterans and their families,” he wrote. “The sustainability of this transformation is dependent upon the career VA leaders who provide executive level leadership for VA’s health care facilities and programs.”
Separating myth from fact at the VA
By Peter Gaytan
April 01, 2016, 09:54 am
Hardly a day goes by without another headline about problems in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs health-care system and the veterans suffering as a result. But in recent weeks, a number of politicians and journalists have downplayed or even denied the need for reforming the VA, instead accusing those calling for change of “manufacturing or vastly exaggerating” its deficiencies.
These denials fly in the face of everything uncovered in the massive wait-list scandal at the VA nearly two years ago, and the tens of thousands of veterans still waiting months for care.
For anyone who thinks these problems aren’t real, consider the story of Barry Coates, a veteran who passed away earlier this year after a long fight with cancer. Barry, a South Carolinian in his mid-40s when he died, testified before Congress in the aftermath of the 2014 scandal, noting that he hadwaited a full year for the VA to give him a colonoscopy and even had to beg for it to be performed. By the time the VA gave him his appointment, his cancer had already progressed too far.
Unfortunately, Barry’s story is far from the only one. And ignoring stories like his won’t improve veterans’ health and well-being. Veterans deserve an honest assessment of the problems within their VA.
We must first confront the continued excessive wait times for access to health-care. VA staff were encouraged to manipulate the numbers when patients were waiting too long for treatment, hiding these long waits and allowing them to go unchecked. This most infamously occurred in Phoenix, Arizona, where CNN initially reported that at least 40 veterans died while waiting on secret wait lists.  A VA Inspector General’s report later confirmed this, noting that thousands of veterans were at risk.
Far from isolated to Arizona, the VA’s own investigations later revealed these wait lists and excessive delays in treatment were systematic across the nation. The reports produced by these investigations are only now being released, confirming that supervisors and staff at facilities across Texas, Florida, Arkansas, and Delaware—to name a few—falsely indicated that veterans wait times were zero. Worse yet, this practice continued at least as far back as 2007.
This evidence is damning, yet excessive wait times are hardly the only major problem with veterans’ treatment. Stories abound of VA staff behaving unethically or negligently but receiving little disciplinary action. Just this month, for example, two high-level employees demoted for allegedly exploiting the personal relocation system for their own gain were reinstated with full pay. That’s because bureaucracy makes it almost impossible to fire VA employees who’ve committed wrongdoing—at least not in a timely manner or without a protracted battle.
Outside observers have confirmed the decline in VA quality. An independent assessmentmandated by Congress, conducted last year by consulting firms including McKinsey and RAND, found that VA hospitals and facilities provide “strikingly different patient experiences, apply inconsistent business processes, and differ widely on key measures of performance and efficiency."
And if anyone still continues to doubt, they only need to look at the VA’s own data, which show conditions at the VA continue deteriorating.
Troubled VA facilities such as Phoenix still have excessive wait times. Over 8,000 appointmentsfor care in Phoenix have wait times of one month or longer. And it’s even worse in Columbia, South Carolina, where Barry Coates failed to get the care he needed. As of March 1st, over 13 percent of appointments made for care there have one-month wait times, with over 1,000 delayed longer than 120 days.
And the problems are still getting worse. Last year the number of backlogged veterans was 50 percent higher than at the height of the wait-list scandal. And as of this past January, over 30,000 more veterans are waiting longer than one month for health care than were in January 2015.
This is unacceptable, but how do we fix it?  One of the most important changes is ensuring veterans have the freedom to choose how and where they use their health care benefits. That could be accomplished through a strengthened version of 2014’s “Veterans Choice Act”
The opponents of VA reform say this is akin to “privatizing” the agency, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s actually like giving veterans a “GI Bill” for their health care. It makes complete sense to take advantage of our country’s well-developed civilian medical infrastructure to supplement veterans’ care when the VA can’t guarantee it.
Those who staunchly defend the VA in light of the indefensible suffering it often causes are putting the federal bureaucracy ahead of the veterans it’s supposed to serve. The VA is a critical institution that serves a noble purpose, but ignoring the need for serious reforms will only hurt more of our nation’s heroes.

More than 125,000 U.S. Veterans of the Middle East Were Denied VA Benefits

By Eric Pianin March 31, 2016
There seems to be a huge disconnect between the nation’s mounting concerns about suicides among U.S. veterans of the Middle East wars and the Department of Veterans Affairs’ shabby treatment of tens of thousands of veterans who left the military under less than ideal terms.
Early last year, Congress belatedly approved a measure providing $22 million over the coming five years to bolster VA programs to combat a rash of suicides among vets that have averaged about 1 suicide a day.
The tragic stories of emotionally scarred veterans struggling to reenter society, find jobs and shelter are legion. More than half of the 2.7 million veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are struggling with physical or mental health problems that often lead to debilitating depression – and suicide -- according to some experts.
So a new report this week that growing numbers of veterans have been ruled ineligible for VA benefits, including mental health counseling, because they had been discharged from the service with a less than “general” rating,  is a stunning revelation.

The report, by the advocacy group Swords to Plowshares, analyzed VA data going back 70 years and discovered that roughly 6.5 percent of all veterans of the conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan have been excluded from basic veterans’ services, such as counseling, job placement and housing assistance, because of a bad discharge.
The exclusionary rate for those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan is nearly comparable to the 5.5 percent benefit exclusion rate of veterans who served in the First Gulf War between 1991 and 2001. But it is nearly four times the rate of World War II era veterans (1.7 percent) and more than twice the 2.8 percent rate of Korean War era soldiers. The study was first reported by The New York Times on Tuesday.

In short, more than 125,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have been cut loose and must fend for themselves because of what is known as “bad paper” or an unsatisfactory discharge from the service because of misconduct or sub-par performances. Yet the congressionally mandated regulations fail to take into account that post-traumatic stress and other emotional problems that may have directly contributed to the “bad paper” in the first place.
Researchers say that veterans who received less-than-satisfactory discharges are more likely to commit suicide.
“This report exposes a historically unprecedented abandonment of American veterans,” wrote Bradford Adams, a lawyer and veterans’ advocate, who produced the report. “Veterans with bad paper discharges are at a greater risk of homelessness and suicide, yet it is nearly impossible for such veterans to navigate the bureaucracies to get VA health care or homelessness prevention services.”
The controversy reaches back to the 1944 G.I. Bill. The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act denied troops who were convicted of serious crimes or had dishonorable discharges to qualify for veterans’ benefits. Congress at the time wrote in some exceptions to the law to provide officials with some discretionary latitude, such as for dealing with those who were deemed undesirable or “other than honorable.”

However, as The Times explained, the soaring share of ineligible veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflict is largely due to the military’s increased reliance on “other-than-honorable discharges.” Using that designation has become the most expeditious way for the military to drum emotionally troubled men and women out of the service without having to provide them with time-consuming and costly treatment.
A top VA official told the newspaper that his agency would explore ways to better serve veterans within the boundaries of the law and department regulations. However, the VA is still struggling to rebound from a major scandal a year ago in which hundreds of veterans reportedly died while waiting many months to receive treatment at VA health care centers.
Among other key findings of the new report:
Marines are nearly ten times more likely to be denied VA services than members of the Air Force are.

Mental health and combat have little effect in determining eligibility for benefits.

A stunning three out of four vets with “bad-paper discharges” who served in combat and suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder are denied eligibility for benefits by the Board of Veterans Appeals.

​The report urges the VA to revise its regulations “to more accurately reflect congressional intent that only those who served ‘dishonorably’ be excluded.” The agency should also require the consideration of “positive and mitigating factors,” and not arbitrarily disqualify veterans for minor infractions. Finally, the report calls on the VA to grant veterans access to basic healthcare while it deliberates on veterans’ eligibility claims.