News

$400 million in mistaken home loan fees refunded by VA

The Department of Veterans Affairs is refunding more than $400 in home loan funding fees after an inspector general’s report announced that thousands of veterans were incorrectly charged when applying for home loans.

According to an article published by MilitaryTimes.com, “Department officials said they reviewed 130,000 cases over the summer to look for errors, which mostly involved simple clerical mistakes or disability ratings changes after veterans settled on their loans. Under existing rules, veterans and service members must pay a VA funding fee when they apply for a VA home loan, with costs between 0.5 percent and 3.3 percent of total money lent. The money is designed to defray some administration costs for the department, but disabled veterans are exempt from the fee.”

However, earlier this year an inspector general report was released and found that a minimum of 53,000 disabled veterans had been incorrectly charged fees in recent years, with the total reimbursement being significantly higher than the estimated $290 million.

In an effort to avoid this in the future, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced a new policy guidline for lenders that require them to ask veterans about their disability status. In addition, the department has proposed new outreach initiatives to help inform veterans of the fee waivers they are eligible to receive.

If you are a veteran who believes you may be entitled to a refund for mistaken fees, contact the department’s regional loan center office at (877) 827-3702 or alternatively you can visit the VA’s website for more information.

Defense Department data security tightened after settlement with veterans group

In response to charges that online information sites exposed countless veterans’ personal information to identity thieves and scammers, the Department of Defense (DOD) officials announced last week that they will revamp their Servicemembers Civil Relief Act databases.

According to an article published by the Military Times, “Leaders from Vietnam Veterans of America, which filed a lawsuit against the department to force the changes, called the move an important step in ensuring that military members’ information is monitored and protected…At issue are online databases the military has been operating since 1985 which allow private businesses to verify troops’ military status for eligibility in Servicemembers Civil Relief Act protections. That law provides financial relief from certain bills and obligations while troops are deployed or mobilized to active duty.”

The terms of settlement highlighted in the charges require the department to request registration from all users before they are allowed to gain access to any information. In addition, the DOD has been asked to more clearly outline the potential criminal repercussions for anyone misusing the information.

Officials have also committed to monitoring the use of the databases more closely in an attempt to identify patterns of possible misuse or abuse which includes a quarterly report that outlines all database users and any suspended or terminated accounts.

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

Nationwide smoking ban in effect at all VA facilities

This month, a nationwide smoking ban surrounding all VA medical facilities went into effect and prohibits visitors, patients, and employees from lighting up outside the centers.

According to an article published by Military Times, “Smoking was already prohibited inside VA medical buildings, but now patients, employees, and visitors will not be able to puff away anywhere on the grounds. Previously, smoking was allowed in designated shelters dotting the grounds of VA medical facilities. Posters and banners promoting the ban have been put up in facilities and the VA is alerting veterans through social media and letters. They have also held forums on the ban.”

The ban brings VA facilities into the already smoke-free 4,000 medical facilities and four national health care systems. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a third of veterans smoke which means this move has been met with a backlash.

In an effort to address this issue, a smoke-free implementation working group for VA Boston has been slowly implementing this smoking ban to the more than 60,000 veterans it serves. While some are welcoming the ban, saying it is long overdue others have raised concern that the move may prevent veterans from seeking healthcare as they may choose smoking over a doctors visit.

To learn more about this smoking ban affecting veterans, click HERE.

U.S. Postal Service announces new release of Purple Heart stamp

The U.S. Postal Service announced that they will be releasing a new Purple Heart stamp that will be made available at post offices this Friday.

According to an article published by Stars and Stripes, “The Purple Heart is given to servicemembers killed or wounded by enemy actions. The new stamp, a tribute to the sacrifices of servicemembers, features a purple border that matches the medal and its ribbon, according to the Postal Service.”

The new Purple Heart stamp will be classed as a “forever” stamp which means that it will always be equal in value to the current first-class mail one-ounce price. Other recent military-themed “forever” stamps include military working dogs and the battleship USS Missouri.

To learn more about this exciting news, click HERE.

Advocates fight to speed up ‘blue water’ Navy veterans benefits

Earlier this year, law legislation awarding presumptive benefits to “blue water” veterans was finalized, with more than 90,000 veterans eligible for disability benefits under this law. However, in June of this year, Veterans Affairs officials announced a six-month-long delay in processing “blue water” Vietnam benefits cases.

According to an article published by Military Times, “VA Secretary Robert Wilkie announced plans to halt processing of those claims until January 2020 to allow his department time to set up new computer systems for handling the cases to ensure the system isn’t overwhelmed by a flood of new claims. He has noted on several occasions that the law as drafted allowed for the processing delays. Advocates note that the delay was not required, however. They note that some cases were processed earlier this summer before the stay was announced, and insist that more could be fast-tracked if VA would drop its stubborn new policy.”

Various lawmakers continue to ask the VA for more information on the benefits delivery timeline but are unable to receive any definitive answers. Advocates are also continuing to press the VA to move ahead by adding several new illnesses to the list of presumptive benefits cases linked to Agent Orange. Having the presumptive status would allow veterans to bypass a lengthy documentation and paperwork process which would help speed up the claims filing process.

The article by Military Times continued by saying that “VA officials sent a letter to veterans groups updating them on the work thus far to prepare their staff for the new cases, but not offering any changes in the proposed timeline for starting to process them. Several advocates worry that even if the department begins taking cases starting in January, it could be another long wait before veterans see any payouts since processing can often take months.”

To learn more about this important news affect blue water navy veterans, click HERE.

Study finds veterans with TBI have higher suicide risk

A new study found that the risk of suicide among U.S. military veterans who have had a traumatic brain injury (TBI) is more than double that of other veterans. Researchers looked at a database in excess of 1.4 million vets who received treatment from the U.S. Veterans Health Administration (VHA) during a ten year period.

According to an article published by U.S. News & World Report, “They compared the severity of the traumatic brain injury with diagnoses of psychiatric and other medical conditions, along with the method of death in suicide cases. After adjusting for depression and other mental health diagnoses, the researchers found that veterans with moderate or severe TBI were 2.45 times more likely to die by suicide than those without TBI. The study only found an association and not a cause-and-effect link, however.”

The research study also stated that 68% of veterans studied who died by suicide used guns. Accordingly, the rate of veterans who suffered moderate to severe TBI who died by suicide and used guns was 78%. The leader of the study, Lisa Brenner (a professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Colorado School of Medicine) stated that in addition to the important findings, the study also highlighted the need for more research regarding gun safety among those with moderate to severe TBI.

The study was published recently in the Journal of Head Trauma Rehabilitation.

*If you have endured a traumatic brain injury as a result of your service and feel unhappy, depressed, anxious, fearful, moody, or in need of any emotional help, please contact a mental health professional.

Court rules VA must pay for veterans’ emergency room care

A federal appeals court ruled earlier this month that the Department of Veterans Affairs is required to reimburse veterans for emergency medical care received at non-VA facilities. The U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims has stated that the VA has been wrongfully denying reimbursement to veterans who sought emergency medical care at non-VA facilities.

According to an article published by NBC News, “Plaintiffs’ lawyers say that based on past estimates by the VA, the department is now on the hook for between $1.8 billion and $6.5 billion in reimbursements to hundreds of thousands of veterans who have filed or will file claims between 2016 and 2025In 2015, the court struck down a previous version of the internal VA regulation that refused any coverage for an emergency claim when another form of insurance covered even a small part of the bill. The court said the regulation violated a 2010 federal law.”

The recent federal court ruling determined that the department had violated federal law with its modification of the reimbursement regulation, saying that it created an additional obstacle for veterans by not allowing the VA to pay them back for medical expenses.

According to an August report released by the VA’s Inspector General, there are major problems in the way the VA reimburses veterans for emergency care at non-VA facilities. The report found that in a recent six-month period, the VA denied reimbursement to nearly 17,400 veterans, resulting in $53 million in out-of-pocket medical expenses that the government should have covered.

To learn more about this recent court ruling affecting veterans, click HERE.

New blood test could help diagnose veterans with PTSD

A new research study recently published from the Army (and other third-party experts) stated that physicians may one day be able to identify veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with a quick blood test instead of complex and lengthy psychological tests.

According to an article published by MilitaryTimes.com, “The study, which can be found in the Molecular Psychiatry journal, found a set of 27 blood markers which helped identify patients suffering from PTSD. Researchers said the findings support past hypotheses that the disorder “affects not just the brain, but the entire body.”  In a statement, Army Medical Research Systems Biology Chief Scientist Marti Jett said those markers “will continue to be refined and adapted for commercialization” in coming years. Researchers are hopeful blood tests can lead not only to more accurate diagnoses but also earlier ones, perhaps indicating signs of problems even before PTSD has fully manifested.”

According to Dr. Charles Marmar, senior study author and chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine, this blood test could identify symptoms of PTSD that servicemen are not aware of or, in some cases, purposefully suppressing due to fear of the stigma that surrounds the diagnosis. In addition, it could also eliminate PTSD as a possible diagnosis for those with ambiguous and unclear medical conditions.

It is important to note that the research study did not include women veterans or civilians. Dr. Marmar stated that the creation of a simple and affordable PTSD diagnostic blood test for use across the board is likely still years away. However, the findings are still seen as a very important medical breakthrough for health experts looking for ways to more accurately track troops’ health, with the Defense Department and Veterans Affairs researchers estimated that as many as 25 percent of individuals who served in combat zones in Iraq or Afghanistan may suffer from PTSD.

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

New ruling may give veterans an extra year of GI Bill benefits

An extra year of tuition assistance may be added to veterans’ education benefits as outlined by a recent federal court decision. This ruling would come into effect if a veteran qualifies for both the Post-9/11 GI Bill program and the older Montgomery GI Bill payouts. Currently, it has not been decided whether Veterans Affairs officials will appeal the ruling, which would essentially affect thousands of veterans resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars in expenses.

According to an article published by MilitaryTimes.com, “The decision, from the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims earlier this month, found the Department of Veterans Affairs practice of making veterans relinquish their Montgomery GI Bill eligibility in order to receive Post-9/11 GI Bill payouts is improper. Department officials in the past have argued that move is necessary to ensure veterans aren’t duplicating benefits. But in a 2-1 decision, the judicial panel ruled that federal language prohibiting such “double-dipping” more appropriately means that “someone may not receive assistance from more than one program during a single month, semester, or other applicable pay period, but may switch freely between programs.” As a result, if veterans are eligible for both programs, they should receive payouts from both, just not simultaneously, the decision said.”

Currently, the Post 9/11 GI Bill provides housing allowances and 36 months of tuition assistance for veterans and their families who served at least three years on active-duty after Sept. 10, 2001. The Montgomery GI Bill provides a more modest stipend for the 36 months to veterans who served on active duty for at least three years and paid into the program upon enlistment.

The Montgomery GI Bill benefit has stirred up controversy in recent years due to many servicemembers continuing to make monetary contributions to the program even though they’re unlikely to receive any benefits from it. As a result, the majority of veterans relinquish their Montgomery program benefits to receive Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits instead.

VA officials will have to make a decision on the recent federal court ruling in the next few weeks. If the decision is passed, it would require the department to implement a variety of changes for current and former beneficiaries, a process that may complicate the delivery of education benefits in the years ahead.

To read more about this important news affecting veterans’ education, click HERE.

Department of Defense to work with VA on environmental health concerns

During a press conference earlier this week, defense secretary Mark Esper stated that he would like to collaborate with Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie to ensure that all who are ill as a result of environmental exposures related to service in the military have access to the care they need.

According to an article published by Military.com, “Responding to a question on the health risks, including various cancers, of military environmental exposures, Esper said the VA “has the lead” on determining whether an illness is presumed to be related to military service — a decision that accelerates benefits awards. But, he added, as secretary, he wants to “make sure [DoD] is doing everything we can to assist soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines as they transition out of service. We want to make sure we tackle some of the things [being talked] about,” Esper said, referring to a question about incidents of cancer and other illnesses among service members and young military veterans.”

Esper created a task force to study chemical substances in firefighting foam as one of his first tasks as secretary. These substances have contaminated over 400 military bases and are assumed to be connected to cancer and a number of other illnesses.

The VA’s Airborne Hazards and Burn Pit Registry was created to track these health consequences of those exposed to burn pits and other environmental conditions such as respiratory illnesses, cancer, rashes, and other unexplained symptoms.

Troops, veterans, and other communities and families that are located near military bases also have voiced concerns around ground and water contamination that including lead and heavy metals, depleted uranium, airborne pollutants, chemical and nerve agents, and radiation. Recent studies have shown that while the rates of some cancers are lower in military personnel, others that including breast and prostate cancers are significantly higher.

To address this, twelve veterans and health organizations joined forces earlier this year to pressure Congress for more studies and support on military environmental exposures. This same group of organizations plans to asses all available resources addressing exposure and advocate for additional research, medical treatment and disability compensation for those affected.

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