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The Scout Report 377th Edition

The Scout Report 377th Edition

Military Families and Veterans News and Analysis

Monday, July 23, 2018

 

Top stories we’re covering this week:

  • Why are immigrants being discharged from the military?
  • Refunds for hundreds of thousands of veterans
  • Very unusual activities for an acting secretary
  • VA whistleblowers getting much different treatment than peers at other agencies
  • The man-made barriers to better VA mental health services

Some very click-worthy client hits and quick hits, too.

 

Tradeshows and Conferences:

VFW: 2018 National Convention(Sat – Wed, July 21-25, 2018); Bartle Hall Kansas City Convention Center, Kansas City, MO

Congressional Hearings

House:

Veterans’ Affairs: Assessing Whether VA is on Track to Successfully Implement Appeals Reform
Who: The Honorable Paul R. Lawrence, Under Secretary for Benefits, Veterans Benefits Administration, U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs; The Honorable Cheryl L. Mason, Chairman, Board of Veterans’ Appeals, U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs; Mr. David R. McLenachen, Director, Appeals Management Office, Veterans Benefits Administration, U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs; Mr. Richard J. Hipolit, Deputy General Counsel for Legal Policy, Office of General Counsel, U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs; Mr. Lloyd Thrower, Deputy Chief Information Officer, Account Manager, Benefits Portfolio, Office of Information & Technology, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; Ms. Elizabeth H. Curda, Director, Education, Workforce, and Income Security Team, U.S. Government Accountability Office; Mr. James T. Whitcomb, Assistant Director, Education, Workforce, and Income Security Team, U.S. Government Accountability Office
When: 10:00 AM, Tuesday, July 24, 2018
Where: 334 Cannon

Opportunities 

Job Opening: Virginia Department of Veterans Services
What: Veteran Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Coordinator
When: Apply by July 30, 2018
Where: Richmond, VA

 

Military and Veteran Issues:

MAVNI troops falsified records, were security risk, DoD says
Tara Copp (@TaraCopp), Military Times 
The Pentagon has released court filings in response to criticism that it was directly targeting and removing foreign-born troops. The filings offered evidence that some international recruits in the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program who had been granted citizenship by military service generated false background records, had ties to state-sponsored intelligence agencies, and that one recruit blatantly offered support for 9/11 terrorists. MAVNI was suspended in 2016 due to the “true national security issues at stake,” and the future of approximately 1,000 recruits remains unknown. Seventeen international recruits have filed a joint suit, which the U.S. District Court Western District of Washington is considering. Immigration lawyers working on behalf of the recruits maintain that the processing delays are simply a way to shut the program down completely. While Defense Secretary Jim Mattis stated in 2017 that he wanted the program to continue if possible, according to Roger Smith, branch chief for personnel security policy at the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, the DoD has so far determined that based on the evidence presented, “sufficient vetting of MAVNI personnel was not occurring at the accessions stage, contrary to the goal of avoiding altogether the accessions of individuals who present potential counter-intelligence, security or insider threats.” –KG
Bottom line: It’s hard to figure out how to take the Pentagon’s argument in its court filings. On their face, the arguments seem possibly damning. But given how the issue has been handled thus far, and the large number of applicants left hanging in a program that has brought 10,000 foreign born troops into the U.S. military, it would be prudent for the judicial system to dig deeper into whether the system as a whole is flawed or if there are a handful of glaring examples of failure that do not necessarily justify eliminating the entire MAVNI program. On a broader level, the administration’s hostility to many immigrants inevitably raises the notion that the Pentagon’s arguments and perspective on MAVNI have been influenced by a desire to err on the side of blocking accessions whenever possible to fit into the administration’s broader policy priorities. As the Washington Post reported last week, there has been a recent rise in the number of international recruits and soldiers expelled, and the Pentagon just halted its efforts to discharge an Army reservist who was working his way toward U.S. citizenship. Hopefully the legal process will be able to separate legitimate concerns—previously not shared by DoD—about security, from concerns driven by politics that would undermine a long-time program to help create new service members and new Americans at the same time. –BW

Pentagon sending letters to more than 130,000 owed tax refund on disability pay
Corey Dickstein (@CDicksteinDC), Stars and Stripes
On Monday, U.S. Defense Department officials announced that more than 130,000 veterans received letters from the IRS stating that the Pentagon wrongly collected taxes from disability severance pay given between 1991 and 2016. The National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP), a nonprofit that monitors government benefits programs for former service members, found the discrepancy and credits the mistake to a glitch in the Pentagon’s information systems network. NVLSP believes that the Pentagon incorrectly withheld approximately $78 million as a result of its mishandling of veterans’ lump sum funds, and may owe some servicemembers as much as $10,000. Army Lt. Col. David Dulaney, executive director of the Armed Forces Tax Council stated that eligible veterans have one year from the date on the letter to submit an amended tax refund claim. –NJ
Bottom line: While I’m sure this is welcome news to many who will be receiving a refund, 27 years later for some, it would seem that the window of time to submit a claim is pretty narrow and a lot of onus is being placed on the veteran themselves to correct a fairly dramatic mistake. Claiming the standard refund seems to be the simplest process, which equates to $1,750 for veterans who received their disability pay between 1991 and 2005, $2,400 for those who received the pay between 2006 and 2010, and $3,200 for those who received it between 2011 and 2016. However, given that NVLSP claims the Pentagon may owe some servicemembers as much as $10,000, it seems like it would be financially advantageous to take the added step of ensuring the proper refund amount is received. –CB

Trump loyalists at VA shuffling, purging employees before new secretary takes over
Lisa Rein (@Reinlwapo), The Washington Post
In advance of Robert Wilkie’s Senate confirmation, sources report that more than a dozen career civil servants in prominent leadership roles have been given new “lower-visibility roles.” Acting VA Secretary Peter O’Rourke has led the purge and reassignment of those who fail to demonstrate loyalty to Trump Administration’s policy stances. Sources report that even Trump appointees who have openly challenged leadership “have been pushed out.” Twelve Senate Democrats, angered by O’Rourke’s moves ahead of Wilkie taking office, authored a letter on Wednesday to reprimand him for “putting politics above veterans’ needs,” calling his actions “reckless,” in “an apparent attempt to…install political loyalists within the Department.” O’Rourke has said that he has chosen to reassign senior civil servants to achieve a more efficient and effective system. –NJ
Bottom line: This is really one of the most unusual actions we’ve seen at VA. The idea of an acting secretary who is a temporary caretaker aggressively reorganizing the second largest department of the U.S. government ahead of a nearly confirmed appointee is unheard of. The law actually forbids applying a political test to career civil servants in any department, and for it to occur in the one cabinet agency that has traditionally flown apart from political dogfights is bizarre. Keep in mind that the last secretary, Bob McDonald, was from the opposite political party of President Obama, yet this administration’s political appointees have actually driven the Senate to accelerate the approval of Mr. Wilkie’s appointment to get him in place before any more shuffling is done to the department. There is no way to know if the new secretary will reverse these moves but we hope that if nothing else the needs of veterans and a focus on the critical issues facing VA are more important than continuing what has been a tumultuous year in the Washington D.C. headquarters. –FPW

VA Whistleblowers 10 Times More Likely Than Peers to Receive Disciplinary Action
Eric Westervelt (@ericnpr), NPR
A recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office reveals that employees who report misconduct by others are significantly more likely than their counterparts to receive disciplinary action. Along with the revelation that whistleblowers were disciplined at a rate 10 times higher than their peers, the report also noted that of those who filed a complaint, 66 percent were not employed by the VA the following year. Additionally, the GAO report revealed that senior VA officials who were found guilty of misconduct often received lesser disciplinary action than was recommended, or none at all. It furthered highlighted file and data maintenance issues, indicating that some employees “may not have received due process.” Reps. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.) and Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) requested the GAO investigation, and Grisham said of the findings, “It describes an agency in crisis that has failed to protect whistleblowers and hold senior VA officials accountable for misconduct, jeopardizing veteran health and well-being. It means that there is a system that cannot police itself and doesn’t appear to be interested in really focusing on improving access and quality of care, a system that won’t address its own problems.” – KG
Bottom line: This headline really tells you the bottom line this week, and the fact that Democrats and Republicans are both troubled by this, would appear to validate the concern. The Trump Administration has tried to counter this narrative of corruption by highlighting the changes they are implementing and by picking apart the timeline and the overlap of data with the Obama Administration, which would be a fair point except that VA data shows that the majority of those fired in the first five months of 2018 were low-level food service, laundry and custodial staff (who are mostly veterans.) Meanwhile, only 15 out of 1,096 employees fired were supervisors. You can see the detailed list of recommendations made by the U.S. Government’s Accountability Office here. –CB

Report: VA’s staffing issues and prescription practices may be hurting suicide prevention efforts
Leo Shane III (@LeoShane), Military Times
According to analysts at American Legion, issues with VA’s hiring process and an over-prescription of anxiety medication could be harming suicide prevention efforts. Legion officials produced a report expressing their concern that problems with VA’s hiring process leads to an overworked staff, resulting in poor patient care. This, combined with the prescription of benzodiazepines, which have a risk of multiple harmful side effects, could be factors in the little amount of change shown in VA’s latest national suicide data. The report states: “as an average of 20 veterans a day continue to take their own lives … much more must be done, and VA must continue to strive to provide patient-centered care and improve the patient experience through adequately staffed and properly funded programs and services.” –LB
Bottom line: It should be no surprise that the tumult over VA accountability and staffing has second and third order effects in patient care. Given the nationwide shortage of mental health care workers and given the VA’s struggles with a hiring freeze and publicly low morale, demand outweighs supply when it comes to quality mental health care. The Legion’s report suggests overworked staff might also be reaching for “easy” fixes like prescribing well-known medications rather than working with patients to determine which drug would work best for each individual. Tools exist that could make mental health clinicians more effective and more efficient, thereby increasing patients’ quality of care, but these innovations have yet to take hold at VA (and without a permanent head of the Veterans Health Administration in the works, it seems unlikely the bold leadership required will surface any time soon.) It’s frustrating to read reports like this because the particular issues highlighted are man-made and could easily be solved with a little less congressional gridlock and a little more willingness to change. –LJ

Client Hits:

Ex-Marine: Mets fired me after I questioned military uniforms
Mike Puma (@NYPost_Mets), New York Post
U.S. Marine Nick Francona, son of Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona, was fired by the Mets after criticizing Major League Baseball’s lack of transparency concerning profits from the military-themed apparel worn by players on Memorial Day. Francona stated: “I don’t feel like I am the morality police and tell people how to observe Memorial Day properly. Major League Baseball has proactively waded into these waters and I think [criticism] is fair when you are going to sell apparel. They are explicitly marketing this as Memorial Day and tying it to the memory of dead soldiers.” –LB

Veterans Speak Out Against The Militarization Of Sports
Howard Bryant (@hbryant42), WBUR
Some veterans are speaking out about how the sports industry has monetized patriotism. One person speaking out is Marine Corps veteran Nick Francona. Francona was recently fired by the Mets after inquiring what percentage of the proceeds from the sale of patriotic merchandise was going to charity. He also refused a request to make Gold Star families waive their rights as licensees for bracelets honoring their fallen family members. Francona stated: “I wouldn’t go back and say, ‘I wish I had just compromised my principles a little more so I could succeed here.’ Like, if that’s the price of success, I’ll find something else. I think it’s sad. And I think it speaks volumes about the state of Major League Baseball.” –LB

Wife of Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington speaks out one year after his suicide death
Christine Devine  (@DevineNews), FOX 11
July 20, 2018 marked one-year without Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington, who struggled with depression and ultimately took his own life. His wife, Talinda Bennington, has since made it her mission to share his story and help others identify the five signs that someone might be suffering from mental health issues – she is doing so through #320ChangesDirection, joining forces with client Give an Hour’s Campaign to Change Direction. –AB

Quick Hits:

VA gets a new top health official, but still searches for a permanent nominee
Leo Shane III (@LeoShane), Military Times
Richard Stone is the new temporary head of the Veterans Health Administration. Stone recently served as a vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton, with a focus on military health issues. He also held positions as the VA’s second-ranking health official under David Shulkin and is an Army veteran. –SM

Unhealthy Skepticism
Suzanne Gordon (@suzannecgordon) and Jasper Craven (@Jasper_Craven), Washington Monthly
Although the Department of Veterans Affairs has been referred to as “one of the largest, most complex and troubled cabinet agencies in the federal government” by the New York Times, reports like two from RAND this Spring show that the VA performs as well or better than private sector care in some areas. –SM

Delayed ‘Forever’ GI Bill is poised for August launch
Claudia Grisales (@cgrisales), Stars and Stripes
Beginning next month, implementation of the Forever GI Bill will begin, increasing the availability of veterans’ education benefits. Director of VA education services Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Robert Worley II says, “we are doing everything we can to make sure that the experience of the veteran is seamless.” –SM

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