The new VA Deputy Secretary nominee brings significant experience as Lockheed’s former counter-intelligence legal chief and head of privacy.
What does this mean for internal agency policies and processing Veterans’ benefits claims? How about whistleblower allegations? Is the agency working hard to root out wrongdoing in its higher levels of management or is Byrne overseeing implementation of an agency dragnet?
With his background, folks should be asking lots of questions. But, not much has been said about the senior attorney running most of the agency. Most of the press failed to even make note of his nomination to run the Office of General Counsel two years ago. Why?
James Byrne, President Donald Trump’s nominee, as of Friday, previously served two years as the agency’s head of the Office of General Counsel. His previous roles in the public sector span over 20 years and include working at the Office of Special Counsel and as a DOJ prosecutor in international narcotics.
Byrne served as a Marine infantry officer after graduating from the US Naval Academy with a degree in engineering.
Senator Johnny Isakson (R-Ga) seems pleased with the agency’s selection of Byrne for this role.
“I am glad to see Mr. Byrne nominated to serve in this critical role,” said Isakson. “The deputy secretary of the VA is responsible for working closely with the secretary to make sure the federal government’s second-largest cabinet department is operating effectively, efficiently and in the best interest of our Veterans. I look forward to chairing Mr. Byrne’s confirmation hearing in the coming weeks.”
Before Byrne, the role was held by one of Sen. Isakson’s former staffers Thomas Bowman.
Again, with Byrne’s background, it seems curious that no one in the MSM has written about his assentation within the agency over the past two years. No one wrote about his nomination as of today, either.
Why is that? Why is everyone closed lipped about Byrne’s work at the agency?
Below is the full excerpt from Sen. Isakson’s page, in italics.
Senate Press Release
U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, responded to President Donald J. Trump’s intent to nominate James Byrne to be deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
Byrne was named acting deputy secretary of the VA in August 2018, and on Jan. 14, 2019, he became the VA’s general counsel performing the duties of the deputy secretary. He was confirmed as VA general counsel in August 2017.
“I am glad to see Mr. Byrne nominated to serve in this critical role,” said Isakson. “The deputy secretary of the VA is responsible for working closely with the secretary to make sure the federal government’s second-largest cabinet department is operating effectively, efficiently and in the best interest of our Veterans. I look forward to chairing Mr. Byrne’s confirmation hearing in the coming weeks.”
The deputy secretary is the VA’s chief operating officer responsible for working in tandem with the secretary to oversee the VA’s nationwide system of health care services, benefits programs and national cemeteries for America’s Veterans and their dependents.
Prior to joining the VA, Byrne served in Lockheed Martin Corp.’s legal department as the chief privacy officer and lead attorney for information technology, cyber security and counterintelligence. Byrne has more than 20 years of experience in the public sector, including service as a deployed Marine infantry officer and a U.S. Department of Justice international narcotics prosecutor. Byrne is a distinguished graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, where he received an engineering degree and ultimately held the top leadership position of brigade commander.
The Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs will hold a hearing on Byrne’s nomination after his nomination paperwork has been completed and submitted to the committee.
Officials at the Indianapolis Veterans Affairs hospital insist they wanted to fire the administrator whose mistakes led to the amputation of a Veteran’s foot due to missed home care appointments, but couldn’t because the staffer retired before they could act.
“Had (the investigation) been completed before the employee retired, the Roudebush Veterans Affairs Medical Center would have proposed the employee for termination,” Craig Larson, spokesman for the VA’s Chicago District, said in a statement. “The employee chose to retire while the investigation was ongoing, and there was nothing the center could do to stop that.”
Last week, officials from the U.S. Office of Special Counsel said that an administrative decision in 2017 to stop recording home health care consults into a VA’s patient record system jeopardized the health of numerous patients at the Indiana VA hospital, and forced at least one of them to lose his foot to a medical amputation.
That man, who had been discharged from care after a diabetes treatment, was left to change the dressings on his foot wound by himself for several days, even though VA staffers were supposed to do that.
“[His] worsening infection … and subsequent amputation appears to have been related to the delay of the dressing changes by the home care agency,” the report states.
Pete Scovill, public and congressional affairs officer for Veteran Health Indiana, said hospital officials “remain in close contact with the Veteran” today and have offered an apology and “options moving forward.”
He also said that all affected staff have been re-trained to ensure that home health care consults are being properly conducted and recorded.
But the Special Counsel report noted that despite the grave nature of the mistakes, no staffers were fired. A social work assistant chief was reassigned to a different position, and the senior chief retired.
Larson defended the moves, saying center leaders took immediate action in response to the whistleblower allegations. But officials could not prevent the senior chief from retiring, and could not take any adverse job actions after that.
President Donald Trump made accountability at VA a key promise during his election campaign. After less than six months in office, he signed a new department accountability measure into law, speeding up the time in which staffers can be fired and allowing the department to recoup bonuses from individuals later convicted of criminal wrongdoing.
But VA officials said none of those measures would apply in this case.
Overall firings at the department have increased each of the last three calendar years, as the number of VA staff has also continued to climb.
In 2016, VA fired 2,001 individuals through regular removals and probationary terminations. In 2017, that number rose to 2,537. Last year, from January to the end of November, it was 2,889.
But critics have insisted that more firings does not necessarily mean better outcomes for Veterans, especially if administrators making sweeping decisions can avoid punishment.
In a statement in response to the Special Counsel report, American Legion National Commander Brett Reistad said that “increased accountability will improve an already strong VA system” and called for the department to institute a broader plan to prevent future communication mistakes.
“Tragedies such as what happened in Indianapolis should never occur,” he said. “We expect VA to learn from this and act accordingly.”
WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs has reassigned an employee after whistleblower complaints outed delays and miscommunications at an Indiana facility that left a Veteran untreated, leading to the amputation of his leg.
Another employee would’ve been fired but retired before the VA could take action, according to Peter Scovill, spokesman for the Richard L. Roudebush VA Medical Center in Indianapolis.
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel, an independent agency that protects whistleblowers, sent a letter to President Donald Trump this week with its findings about the incident at the medical center. Following up on a complaint from three whistleblowers, the special counsel discovered a policy change at the hospital in 2017 led to “significant delays in care and harm to Veterans.”
The amputation was a direct result of the delays, the agency reported.
Scovill said Thursday in a statement that VA leaders were in close contact with the Veteran and “will be apologizing and advising them of their options moving forward.”
The Office of Special Counsel substantiated whistleblower allegations that leaders within the VA social work service in Indianapolis directed social workers to stop entering home health care consults into a computerized patient record system. The lack of planning, communication and training with the change led to home visits not being properly logged, the special counsel found.
Because of a scheduling mix-up, one Veteran didn’t receive the help that he needed in June 2017 to redress a foot abscess. The wound became infected and eventually led to a below-the-knee amputation, Special Counsel Henry Kerner wrote.
Scovill said Thursday that the assistant chief of social work was removed from that position and assigned to another job with less responsibility. The VA investigated the chief of social work at the time, but the person retired before the VA could fire them.
The hospital did not name the employees.
Since the investigation ended, the Indianapolis VA updated its procedures to allow social workers to enter information into the patient record system. It also has trained all key staff members, the special counsel said.
Kerner wrote to Trump that he commended the VA for taking steps to prevent future problems but was “nonetheless distressed that such a situation occurred in the first place.”
Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie frequently reminds people that he has only been on the job for eight months. He also knows the decisions he is making now could affect the department for decades to come.
“For the first time since the fall of Saigon, more than half of our Veterans are under the age of 65,” Wilkie told Military Times in an exclusive interview last week. “They have very different attitudes when it comes to care. They want care that’s close to home. They want care that is quick. They’re not from a world where they are comfortable sitting and waiting.”
Starting June 6, Wilkie insists, those Veterans won’t have to wait any longer.
Under the VA Mission Act, passed by Congress last summer, the department is set for a sweeping expansion of its community care program, the rules governing when Veterans can see a private health care provider at taxpayer expense.
“(Now) the Veteran is at the center of his health care, not the institution,” he said, repeating a line he has delivered to Congress multiple times in recent months. “And if there is something we cannot provide, he has the option of going to [the] private sector or waiting for us to provide it. That is a sea change in terms of the way we operate.”
Those congressional appearances are part of a larger offensive by department officials against persistent charges that the upcoming changes will outsource too much of the department’s responsibilities and resources — “privatization of VA,” according to critics.
A coalition of congressional Democrats and Veterans advocates are rallying against the looming changes, saying that pushing too many Veterans into the private sector will hollow out the federal health care system.
On the other hand, President Donald Trump has made “Veterans’ choice” a key talking point of his stump speeches since last summer, praising his administration’s success at bringing better and more convenient care to Veterans even before the new rules are in place.
The 56-year-old Wilkie — a longtime conservative operative who has held key leadership posts under presidents and members of Congress for three decades — is left in the middle, working to calm critics and turn the commander-in-chief’s boasts into reality.
Already well-known and controversial in the Veterans community, Wilkie is poised to see his public profile grow even larger — whether he wants it or not — as that June 6 deadline approaches.
For his part, the secretary calls this “the greatest transformative period in the history of our VA” and says that the changes will dramatically improve operations and public perception of the sprawling Veterans bureaucracy, which employs more than 400,000 people and could see its budget swell to nearly $220 billion next year.
And, he says, the department is ready for it.
A family tradition
Wilkie served in both the Air Force Reserve and Navy Reserve, but he rarely goes into any detail about his time in the military when speaking publicly on Veterans issues.
He does talk extensively about his family’s military lineage. His great-grandfather served in the final Allied offensive of World War II. His father earned three Purple Hearts and five Bronze Stars during the Vietnam War and was severely injured during the invasion of Cambodia before Wilkie was a teenager.
“He had a lifetime of chronic pain,” he said. “But what made his life more difficult was that there was only one record of his medical care and that was 800 pages.”
The difficulties his family faced navigating the Veterans health system inform his work today. Pictures of those family members occupy Wilkie’s sparsely decorated office in Washington, D.C., along with several other family mementos.
And, on the wall opposite his desk is the placard from his previous job as Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, which Wilkie himself didn’t get to see much during that Pentagon stint.
Within three months of being confirmed for the job, Trump tapped him to serve as acting VA secretary, following David Shulkin’s dismissal — a messy firing over Twitter that spurred questions about Trump’s volatility and the legality of operations at the department.
Then, two months into that assignment, Trump announced during a White House event on criminal justice reform that Wilkie would be tapped as the permanent replacement. Wilkie was visibly surprised by the announcement.
“Jim Mattis [the former defense secretary, who was Wilkie’s boss at the time] will tell you it was a surprise to him, too,” Wilkie said.
The current secretary is reluctant to speak about Shulkin’s dismissal, which came amid tensions between VA leadership and the White House over a host of policy issues. Shulkin, the first non-Veteran to hold the top VA job, was also an Obama administration holdover who received lavish praise from Trump initially but was the subject of his scorn by the end.
In between, Trump nominated White House physician Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson to the post, only to see his candidacy withdrawn amid charges of workplace malfeasance. A year later, Wilkie says that his department has worked past “the turmoil” of that time.
“In the last eight months, this place has been fairly calm,” he said. “We’ve got a good leadership team in place now. Almost all of our leaders have extensive military experience. So they speak the language … The department did not have that leadership team in place in the time before I got here.”
The privatization fight
The turmoil has been replaced with an intense focus on the Mission Act, which includes an overhaul of VA caregiver support rules, plans for a base-closing-style commission for VA facilities and the new outside care rules. The measure was signed into law by Trump just a few weeks before Wilkie was sworn in as the department’s 10th secretary.
The caregiver rules and facility review will come later this year. But revising the outside care rules has been the primary challenge facing VA leadership since Wilkie walked into VA headquarters, located less than a block away from the White House.
Currently, taxpayer-funded private-sector medical appointments are available to Veterans who live 40 miles from the nearest VA facility or face a wait of up to 30 days for care. The new rules, developed by Wilkie’s team, would extend eligibility to Veterans who face a 20-day wait or a 30-minute care ride to a VA facility.
“It is not what it has been purported to be, and that is what I would call ‘libertarian choice,’” he said. “You don't give a Veteran a card and say, ‘thank you very much, the private sector is wide open to you.’”
“I’ve heard some people say that the changes in access standards and availability standards were arbitrary, capricious. Well, if they have that charge, they need to go to the members of Congress who wrote the Mission Act. Because the Mission Act gave me very clear instructions on how I come up with access standards.”
But critics are unhappy with more than just the rules as written. They say that Trump’s team is working to undermine VA health care as a viable enterprise, by promoting outside care as a better solution for Veterans’ medical needs.
Groups such as Veterans of Foreign Wars and Disabled American Veterans has voiced concerns that the messaging of the changes emphasizes convenience of care over quality. Outside doctors, they note, don’t necessarily have experience diagnosing post-traumatic stress disorder or burn pit illnesses. They’d rather see efforts put into improving VA access options.
For Wilkie, it’s not an either-or option.
“Our spending on tele-health has gone up at an exponential rate in the last few years,” he said. “We’re on the cutting edge of using it for mental health issues. It also reaches into rural areas and, importantly, we’re allowed to [provide it across state lines], what the rest of the country can’t do.”
Asked if VA will be promoting outside care over VA care to Veterans, Wilkie did not provide a direct answer.
“The Mission Act says up front that it’s the Veterans’ health interest that is first and foremost. So that Veteran will have a care team at VA who will speak with him and talk about the options for him.
“Nine times out of 10, he's been probably going to stay with the people that he knows and the community he knows … The pull of the culture on people to be where they share experiences with others is very different from any other segment of the country.
“And as I said even as VA has had hiccups — and we’ve overcome those hiccups — we’ve actually seen the number of Veterans asking to go into the private sector drop.”
A looming deadline
The rules changes could triple the number of Veterans eligible for health care outside of the VA system, but VA has predicted that they will not see any substantial increase in usage of private care.
Congressional critics have called that laughable.
Last month, a group of 55 lawmakers — all Democrats — sent a seven-page letter to VA officials detailing concerns over how the new rules were crafted and their potential impact, calling it “the first step towards dismantling the system.”
It’s a charge that Trump has invited since before he took office, when he floated the idea of outsourcing some or all of Veterans health care to private providers. It’s also an accusation Wilkie has had to combat since his first day in office.
He believes he has balanced being a cheerleader for the department with enacting the reforms mandated by Congress.
“When it comes to health care, the private sector is not always the best place,” he said. “The Journal of the American Medical Association, as you know, has said that when it comes to primary care and specialty care like cardiology, our wait times are good or better than any.
“We have same-day urgent care. We have same-day primary care. We have same-day mental health care. You can’t find that in most places in the United States.”
But, Wilkie points out, that isn’t the case for every Veteran. Forcing them to wait longer or travel further just to protect the federal system isn’t in their best interests, and it goes against what the president and Congress have promised, he said.
Several members of Congress have suggested slowing the timeline for the implementation, especially in light of Vet groups saying they weren’t included enough in the drafting process. Wilkie said he sees no need for a delay and is confident that the department will be ready.
That’s no small task.
Last fall, tens of thousands of Veterans’ GI Bill benefits were disrupted because of problems with VA technology, issues that some outside groups had predicted months earlier. When the VA Choice program (the precursor to the Mission Act) was unveiled in 2014, similar problems caused massive delays in making payments to outside providers and scheduling appointments.
A recent review conducted by the U.S. Digital Service, a federal government group, raised the specter of similar problems affecting this effort.
Wilkie has pushed back on that and said in his Military Times interview he is assured the systems will be in place by June.
“But we also have in place, as any good military organization will have, redundancies that they will have another system supporting that to get our Veterans what they need,” he said.
He is also confident that the changes will be embraced by Veterans, even if those privatization charges continue to linger.
VA officials will appear before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee to talk about the Mission Act implementation on Wednesday afternoon. Wilkie is also scheduled to testify about the upcoming changes again later this month, and plans to remind lawmakers that they — and not him — ultimately approved the changes.
“The Mission Act told us that we must provide Veterans the option to go outside of our system if we don’t have that service,” Wilkie said. “The Mission Act told us that we had to do the market assessments … The Mission Act told us that we had to divide the country into regions for community care, and how to set up contracts so that we are able to pay private-sector doctors and private-sector hospitals.
“I am following the law that was laid out by the United States Senate and the United States House.”
Obesity cannot be considered a service-connected disability, according to a new ruling by the Department of Veterans Affairs General Counsel expected to be published in the April 8, 2019, edition of the Federal Register.
The new ruling, among several precedent opinions set to be included, reinforces the VA's long-standing opinion that obesity isn't a disease or injury according to the law for wartime or peacetime compensation and can't be considered directly related to military service for compensation purposes.
So why does the VA reject obesity as a service-connected disability if Medicare covers obesity treatment and the Centers for Disease Control and National Institutes of Health both say obesity is a disease?
While the VA treats obesity as a disease for which treatment is warranted, the distinction is in the words "service-connected." The VA simply does not see it as a condition that was a result of military service, and therefore for which compensation is payable.
The VA estimates that 78% of Veterans are obese, and it does offer several treatment programs for obese Vets. However, the new opinion means it won't pay compensation for it anytime soon.
But the determination could be a good thing, at least for the current force. We all have heard of people getting kicked out of the military for being overweight. This ruling by the VA means that obesity can't be considered willful misconduct when making line-of-duty determinations for other disabilities.
And blocking it as a service-connected disability doesn't mean that it isn't what's known as an "extra-schedular rating," or a rating that can be tagged onto an existing disability, the General Counsel has ruled.
For example, you may be rated 40% because of Agent Orange related diabetes but the diabetes may cause obesity so you may be able to get an extra-schedular rating and increase your disability to 50%.
Also, obesity may be so bad that it has life-altering consequences. That may be considered when determining an overall rating if there are other qualifying disabilities. It may be considered an "intermediate step" between a non-service-connected and service-connected disability when considered with other disabilities.
In their ruling, the lawyers said that since obesity "occurs over time and is based on various external and internal factors, as opposed to being a discrete incident or occurrence, or a series of discrete incidents or occurrences," the condition may be reversed by treatment before it becomes disabling.
So while obesity can, and should, be considered a disease since it is a treatable condition that results in other, more serious health conditions, it shouldn't be considered a disease when you are trying to blame it on your military service.
A botched change in the way home-care visits were scheduled for patients released from the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Indianapolis resulted in a Veteran losing part of his leg, according to a copy of an investigative report and letter to the president.
The letter to President Donald Trump said a Department of Veterans Affairs investigation prompted by three whistle-blower complaints revealed "a system breakdown because leadership attempted to implement the change without collaborating with key services or allowing time for coordination and education." The letter is from Henry J. Kerner of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal agency that looks at whistleblower disclosures and helps protect them from retaliation.
That breakdown resulted in delays in the care of Veterans, the investigation found, including one man discharged from the Indianapolis medical center in 2017 after receiving treatment for diabetic ketoacidosis and an ulcerated foot abscess. Because of delays attributed to the new process, the letter said, "the Veteran did not receive the necessary home health care."
The letter explained the VA investigation determined the man's wound "became infected and required below-the knee amputation due to the delay in receiving dressing changes" from a home health care provider.
“It is unconscionable that after serving his country, a Veteran lost his limb not on the battlefield, but because of mistakes made by the agency entrusted to take care of him," said Special Counsel Kerner. "While I commend the VA for taking the necessary steps to prevent similar problems from occurring in the future, this situation should never have happened.”
The names of the Veteran who had part of his leg amputated and the three whistleblowers are not revealed in the report.
The report focused the blame for the problems in 2017 on the then chief and assistant chief of social work services at the medical center. They are not named in the report, which also notes the center has since updated and implemented new procedures "for monitoring consults and post-discharge follow-ups."
The problem began in March 2017, according to the report, when the chief of social work services "directed that social workers should no longer enter" orders for home care into the patient records system because the process required the inclusion of medical information that is outside the scope of practice for social workers.
The investigation substantiated allegations that "this decision led to a system breakdown, as the transition was not implement with key services in a collaborative and cohesive manner, allowing time for coordination and education."
It also found:
- There was no quality assurance mechanism in place to verify whether the new practice was working.
- There was a lack of assigned nursing staff to support the rollout of the pilot plan, and no contingency plan to deal with staff absences.
- There was inadequate social work and nursing staff to provide appropriate and timely processing of consultation orders.
- The situation, according to the report, resulted in a "delay in Veterans receiving home health care ..."
One of those Veterans was a man admitted to the medical center in the spring of 2017 with a diagnosis of diabetic ketoacidosis, and ulcerated foot abscess and sepsis. Medical records reveal that when the man was released, he required home care assistance with twice-daily wound dressing changes. But that care did not occur.
"The worsening infection," the report stated, "leading to osteomyelitis (infection of the bone) and subsequent amputation appears to have been related to the delay of the dressing changes by the home care agency."
The report said investigators found other cases in which care was delayed, but none involving "evidence of negative clinical outcomes such as readmission, higher levels of care, or hospitalization." Still, investigators determined "the lack of coordinated care from the inpatients and outpatient setting pose a risk to public health and safety at Indianapolis."
The Indianapolis medical center received three stars out of a possible five in a Veterans Health Administration year-end rating for 2018, which noted a small improvement from a 2017 baseline score.
In the past, I have talked to you about the VA Duty to Assist law, and how I think it’s largely, well, nothing to write home about.
That was the Duty to Assist under the Legacy Appeals process. Now, under the “modernized” appeals process, we are getting a new version of the VA Duty to Assist law. Call it the Duty to Assist 2.0. Or, the Diet Duty to Assist. Whatever you call it, the VA talked Congress into making them do even less for Veterans than they currently do.
If that is even possible, am I right?
Okay, all kidding and obligatory mockery of the VA claims and appeals process aside, there have been some significant changes in the VA Duty to Assist law now that the AMA – or modernized appeals process – has gone into effect.
Before we dive into the new, modernized VA Duty to Assist law, let’s take a quick look at the new, modernized, appeals process. This graphic comes to us courtesy of the VA itself. Review it, and you tell me if you agree: it IS possible to invent a more complicated Hamster Wheel.
If you want to see how the VA describes the appeals options under the AMA Modernized Appeal process, take a look at this very thin description from the VA.If you prefer a little more meat on your plate, subscribe to the Veterans Law Blog and I’ll keep you up to date on the newest developments and changes in the modernized AMA appeal process.
So, that’s the process. In a nutshell. This is not the first – or the last – time I will talk about this process. For all the work that went into simplifying VA appeals, the process got one helluva lot more complicated for Veterans trying to navigate this system.
What I really want to talk about in this post is the Duty to Assist, in modernized appeals.
The AMA “Modernized” Duty to Assist.
The changes to the VA Duty to Assist law were instrumental to making sure that the VA appeals process became easier for the VA and BVA. You see, a lot of time was being spent helping Veterans and survivors gather evidence, and not enough time was being spent adjudicating claims and appeals. At least according to the VA.
So here’s what they did:
- The VA Duty to Assist ONLY applies during an original or supplemental claim.
- Once the VA issues a Ratings Decision on a original or supplemental claim, the VA no longer has a duty to assist the Veteran in developing evidence to substantiate the claim.
- The BVA has NO DUTY TO ASSIST you.
- If the BVA or CAVC identifies a “prejudicial” duty to assist error, it can remand the appeal to the VA to cure the failure to fulfill the duty to assist.
A few points to keep in mind:
- The VA does not have a duty to assist you if you choose a higher level review after the VA denies your claim.
- The BVA does NOT have a duty to assist you if you file an appeal to the BVA. The BVA could see a glaring evidentiary omission in the record and are not required to do a darn thing about it. So much for a Veteran-friendly non-adversarial claims process.
- There are no remands at the BVA, except for remands from the BVA to the VA’s “AOJ,” or Agency of Original Jurisdiction.
What this means for your VA Claims and Appeals.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: don’t count on actual assistance from the VA’s Duty to Assist.
Most of the time, they do little more than send a couple letters to doctors, sometimes get all of your service records, and occasionally ask the JSRRC to corroborate a stressor event for a PTSD claim.
Veterans are better off helping themselves.
How do you do that?
It’s easier than you think. Follow the 8 Steps to Improve Your VA Claim or Appeal. You can read about all of the steps here, but the driving theme is that Veterans can – and should – take back the power in their own VA claims and appeals.
By taking back the power, we take back control of the outcome, and we have the power of choice.
We can choose to get in the hamster wheel and stay there until the VA decides they’ve spun you around enough.
Or, we Veterans can choose to get the evidence we need to prove our own claims. We can assist ourselves rather than wait on the VA to fulfill its duty to assist.
Veterans’ Family, Caregiver and Survivor Advisory Committee provides recommendations to VA Secretary
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie commended the Veterans’ Family, Caregiver and Survivor Federal Advisory Committee on March 27 for recommendations that will assist in the department meeting its commitment to improve the experiences of all those it serves.
The committee, chaired by former U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole, a noted advocate for military caregivers, offered cross-cutting recommendations addressing several areas that affect Veterans’ families, caregivers and survivors.
The recommendations range from an effort to identify all federal programs available to Veterans and their families, caregivers and survivors, to increased coordination in resource distribution to those who require them most, as well as implementation of the expansion of caregiver stipends with more standardization.
“VA is not only listening to our Veterans, but more intentionally to the voices of their families, caregivers and survivors,” Wilkie said. “Thanks to the valuable work of this committee, we are understanding and taking action on their concerns and needs as we improve the delivery of care, benefits and services. The committee’s recommendations are vital to VA as we meet our customer service mission.”
VA’s 2018 accomplishments on behalf of Veterans, families, caregivers and survivors include the following:
- Establishment of the Center of Excellence for Veteran and Caregiver Research.
- Creation of the Veteran Family Community Engagement Directorate.
- Distribution of the specific “quick start guides” for caregivers and survivors as part of the national Welcome Kit.
The committee advises VA’s Secretary, through the Chief Veterans Experience Officer, on matters related to Veterans’ families, caregivers and survivors across all generations. A key element of the committee’s work is to engage Veteran family members, research experts and family service providers to better understand their needs and identify ways VA can provide them with a positive experience in their use of care, benefits and services.
Learn more about VA’s support to Veterans’ families, caregivers and survivors through the VA Welcome Kit, which includes a “quick start guide” for caregivers.
A pair of senators want to end the Department of Veterans Affairs facility closing commission before it even gets started.
Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Mike Rounds, R-S.D., introduced legislation last week to cancel the mandated VA Asset and Infrastructure Review scheduled for 2022. The pair argued the idea — based on the military’s controversial base closing process — could be detrimental to rural Veterans’ medical options.
“Although I am very supportive of reducing waste and other inefficiencies in the VA system, I am against bureaucrats in Washington cutting vital health care access to Veterans in rural areas,” Manchin said in a statement.
“At a time when the VA is investing heavily in community care through their new access standards, we have to be especially sure that our existing infrastructure needs are met in rural states like West Virginia.”
The AIR commission was a key pillar of last year’s VA Mission Act. Under the law, department officials are to spend the next few years developing market assessments to determine whether certain aging VA facilities should be closed entirely, or replaced with new structures.
VA officials have said they have nearly 1,000 non-vacant but underused facilities spread across the country, creating a significant drain on department resources. Closing many of them would require an act of Congress.
In February, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie suggested lawmakers consider moving up the timeline for the commission. The two senators — both members of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee — want it dumped instead.
Rounds voted against the VA Mission Act and the AIR commission when the legislation passed overwhelmingly last summer. He and Manchin said they worry the commission will ignore the critical service VA health centers provide in rural areas, and instead recommending cuts there on the basis of fewer patients.
Guidelines for the commission’s work have yet to be finalized. House Veterans’ Affairs Committee ranking member Phil Roe, R-Tenn., and an early proponent of the commission idea, called the senators’ concerns misguided.
“AIR is the opposite of a threat to rural facilities and rural Veterans. It’s a lifeline,” he said in a statement.
“What AIR does is creates a bipartisan, objective, data-rich, and Veteran and community-driven process to provide VA with critical recommendations about how VA’s medical centers and clinics can be brought into the 21st century to ensure that Veterans receive the best possible care from their government.”
The AIR commission was designed to be paired with new community care rules being put in place this summer for Veterans who want to receive medical care outside the VA system but at taxpayer cost.
Those new rules have prompted a debate over privatization of VA operations and responsibility, though administration officials have called those fears baseless.
Dan Caldwell, executive director of Concerned Veterans for America, a vocal advocate of the commission, called the senators’ legislation “irresponsible and misguided” and promised to fight it.
“(The bill) would force the VA to potentially waste billions in taxpayer dollars to maintain VA facilities that are clearly outdated and not serving the needs of the current or future Veteran population,” he said. “We urge the Senate to reject this bill and we hope Sens. Rounds and Manchin reconsider this counterproductive proposal.”
House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., said he sympathizes with the senators’ concerns, and promised close oversight of the commission. But he stopped short of backing the bill killing off the AIR idea altogether.
The measure is more likely to receive support in the House than in the Senate, where the original proposal passed by a 92-5 margin last summer. In the House, 70 Democrats voted against the idea, many citing concerns over potential facility closings.
Female Veteran denied in vitro fertilization benefits because she's single: "It's taking away my life dream"
Hundreds of military families have had access to fertility treatments in recent years but not all Veterans qualify for them. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 567 families have benefited from in vitro fertilization since the military started covering the procedures in 2016 but Veterans who are single still have to pay for the roughly $12,000 treatment on their own.
Toni Hackney said she'd always planned on being a mom, but the call of duty complicated her ambitions. After serving in the United States Army for 16 years, Hackney decided to start a family in retirement. But complications meant exploring in vitro fertility treatments. When Hackney looked to Veterans Affairs, it wouldn't pay – because she isn't married.
"Whether people like it or not, as a female in the military if you're not there more than your male counterpart, the odds of you getting promoted or getting a good evaluation, it's not, it's not there," Hackney told CBS News' Michelle Miller.
She ultimately rose to the rank of staff sergeant and a military career that took her all over the world.
"I'm a Veteran, I have to be married ... But yet a male Veteran's wife can get IVF, but I can't as a Veteran. This doesn't make sense to me," Hackney said. "It's taking away my life dream of being a mother."
But being married is not the only requirement to receive IVF benefits. Qualifying Veterans must also prove a service-connected condition that causes infertility, have a male spouse who can produce sperm and a female spouse who can produce eggs.
Hackney said an illness caused her infertility while on active duty. A doctor at the VA suggested IVF could lead to a family in retirement. The cost, however, was on her.
"I need to feel that love that only your child can give to you. I need to have a decent chance at that."
A House bill was introduced last month to expand coverage of fertility treatments, including IVF, to all Veterans. Hackney is hoping it becomes law in time for her.
Hackney has started a GoFundMe page to pay for her treatments.