Overview: We have teamed up with a Vietnam veteran to investigate Spina Bifida. We are now gathering information for the future investigation of VA’s children of Agent Orange veterans Spina Bifida program.
As a result of the investigation, I have received a threat from the VA to “back off” while I filed FOIA requests. They inadvertently threatened an attorney thinking he was me, and later the VA employee apologized. VA employee Guy Vincent stated in his apology, “I’m sorry. I thought you were a reporter.”
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In March, I was contacted by Ron Nesler of Indiana. Ron Nesler is a dedicated step-father and 100% disabled veteran from Vietnam. His step-daughter, Honey Sue, is a biological daughter of another Vietnam veteran who was exposed to Agent Orange. Her Spina Bifida was linked to the Agent Orange exposure. As a result, Honey Sue is a Level III Spina Bifida child with the mental capacity of a 10 year old. Through Ron’s fight for benefits for his daughter, he teamed up with Senator Lugar to amend 38 USC §1803 to allow less discretion to the VA in the kind of care it provided these children.
Since then, Ron has been unable to get the VA to approve Habilitative care as outlined within the statute, because VA has interpreted the statute so narrowly that it knocks out many traditional care providers who provide Habilitative care.
As a journalist, I have helped Ron perfect his FOIA strategy by asking for a full list of all providers in his area who would be approved by the VA to provide any and all care as outlined by §1803. VA initially told Ron they would charge him as a Commercial requester for the FOIA because he owns a website. VA charged him $320 for the list, similar to a list once would receive from an insurance company of in-network care providers.
I simultaneously filed a FOIA under Veterans for Common Sense and DisabledVeterans.org to see what information I could find separately. Filing a FOIA this way is free because I am a journalist.
Now the VA has begun responding to various FOIAs we have sent, in addition to the FOIAs sent by Vietnam Veterans of America.
The House Committee on Veterans Affairs submitted a FOIA for Ron directly to the VA’s General Counsel (GC). The GC responded affirmatively, that in fact, Bethesda is approved to provide Habilitative and Rehabilitative care under §1803 despite the Denver Regional Office’s denial . Their denial stated Bethesda did not meet the criteria necessary to be approved.
In the same FOIA, Ron requested a list of providers who are approved to provide care in line with the statute. The GC stated that no such list existed but forwarded Ron a hyperlink to a military medical care finder connected with Tricare. It only lists military and governmental hospitals that are not equipped to provide the care Honey Sue needs.
Meanwhile, Ron received his other FOIA requests back from Denver RO. The first FOIA contained 500 pages of documents pertaining directly to Honey Sue’s claim. Many of the documents buried within the 500 pages contradict the claims VA has been making within the denial. Further, many documents were also omitted from the statement of adjudicative correspondence. There, VA claims the information they possess dates back to 2010. In fact, the oldest documents we found date back to 1990. These include doctors’ letters, therapy letters for recommendation of care, and numerous VA diagnosis of her condition. VA now claims she is not documented to need the care she needs.
The second Denver RO FOIA related to hospitals and other care facilities that would be approved to provide care under §1803 throughout the entire United States. VA provide two excel spreadsheets with 17,011 different service providers and facilities.
Ron was very overwhelmed with the copious amounts of documentation. Luckily, I am pretty good at excel and was able to turn the spreadsheet into a manageable pivot table. We will place the list on my website when we are finished, since it is information the VA does not publish.
My FOIA requests were rebuffed by VA. I called to speak with the FOIA officer prior to their release and was able to determine from her voice where they had information but did not want to disclose it. This meant they would twist my question and force me to appeal.
In their official response, they stated that I would need to send them a list of the relevant facilities, and if I had that list, that they would be able to provide relevant internal emails and correspondence wherein the VA determined eligibility. Fortunately, we just received a list VA sent to Ron.
Now that I have the list of 17,011 approved service providers, our next question will pertain to which of those have provided care approved by the VA for Spina Bifida treatment of a child like Honey Sue. We will also ask for internal communications pertaining to those specific hospitals.
Our remaining FOIA’s are in DC. I just received word from DC that I have been approved for “expedited status” pertaining to all requests since I am a reporter.
TO BE CONTINUED…