The United States Office of Special Counsel received almost 2,000 complaints about VA care in 2016. Carolyn Lerner, Special Counsel, requested an extra $2.4 million in the 2018 budget to handle the complaints, since the OSC anticipates receiving more cases in fiscal year 2017. VA Secretary David Shulkin and President Trump have encouraged more VA whistle-blowers to come forward to address VA employees’ concerns without fear of retaliation. Curtis Cashour, Secretary Shulkin’s spokesman, stated: “Our goal is to rebuild trust among employees and supervisors so that problems can be solved at the lowest level possible.” United States Representative for New Hampshire, Ann Kuster explained: “We know that far too many veterans face unacceptable hurdles when accessing VA care, and whistle-blowers play an important role in identifying areas where change is needed.” Whistle-blowers from Maine, Rhode Island, Utah, Texas, North Carolina, and South Carolina have come forward to report mismanagement and poor care that threatens the health of veterans at other VA facilities. Mr. Cashour said that if any whistle-blowers feel they have been victims of retaliation, they should contact the new Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection.
The VA has implemented an effort to screen and treat veterans under their care for the Hepatitis C virus. Hepatitis C experts say this proactive approach should be a model for other government health programs and private insurers. Although about 1 percent of the United States population has the virus, veterans who use the VA for health care suffer from it at a rate of 4.8 percent. Vietnam-era veterans have it at an even higher rate. 7.5 percent of these veterans who use the VA have tested positive for the virus. There are many theories why this particular demographic suffers from the virus at higher rates. One is that it was not identified as a distinct virus until 1989, and baby boomers grew up in an era when blood wasn’t screened and before disposable needles were common in medical settings. Screening of blood did not begin until 1992. Older Hepatitis C drugs required shots injected into the stomach and had severe side effects. New medications are nearly 100% effective and have little to no side effects. Since 2014, the VA has cured 96,000 patients of the virus. In 2016, Congress provided billions in funding, and pharmaceutical companies released new versions… Continue Reading VA Helping to Eradicate Hepatitis C
According to a recent Veterans Administration press release, veterans are 20% more likely than non-veterans to kill themselves. And the suicide rate for female veterans is 250% higher than that of non-veterans. The department was accused of covering up veteran suicide rates in 2008. Last year, it was revealed that an average of 20 veterans committed suicide each day in 2014. Suicides among military veterans is especially high in the western United States and in rural areas. Social isolation, access to health care, and gun ownership may all be contributing factors to these higher rates. Montana, Utah, Nevada, and New Mexico had the highest rates of veteran suicides in 2014. Many veterans in those areas must drive 70 miles or more to receive VA health care. If you or a loved one you know is suffering from mental illness, please seek professional help immediately.
Beginning October 1, 2017, servicemembers who wish to resolve disability claims before leaving the military must enroll in the “Benefits Delivery at Discharge” program 90 days from separation rather than the current 60 days. Additionally, Quick Start, a program that allows troops with 59 or fewer days left to begin their claims process, will also end. Late filed claims will result in veterans waiting an average of 90 days after separation to get a decision on benefits. Many claims are not complete when service members leave active duty, and submitting disability claims between 90 and 180 days before separation will ensure claims can be fully developed.
Hundreds of veterans remain on the Social Security Administration’s payroll, despite being dead for years, and have received almost $38 million in benefits. This information comes according to a report from the inspector general of Social Security. The report cited inaccurate death records at the Department of Veterans Affairs as well as the VA’s failure to send monthly death reports to the SSA. Approximately 750 dead people continue to receive benefits. An audit found nearly 4,000 cases in which payments were sent to people listed as dead. In 2006, over $11 million was paid to deceased veterans, which underscores the VA’s history of confusing the living and the dead for over a decade.
The Department of Veterans Affairs says some veterans are waiting six years or more to appeal denied claims, while on average it takes approximately three years to receive a final decision. VA officials complained that case records never close, and this open-ended system causes the appeals to drag on for years. Veterans can claim new evidence at any time, and the VA’s duty to assist in compiling that evidence and seeking more files from government agencies or private physicians stalls the appeals process. Now, when a claim is denied, there will be three options to appeal. First, Veterans can request that a more experienced claims adjudicator review his or her case with the same evidence initially submitted. Second, a veteran with new evidence can ask the Veterans Benefits Administration to reconsider the merits of the original claim based on the new medical information. Third, veterans can engage in a formal appeals process where jurisdiction for the appeal transfers to the Board of Veterans Appeals. A veteran can also seek a hearing at this stage to review the case with potential new evidence. By late November, the VA must deliver a comprehensive plan to the House and Senate veterans affairs committee… Continue Reading Streamlining the VA Appeals Process
Veterans Affairs David Shulkin received an additional $2.1 billion for the Veterans Choice Program in a bill passed the beginning of August. Secretary Shulkin said the funds will be used for modernization projects, comprehensive public-private sector partnerships, and construction of new facilities. As Secretary Shulkin stated: “I think health care’s changed to become more ambulatory and people are getting more care using technology at home. We are trying to build a modern system, not replicating an old system.” He also said that partnerships are important when veterans cannot get care through the VA, either because they live too far away from the nearest VA facility, or the wait times at their nearest VA facility are too long. Secretary Shulkin further stressed the necessity of working more closely with the Department of Defense to obtain electronic health records to speed up the process of receiving care.
The VA continues to receive bipartisan support in Congress and last week President Trump signed the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act. This Act should make it easier for vets to challenge VA disability benefits claim decisions. Last update for the bill in terms of the law was in the 1930s. VA Secretary Sulkin said he feels Democrats and Republicans agree work must be done when it involves veteran issues.
Last week, President Trump signed the Arla Harrell Act into law, which is intended to secure VA benefits for World War II veterans who were exposed to chemicals in experiments. The bill, sponsored by Senators Claire McCaskill and Roy Blunt of Missouri, passed in the Senate the week before. Arla Harrell is one of an estimated 400 surviving WWII veterans who were exposed to chemicals such as phosgene gas, mustard gas, and lewisite as part of an international testing operation. Participants in the test were sworn to secrecy by threat of court-martial until the government lifted the oath in the 1990s. Prior to this date, participants could not tell their doctors the nature of their ailments.