News

Five charged with stealing millions from disabled veterans

This week the Department of Justice announced that five individuals have been formally charged with stealing millions of dollars from disabled veterans through an international scam.

According to an article published by Stripes.com, “The 14-count indictment unsealed Wednesday in San Antonio, Texas, charges five people living in the United States and the Philippines with coordinating an identify-theft and fraud scheme targeting servicemembers and veterans, including a former prisoner of war, using personal information stolen by a former civilian employee at a U.S. Army base in Korea. The defendants, Robert Wayne Boling, Jr., Fredrick Brown, Trorice Crawford, Allan Albert Kerr, and Jongmin Seok, were charged with multiple counts of conspiracy, wire fraud and aggravated identify theft based on their roles in the scheme. Boling, a U.S. citizen, Kerr, an Australian citizen, and Seok, a South Korean citizen, were arrested in the Philippines. Brown and Crawford, both U.S. citizens, were arrested in Las Vegas and San Diego, respectively, according to the news release. Brown has been detained pending trial. Crawford is awaiting a detention hearing at the San Diego Metropolitan Correctional Center.”

The charges identify a scheme that started in 2014 when Brown, a civilian medical records technician employee, photographed the medical records of thousands of servicemen captured in the Armed Forces Health Longitudinal Technology Application (AHLTA) database.

The records not only contained the individual’s medical records but also had their Social Security number, Defense Department identification number, birth date, gender, mailing address, and telephone number. Brown has been accused of stealing this information and providing it to Boling who then used it to exploit the identified individuals in various ways with the help of his Philippines-based co-conspirators Kerr and Seok by logging into the eBenefits website. The indictment highlights the fact that these individuals specifically targeted older, disabled veterans because “they were less likely to utilize online account services”.

Once they had access to the online account of these veterans, they accessed the bank account information which allowed them to steal the benefits payments by changing the bank routing information to their own bank account. After this, Boling worked with Crawford to hire people who would accept “the deposit of stolen funds into their bank accounts and then send the funds through international wire remittance services to the defendants and others” according to the news release.

Both of the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs are working with the Department of Justice to alert and compensate stolen resources to the thousands of identified victims. The next steps will be announced with regards to steps taken to secure military members’ information and prevent them in the future from benefits theft and fraud.

 

To learn more about this important news affecting veterans, click HERE.

Further delays for new Agent Orange connected illnesses

Earlier this year, the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs announced that they may have reached a decision regarding the addition of four new illnesses to the Agent Orange presumptive benefits eligibility list. Now, almost five months later, they still have not been able to move forward on this.

According to an article published by MilitaryTimes.com, “Last November, researchers from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine announced they had compiled “sufficient evidence” linking hypertension, bladder cancer, hypothyroidism, and Parkinson’s-like symptoms with exposure to Agent Orange and other defoliants used in Vietnam and surrounding countries in the 1960s and 1970s. They recommended adding the conditions to VA’s existing list of 14 presumptive diseases associated with Agent Orange exposure, a designation which allows veterans to more quickly and easily qualify for disability benefits.”

New electronic health record system for veterans

A unified electronic health record (EHR) solution between the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is in the works, a solution that will give doctors unlimited access to a veterans’ full health records and history.

According to an article published by MilitaryTimes.com, “The new solution will compile data from service records so it can be accessed years later by doctors at DoD, VA, and in the private sector, providing clinicians with a full picture of veterans’ medical history and driving faster, smarter connections between military service and health outcomes. Republicans, Democrats, and veterans want this change, and we are on the way to realizing this dramatic improvement.”

As a first step in accomplishing this goal, the President’s administration created the “Office of Electronic Health Record Modernization (OEHRM)” in order to oversee the transition. At the same time, the DoD led a team to begin implementing a new electronic health record system that would cover more than 9.6 million service members and their beneficiaries.

Lawmakers say that they are on schedule to begin implementing the new EHR solution at three VA medical centers in Washington state by April of 2020. The first EHR solution deployment by the VA will be in Seattle, American Lake, and Mann-Grandstaff medical centers. These locations were chosen as initial operating sites in alignment with DoD’s deployment schedule.

Although the first three locations will launch in 2020, the new EHR solution has a 10-year contract which calls for a “rolling implementation schedule through 2027, one that will move about a dozen hospitals to the new solution each year starting in 2021, along with dozens of associated VA clinics.”

This rollout schedule aligns with VA’s broader goal of avoiding possible risks to patient safety while we undergo this transition as well as ensuring long-lasting results.

To learn more about the new electronic health record (EHR) solution, click HERE.

VA urged by lawmakers to fix claims that wrongly cost vets $53 million

This month, the Department of Veterans Affairs secretary was urged by thirty-five members of Congress to revise thousands of medical claims for veterans who were left with charges that the VA should’ve covered.

According to an article published by StarsandSripes.com, “The group of lawmakers, which included Republicans and Democrats, wrote to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie following the release of what they described as a “damning report” last week from the VA Office of Inspector General. The IG discovered the VA wrongfully rejected thousands of emergency-care claims during a five-month period in 2017, affecting an estimated 17,400 veterans who were stuck with varying medical bills that totaled $53.3 million. They asked Wilkie for a thorough explanation of how the VA plans to follow through with 11 recommendations made in the IG report. They also asked Wilkie to communicate with veterans whose claims were inappropriately rejected and re-adjudicate the claims the agency should’ve paid.”

On Monday, the VA issued an official statement saying that they were in the process of reviewing some of the claims highlighted in the report and planned to contact the affected veterans and let them know about their options. In the report, the Government Accountability Office was reported as detailing similar issues in 2014 with lawmakers stating in a letter that “This is not new territory for the VA…More than five years ago, GAO found that VA’s weak oversight of emergency care claims adjudication could lead to inappropriate denial of claims. It is disappointing the department has not done enough to improve.”

The VA responded by saying that they had employed “numerous efforts” more than a year ago in order to fix these issues, including employee training and updating claims-processing guidelines to provide better quality and accuracy.  The report estimated that $533 million in medical costs would inappropriately fall to veterans over 5 years if the VA failed to correct the problem.

To learn more about this report and how it affects veterans, click HERE.

New OATH Act could help vets get treatment for toxic exposure

In an effort to increase access to disability benefits and treatment at the Department of Veterans Affairs, a new bill (now connected to the National Defense Authorization Act for the fiscal year 2020) requires that servicemembers include whether they were exposed to toxic materials in their medical records.

Later this year, lawmakers will rectify the two versions of the annual legislation into a final version that could potentially be approved before the end of the year. The herbicide Agent Orange, fumes from burn pits, the chemical foam used in firefighting, and mold in living quarters are often part of the toxic exposure connected to servicemembers’ illnesses.

According to an article published by Stripes.com. the bill. “[known] as the Occupational and Environmental Transparency Health Act (OATH Act), stands to impact all servicemembers as toxic exposure can happen at home or while serving on deployment. Even troops living in barracks or military family housing that was found to be unsafe because of mold or lead paint would have the exposure documented, said Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., who introduced the bill alongside Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga.”

The OATH Act calls outlines three major revisions. It requires that the U.S Department of Defense include any toxic exposures (either at home or while deployed) in a servicemember’s health records, conduct a “post-deployment health assessment, and update all veterans’ health records based on information submitted to the VA’s Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry.”

Some lawmakers have remarked that the OATH Act is a compliment to the Burn Pits Accountability Act, which calls for servicemembers to be asked about burn pit exposure during a post-deployment medical exam and added to the registry if need be. The article continued by saying that “This new law would automatically document those exposures when they occur, taking the responsibility from the veteran.”

To learn more about this important news affecting servicemembers affected by toxic exposure, click HERE.  

Lackland relocates 200 residents due to mold

 

Hundreds of residents were relocated from Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland as a result of severe mold problems with some of its dorms.

According to an article published by AirforceTimes, “Initial inspections of the technical training dorms at Lackland are now finished, and secondary inspections are underway, said Brig. Gen. Laura Lenderman, commander of the 502nd Air Base Wing and Joint Base San Antonio. Roughly three-quarters of permanent party dorm rooms across JBSA have been inspected, and 16 percent of those had mold, she said. Inspections of the last permanent party dorms should be finished by July 30. Civil engineers from the 502nd are now working on 28 rooms in Building 1215 that were particularly affected by mold, and expect to finish by Aug. 8, Lenderman said. That includes thoroughly bleaching the rooms, repainting them, using dehumidifiers, removing carpet and replacing it with vinyl planks, and installing ceiling fans. Remediation for all of Building 1215 should be finished within two months, Lenderman said, and similar plans are in the works for other dorms.”

 

All 77 JBSA dorms (which can house around 27k residents) were inspected after images of rampant mold in dorms surfaced on social media and sparked inquiries from the public as well as the Air Force Times. However, airmen and their families were dissatisfied with the response to the problem saying that they had raised the issue several times before with no action. In addition, other commenters attacked the JBSA’s approach to the problem saying that “ceiling fans, bleach, and painting will do nothing to fix the problems unless the mold-ravaged sheetrock is taken out, and ventilation in the bathrooms are improved.”

To learn more about this problem affecting Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, click HERE.

VA continues to struggle to track veterans wait times

Five years ago, a scandal erupted over appointment delays linked to veterans’ deaths. Today, the Department of Veterans Affairs is still struggling with scheduling issues and monitoring wait times.

According to an article published by Military.com, “During a hearing Wednesday before the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Debra Draper, health care director at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), said that, while the VA has “taken action to ensure its facilities provide timely access to medical care,” it must do more. Draper said the VA has made progress since the GAO first warned in 2012 of shortcomings in its appointment scheduling and tracking system, as well as lengthy delays in patient care. But she added that the VA’s data on wait times remain unreliable and appointment delays continue to be long.”

This issue is not only affecting appointments at VA health facilities but also those for the VA Choice program. In addition, the GAO concluded that because the VA’s tracking system does not capture the entire appointment scheduling process, veterans may potentially be waiting up to 70 days for an appointment even though the system only shows a wait time of 30 days.

Teresa Boyd, assistant deputy secretary for clinical operations at the Veterans Health Administration, acknowledged that although the VA still has its challenges, it has “undergone tremendous transformation” since 2014. In addition, Boyd stated that for established patients, the VA’s average wait times for primary care and mental health are less than five days and only seven days for specialty care.

The VA is planning on implementing a new processing system that is designed to support appointment scheduling, authorizations, and referrals in fiscal 2021, in a more efficient manner. Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tennessee was quoted as saying that neglectful not to “acknowledge the many ways in which access to care for veterans has improved” since 2014, with the VA completing 1 million more appointments in 2018 than the previous year.

To learn more about this important news affecting veterans, click HERE.

Lawsuit filed over delaying benefits for “Blue Water” Navy vets

This week, a lawsuit was filed against the Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie over his decision to suspend claims processing for tens of thousands of “Blue Water” Navy veterans until 2020.

The lawsuit was filed by Military Veterans Advocacy and the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association in the U.S. Court of Appeals and argues that Wilkie does not have the authority to make this important decision and stressed that the veterans can’t afford to wait for benefits, saying that “These veterans are dying at a high rate every single day,”.

Blue Water Navy veterans have argued for years to prove their exposure to toxic chemical herbicide Agent Orange. Because of a federal court case and a new law passed by Congress, they finally became qualified for VA disability compensation.

According to an article published by Stars and Stripes, “Lawmakers and veterans groups celebrated last month when President Donald Trump signed the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019, which grants government benefits to thousands of Vietnam War veterans who were previously ineligible. Blue Water Navy veterans cinched another victory when the Department of Justice decided not to appeal a federal court ruling that said they should be extended disability compensation and other benefits from the VA. The two things coalesced in June, 50 years after the Vietnam War and at least a decade since the first Blue Water Navy veterans began pushing the VA and Congress for recognition. Now, they’ll have to wait a while longer.”

Wilkie originally made his announcement to delay benefits for Blue Water veterans on July 5 – citing a provision in the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019 that says “the secretary can enforce a stay on a claim until the law goes into effect Jan. 1.” Wilkie said in an official statement that the VA needed more time to “…ensure that we have the proper resources in place to meet the needs of our Blue Water veteran community and minimize the impact on all veterans filing for disability compensation,”.

Advocates argued that because the federal court decided in June that Blue Water Navy veterans were eligible for benefits, the VA should process those claims now.

Disabled American Veterans announced last week that they would be working with lawmakers and other veterans groups to lift Wilkie’s stay on the claims. The organization encouraged Blue Water Navy veterans to file claims now, so they could receive benefits as soon as possible.

To learn more about this important news affecting “Blue Water” Navy veterans, click HERE.

Thousands of health care applications abandoned

In an effort to shrink a massive backlog of requests, an arm of the Veterans Affairs Department in Atlanta has eliminated more than 200k applications from across the country for health care early this year, saying they were missing signatures or information.

According to an article published by Stripes.com, “Veterans groups say the VA should have done more to communicate with the veterans before closing their applications, some of which date back to 1998. Troops face additional challenges in applying for VA health care, they said, as they grapple with reentry into civilian life, change addresses following overseas deployments and suffer from combat stress. In the middle of the controversy is the VA’s Health Eligibility Center, the Atlanta office that oversees the process by which veterans seek access to the VA medical system. It and its parent agency have come under intense scrutiny in recent years for mismanagement and delays in providing medical care, presenting a thorny challenge for the administration of President Donald Trump, who focused on veterans’ care during his presidential campaign.”

According to agency records, there were 8.8 million veterans enrolled in the VA’s health care system as of April this year. The VA said, “pending applications totaled 317,157 in April, down from a high of 886,045 last year, according to records the VA sent the AJC.”

According to veterans’ advocacy groups like Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the current backlog is still “way too high,” and they suggest collaboration between the VA and veteran service groups in order to shrink it more.

To learn more about this important health care news affecting veterans, click here.

‘Blue water’ veterans’ claims delayed again

Veterans Affairs officials recently announced that they will not start to process “blue water” Vietnam veterans claims until 2020. VA Secretary Robert Wilkie stated that the delay is intentional and ensures that the proper resources are allocated to meet the needs of the “Blue water” veterans community. However, some advocates are saying that the move is another disappointing delay for veterans who have already waited decades for the benefits they believe they deserve.

According to an article published by the Military Times, “At issue is a new law signed by President Donald Trump last month (and passed without objection by the House and Senate) which awarded presumptive benefits status to Navy veterans who served in the waters off Vietnam during the war there five decades ago. Trump touted the bill in a call with veterans last month as a major victory for the veterans community and the country. Under previous VA rules, service members who were stationed on the ground or on ships near the coast were presumed to have had exposure to Agent Orange and other carcinogenic herbicides and given simplified filing status for their disability claims later in life. But because of scientific disputes over the level of exposure to those toxic chemicals in the seas around Vietnam, the so-called “blue water” veterans were not granted the same preferential status by VA, and were required to provide specific proof that their illnesses later in life were related to their military service. Many veterans said that created an impossible standard since little water monitoring was done at the time. The different standards meant that Vietnam veterans with identical illnesses linked to Agent Orange exposure — ailments like prostate cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and serious respiratory illnesses — could receive starkly different disability benefits.”

Earlier this year, a federal appeals court ruled against the VA stating that the department had misinterpreted the statute incorrectly and should start granting presumptive benefits status to all eligible “blue water” veterans. As a response, lawmakers officially created legislation that also awarded certain presumptive benefits to troops who served in the Korean Demilitarized Zone and to children of herbicide-exposed Thailand veterans born with spina bifida.

However, it was found that the legislation sill contained ambiguous language allowing the VA to further delay payouts until next January, even though some officials have begun processing in response to the court decision. According to the article “House and Senate officials said they are reviewing the VA decision last week to ensure the move isn’t designed to delay payouts unnecessarily. The VA has set up an information web site for veterans and family members to explain the changes and provide information on how to apply.

For more information on this important news affecting ‘Blue water’ veterans, click here.