When it comes to veterans affairs, there are two things Washington DC is focusing on this elections cycle. Well, maybe three. They are disability claims backlog, veterans employment, and contractor fraud.
This post is all about my musings on the subjects and will highlight areas I am investigating. To my knowledge, few journalists investigate areas relating to veterans benefits. The majority of journalists just act as repeaters of news from the VA or other major media sources.
That’s not my style. I like to dig in a make it rain, like a quarterback on Monday Night Football. Here is what’s going on.
Disability Claims Veterans Statistics and Situation
According to the VA, there are over 255,000 pending appeals. According to the VA Office of Inspector General, that number is probably closer to 300,000 since the VA is ignoring 20 percent of appeals on file.
There are currently over 904,000 pending compensation and pension claims. The VA regional offices with the most pending claims is Waco, Texas with 51,390 disability claims. St. Petersburg, Florida comes in at a close second with 46,808 pending disability claims.
Waco also “boasts” the slowest Rating Claims Processing Time, coming in at a lofty 366 days. Currently, the VA has set a target of 125 days to process claims. They claim the new electronic processing system, converting paper files into digital files, will somehow fix the problem of the backlog. Don’t hold your breath.
I have spoken with VA adjudicators directly about the conversion. No one I have spoken with, other than disconnected VA leaders, believe the digital move will help. In fact, some DC insiders are wholly doubtful.
VA Under Secretary Hickey claims the process of conversion will go so smoothly that there is no need for a “plan B.” Keep in mind, VA is still looking to identify the company that will be able to scan all the files into an electronic database. They don’t know who can do it yet. Of course, if the database ever crashes, all your files will be gone.
Maybe Hickey is right on this win-win. Politically, it’s a win for the VA because they look proactive while spending taxpayer dollars. Meanwhile, if the system crashes, less taxpayer dollars will be paid out to compensate disabled veterans. But that’s just my suspicion.
Veterans Employment and Investigation by DisabledVeterans.org
On Friday, President Obama came to my find town of Minneapolis to speak about veterans employment and the Veterans Jobs Corps legislation.
President Obama promised veterans and the country $1 billion in jobs. The project would put up to 20,000 veterans to work. This is in addition to the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program (VRAP). VRAP will allocate create funding to retrain thousands of unemployed veterans from ages 35 to 60.
Great. Jobs around. One sore spot for the VA is hiring veterans internally. The VA has created a mandate to increase internal veteran employment to 40 percent.
This makes sense since the VA is all about servicing veterans. No amount of education can create awareness about what it means to be a veteran. Therefore, hiring veterans to help veterans seems like a great solution, especially in a recession.
But, countless study after study, and veteran story after story points out that the VA is falling short. This is especially true in areas of key decision-making. While veterans are hired into positions with low responsibilities, they are not being hired into areas where they can make a difference.
Here is how I roll, for those of you who know my work. I put my money where my mouth is and investigate.
To test this theory, that the VA is not hiring veterans into decision-making roles, I applied for an internship. The internship was with the Veterans Affairs located in Minneapolis regional counsel. The internship was unpaid and for 3rd year law students. The program was designed to give applicants an idea of what being an attorney is all about in the VA.
Today, I found out that I was not only not selected, but it sounds like the VA did not select any veterans who applied, and there were many. I’ll get into that in a second.
Director Ruth Fanning, head of Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment for the VA encouraged me to apply for a VA internship. VA is supposed to hire similarly suited disabled veterans and veterans over nonveterans for any position.
The internship program recruited law school students from Hamline University and William Mitchell College of Law. I threw my hat in the ring even though I attend the University of Minnesota Law School.
Here is how the schools rank nationally. University of Minnesota is rated 19 in the nation. William Mitchell is rated 100. Hamline University Law School is a third tier school and therefore not rated.
I have a 3.5 GPA and a host of veterans advocacy experience under my belt. Plus, I’m a disabled veteran. I’m not sure about how well the other students lined up, but I do know that numerous veterans applied.
So, I have four things going for me.
First, I have a solid GPA and attend a top rated school. Second, I am entering my third year of law school, and thus have as much legal education as a person can have at this stage of law school. Third, I am a disabled veteran with a disability rating over 40 percent – this means I receive 15 additional hiring points. Fourth, I am in Voc Rehab and since the VA has a duty to equip me for the labor market, they have an obligation to help train me to be a lawyer.
Today I received the following email from VA Regional Counsel in Minneapolis:
Thank you for your application for a summer internship position with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. We received many applicants and accepted those who were further along in their legal training. Thank you for your interest in working with this office. We wish you all the best in your legal career.
Here is my reply:
Out of curiosity, as a disabled veteran, were veterans selected for the internship or did it go to nonveterans? I know there were many veterans who were interested.
Here is the final response from VA General Counsel:
I’m sorry but, as stated, we accepted those further along in their legal training.
That makes no sense. All 3rd year law students are at the same point in their legal education. Further, the position is FREE and designed to benefit the student, not the other way around. Last, VA has an obligation to hire veterans. If all these points are true, then veterans should have been hired unless the VA has a hiring bias against veterans. Period.
In the end, it looks clear that VA choose nonveterans for the legal internship. Many of the other veterans who applied likely had no other options since the internship market for law students it so tight. Sadly, veterans cannot even get FREE internships from the VA.
I am fine with not getting the internship. After all, does the VA really want a guy like me taking a look behind the iron curtain? No. But what about the other veterans? Do they not deserve a chance to get quality legal training?
Apparently the VA in Minneapolis does not think so. “No veterans in areas where they can change the system from the inside.” That’s what I think happened.
According to President Obama, veterans are to be given a priority for retraining. He is willing to pay billions for the project. Jobs are supposed to follow. But the VA, in its wisdom, refuses to even give veterans unpaid internships to help find jobs. How ironic that President Obama stood in Minneapolis to announce his jobs and training program for veterans on Friday. On Monday, the VA regional legal counsel states it refused to provide future veteran attorneys an opportunity for training.
For readers who don’t know, I never take the first answer from anyone. If you turn me down, I ask “why?” If I fail to get a clear response, I dig in. When it comes to the government, I know that shifty responses mean someone is full of shit.
Here, VA is telling me other applicants are further along in their legal training. That cannot be true since all 3rd years are at the same point in their legal training.
I intend to follow up with Director Fanning on the matter. If I do not get a clear response, I will make a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and coordinate with the other law schools to see what happened with the other veterans. Anyone with a story on VA refusing to hire a veteran should contact me.
Agent Orange Veterans in Guam?
This morning I received a LinkedIn email from a veteran formerly stationed in Guam named Roy Foster. Roy has set up a great website for veterans who were stationed in Guam and exposed to Agent Orange. http://www.guamagentorange.info/home
Agent Orange is a toxin that was used to kill foliage in Vietnam. After years, VA finally acknowledged that Agent Orange causes cancer and birth defects. Unfortunately, despite covering diseases resulting from Agent Orange exposure, the VA fervently denies that Agent Orange was in Guam.
Roy set up this website as a way for veterans formerly stationed in Guam, who were also exposed to Agent Orange, to catalogue their denials. Check it out.
On Government Contractor Issues
Last week, the House Committee on Veterans Affairs held a hearing focusing on prosthetics. The hearing delved into VA’s refusal to follow the law regarding government contracting.
Instead of using small veteran-owned businesses, VA has continued to contract with large companies. Further, it has refused to track contracting. This means VA has no real idea where the money goes.
I picked a quote from Subcommittee Chairman Bill Johnson and wrote it in below in my top quotes. These days, nothing the VA seems to do shocks me.
In Orlando, VA missed a chance to speed up work on a VA hospital. Instead, many workers were forced into unemployment because the VA could not make a decision. Here’s a snippet from that story:
All these politicians and VA officials keep throwing around statements like: ‘This is unacceptable!’ ‘We have to make better progress!’ Blah, blah, blah, but nothing happens,” said Charles Conner, an electrician once employed on the $656 million government project. But like several hundred others there, Conner now is out of work.
Frustrating him even more is that when VA officials had a chance last fall to get at least some of the new facility finished on time and put hundreds of laid-off workers back on the job, they chose not to.
U.S. Rep. John Mica — the Winter Park Republican who has long supported locating a VA hospital in Central Florida — didn’t learn of that failed attempt until mid-May.
“I’m not pleased with what I’ve heard,” Mica said. “We have a whole host of issues that may end up in litigation, and the parties are further apart now.”
Delays have pushed the completion date back a year and half, from October 2012 to spring 2014, according to Brasfield & Gorrie, the main contractor for the 1.2 million-square-foot facility. The VA maintains that the medical center will be finished next summer.
Top 3 Quotes on Veterans Affairs for the Week
“A man who is good enough to shed his blood for his country is good enough to be given a square deal afterwards. More than that no man is entitled, and less than that no man shall have.”
President Theodore Roosevelt, speech to veterans, Springfield, IL, July 4, 1903
“Failing to document purchases under 8123, as acknowledged in the answers I received yesterday, is a reckless use of taxpayer dollars. To us on this Committee, it appears as though the VA operates as it sees fit until attention is called to its operation.”
Congressman Bill Johnson, Subcommittee Chairman of Oversight and Investigation
“It is a national tragedy the way the VA and the DOD are handling these problems. They are paying some sick veterans and denying others for Agent Orange sickness and as far as I know they are not doing anything for the civilians and local people.”
Roy Foster, founder of Guam & Agent Orange
Top 5 Tweets on Veterans & Disability Issues
@TomSawyerENR: Contractors say Veterans Administration missed chance to speed work on $656M Orlando hospital – http://t.co/wnVDz3ak via @ENRnews
@Marinetimes: Lawmaker criticizes Veterans Jobs Corps plan http://bit.ly/Ls0JRO #Marine #News
@STPub: Disability Benefits Denied: Claimant Can Work in ‘Own Occupation’ http://t.co/BTKZcMYN
@joanna_rustin: Spotted @TechStars Patriot Boot Camp for veterans on GigaOm. Cool idea. They embody entrepreneurial spirit! http://bit.ly/L2bn2w
@awarenessinabox: We mustn’t forget the war veterans… who are suffering from a myriad of disabilities… both physical and… http://fb.me/1sDsjm9G1
I’d also like to give a quick shout out to Politwoops. The site broadcasts deleted tweets by politicians. Some of the tweets are curious while others are not useful. However, it is fun to see what your Congressman or Senator may be mistweeting (is that even a verb?). Funding for the project comes from the Sunlight Foundation.
Product for the Week
This may seem odd, but the product is “Awareness In A Box,” otherwise called AIAB. The company specializes in custom awareness campaigns and picked two niches to serve. The first is Autism Awareness. The second is Disability Awareness.
I have no idea how much either package costs, but for organizations serving disabled veterans, Awareness In A Box may provide a great solution.
What Got Me
Last week, I read that Alabama is closing 25 percent of its veterans services offices statewide. They claim the reason is that the budget just cannot sustain helping veterans.
To me, this is a low blow. After going to war for years, many veterans who will be cut from the military will come back home as civilians. These men and woman need support. Unfortunately, Alabama decided to not provide that care after asking these people to make the ultimate sacrifice.
Shame on you Alabama. For those veterans in Alabama, maybe it’s time to move to a state that supports you. Spend you money and tax dollars where the people care about your sacrifices. Minnesota is currently looking to create one of the most veteran friendly states in the country.