Archive for July, 2012

Vet Jobs

Posted: July 13, 2012 in Uncategorized
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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) Program on 29 MAY announced a memorandum of understanding to connect veterans with disabilities to career opportunities in the water and wastewater sectors as part of the EPA's Water Sector Workforce Initiative. The agreement allows EPA and VA to connect qualified veterans with staffing needs at water and wastewater utilities. EPA and the VA will work with water utilities and state and local VA counselors to promote water sector careers and resources for finding water jobs for veterans as well as educational programs to help veterans transition into careers in water industries. "This
agreement comes at the perfect time to address the predicted workforce shortages in the water and wastewater industries and the need for transitioning veterans into civilian jobs," said Nancy Stoner, acting assistant administrator for EPA's Office of Water. "EPA believes that well-trained and experienced water sector professionals are vital to ensuring sustainable, properly operated systems."
"VA has cultivated relationships with both public and private industry to ensure disabled veterans have opportunities to find and maintain meaningful employment," said Under Secretary for Benefits Allison A. Hickey. "We are thrilled to forge this relationship with EPA to assist them with hiring veterans through our Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Program." More than one-third of all current water operators are eligible to retire within seven years and, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, employment for water and wastewater operators is expected to grow by 20 percent between 2008 and 2018, faster than the national average for all other occupations. Each year, VA's Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Program assists more than 100,000 disabled veterans prepare for, find, and maintain meaningful careers. Veterans are an important target group for water and wastewater utility jobs because many veterans already possess training and technical skills that are directly transferable to careers in the water sector. There is a wide spectrum of water sector careers that veterans could be qualified for, including engineering, laboratory and water science, operations and maintenance, management and administration, communications, and public education. The Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Program further supports veterans for the water workforce by providing necessary accommodations and additional training as needed. [Source: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs/U.S. Environmental Protection Agency News Release 30 May 2012 ++]

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GI Bill Update

Posted: July 12, 2012 in Uncategorized
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An Iraq War veteran searching the web for “GI Bill schools” won’t find the Department of Veterans Affairs’ website about Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits among the top results. Instead, he or she will see GIBill.com , a slick commercial site advertising the select schools willing to pay to get their names featured — mostly for-profit schools with low graduation and high loan default rates. Predatory recruiting practices by for-profit schools have been the target of state attorneys general investigations and lawsuits, advocacy campaigns, Congressional hearings, and an Executive Order signed by President Obama. Now QuinStreet, the company behind GIBill.com, has come under investigation by 15 state attorneys general — led by Jack Conway from Kentucky — for its role in connecting veterans and servicemembers to its for-profit school clients. As California Watch’s Erica Perez reported today: In their inquiry, the investigators expressed concerns that QuinStreet’s marketing websites, such as http://www.GIBill.com and http://www.ArmyStudyGuide.com, mislead consumers into believing that the sites are affiliated with the government or that the for-profit colleges recommended by the sites are the only ones that accept subsidies such as the GI Bill or Tuition Assistance, which is for service members on active duty. Currently GIBill.com features multiple disclaimers that it is not affiliated with the government or military, Perez notes, but “an archived version of the website from July 2011 does not include the disclaimer.”
To prevent further abuse by companies like QuinStreet, Obama’s new Executive Order directs relevant agencies such as the Department of Veterans Affairs to “take all appropriate steps to ensure that websites and programs are not deceptively and fraudulently marketing educational services and benefits.” “Much of it is just deceptive marketing,” said Tom Tarantino, Deputy Policy Director at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “You won’t be able to find a public college unless you go three or four clicks in. They’re really advertising. If you enter your contact information on the site, you’ll be subject to aggressive, sometimes harassing, recruiting calls by these for-profits.” Targeting veterans is incredibly lucrative for for-profit schools and their shareholders not just because billions of dollars in Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits are being paid out. The “90-10” rule can increase a veterans’ value to a for-profit school nine times over. Under the rule, at least 10 percent of a for-profit school’s revenue must come from non-federal sources if it is to qualify to receive federal student aid dollars. That aid can make up 90 percent of the for-profit school’s revenue. A loophole in the law counts GI Bill benefits as non-federal revenue. That puts a huge dollar sign on a veteran’s back. For every GI Bill dollar a for-profit school raises, it can raise nine more federal student aid dollars.

Companies like QuinStreet are at the nexus for targeting and connecting veterans to for-profit schools. “The ‘90-10’ rule fosters aggressive recruiting of veterans,” said Tarantino. “We have to fix the loopholes in the law, but where the rubber meets the road is in the states and with their attorneys general.” Across the country attorneys general are investigating for-profit schools themselves, but finding few common targets. Instead, they have recently turned their focus onto Congress as 21 attorneys general signed a letter requesting it close the “90-10” loophole. Investigations into companies like QuinStreet and their questionable practices that support and enable the for-profit industry must continue to curb the exploitation of our veterans and their benefits. [Source: ThinkProgress Security Lauren Jenkins article 6 Jun 2012 ++]

TRICARE User Fees

Posted: July 12, 2012 in Uncategorized
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In late MAY Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter warned Congress that holding the line on TRICARE fees would upset the “carefully balanced” budget request from the administration and undo key domestic priorities. The Deputy Secretary cast yet another administration insult toward those who served saying any change in the earned benefit of health care could harm our national security. The Deputy Secretary is not the only administration official looking to tag retired servicemembers and their families with the bill for deficit reduction. Robert Hale, DoD's comptroller, warned that if Congress rejected the administration’s increase it could mean less palatable cuts elsewhere. "If, for example, Congress turned down all of our compensation proposals and we offset that hole with additional force cuts, we could have to cut roughly another 60,000 troops by 2017…These additional cuts will surely jeopardize the new defense strategy that we have recently put in play," Hale said. And Jonathan Woodson, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs and director of TRICARE Management Activity, said that increasing TRICARE fees nearly four-fold over the next 5-years is the right way to meet the nation’s side of the promise for a 20-year or more career in uniform. The TRICARE benefit has been one of the "most comprehensive and generous health benefits in this country, and our proposals keep it that way,” Woodson said. [Source: NAUS Weekly Update 1 Jun 2012 ++]

The transition of the Yellowstone County Veterans Cemetery to a national cemetery is under way. John Ostlund, chair of the Yellowstone County Commission, received a letter from the Department of Veterans Affairs asking him to identify someone as a contact person “to begin this discussion.” “We’re pretty enthusiastic,” Ostlund said, adding that his colleague, Commissioner Bill Kennedy, a longtime champion of this effort, will serve as the county’s official point person. The letter, according to Kennedy, formalizes what county commissioners and all three members of Montana’s congressional delegation, Democratic Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus and Republican Congressman Denny Rehberg, have asked for all along. Kennedy predicted the Yellowstone County Veterans Cemetery, located north of Laurel, will be designated a national cemetery within six months to a year.
News that the VA is working with Yellowstone County means that no congressional legislation is needed to recognize the cemetery as a VA national cemetery. The VA’s letter didn’t appear out of nowhere. Earlier this year, Tester wrote VA Secretary Eric Shinseki on behalf of Yellowstone. In 2011, he brought Shinseki to Montana to hear from veterans about the issue. “Montana veterans deserve the honor of a final resting place in a VA national cemetery in our state,” said Tester, Montana’s only member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “Today’s news is a reflection on the men and women of the Big Sky State who fought for our freedoms and for national recognition of this important cemetery.” Tester announced in February that the President’s latest budget proposal allowed the VA’s National Cemetery Administration to purchase land from rural cemeteries in eight states, including Montana. Under the initiative, the newly purchased land would receive National Cemetery status by establishing National Veterans Burial Grounds within the boundaries of existing public or private cemeteries. The VA would operate and maintain the property at an estimated $80,000 annually. The government would also incur capital equipment costs. Congress would have to appropriate money for the plan. Rehberg, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said he included language in the bill that would permit the NCA to make the purchase. “It’s growing increasingly clear that if my language passes the Senate, Yellowstone County we will be closer to a national designation than we have ever been before,” Rehberg said. “I’m working closely with local officials to make sure this project is prominent on the VA radar. Working together, we can get a national cemetery that serves not only the local community, but the entire region.”

The Yellowstone County Veterans Cemetery, the nation’s only locally financed veterans cemetery, is a $1.5 million, eight-acre burial ground on the north side of Laurel. From its beginning, it was designed to meet national standards and was dedicated on Veterans Day in 2008. The first burial, a Purple Heart veteran, was in December 2008. About 80 veterans and spouses have been interred since the cemetery opened. Lately, one or two burials per week have been scheduled. As part of the national designation, Yellowstone County would pay off the debt, currently about $1.3 million, it incurred to design and build the cemetery. The debt is paid with an annual $225,000 dedicated county property tax levy. Many veterans want to be buried in a national cemetery because it saves on financial hardships to families. Benefits at the Yellowstone County Veterans Cemetery include a U.S. burial flag, perpetual care of the grave site and a memorial certificate bearing the president’s signature. Funeral home services are not covered. Burial plots, headstone and markers are free for the veteran. A fee is assessed for casket burials, casket vaults and cremated remains. A nominal surcharge is also assessed for out-of-county residents.
The Veterans Administration operates more than 100 National Cemeteries. The best-known National Cemetery is Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C., which is operated by the U.S. Army. National cemeteries provide many of the same benefits as county cemeteries, although the families of veterans may be eligible for more financial help with burial costs and other burial allowances such as being buried with a spouse. Yellowstone County is Montana’s most-populated county and has the highest percentage of military veterans in the state with more than 20 percent, the highest percentage in the nation. Until now, the VA has told local leaders and veterans that Montana doesn’t have enough veterans to warrant a national cemetery. A National Veterans Cemetery designation requires that 80,000 veterans live within a 75-mile radius of the cemetery. VA has developed a set of criteria for establishing the National Veterans Burial Grounds in locations where no more than 25,000 veterans reside, and where these veterans do not have reasonable access to burial in a national or state veterans cemetery. [Source: Billings Gazette Cindy Uken article 6 Jun 2012 ++]

During World War II, Americans of all ages shelled out dimes and dollars for the war effort. In this Memorial Day period a bipartisan group of lawmakers has sought to fire up that patriotic spirit with the Victory for Veterans Stamp Act. The act would provide for the sale of a 21-cent stamp to generate money for veterans programs, paying down the national debt and propping up the U.S. Postal Service. The stamp could not be used for postage, even though it would be offered for sale by the Postal Service. Rep. John B. Larson (D-CT), the bill’s chief sponsor, said the stamp would be a way for Americans to show their patriotism and support for the troops. “Over a decade after 9/11, we know that the people of this country still possess a deep reservoir of patriotism and a collective desire to solve our greatest challenges,” Larson said in a letter to colleagues seeking their support for the measure. “They just need to be asked.” Larson came up with the idea for the stamp while going through letters his parents sent to each other during World War II. “I couldn’t help but notice a unique ‘victory’ stamp that was used at the time as a means to help support the war effort,” he said, referring to a 3-cent violet “Win the War” stamp featuring the American eagle with wings spread in a V, encircled by 13 stars.

That stamp was used for postage, but post offices sold war savings stamps for as little as a dime to support the war effort. Larson said the new stamp could spur school campaigns to write troops. It could be attached to the envelopes, in addition to the postage. Larson suggested World War II-era artwork as a design for the stamp. It features an eagle inside a V, with American flags and the word “victory.” His proposal calls for splitting the 21 cents from every stamp evenly among veterans employment and training programs, the debt reduction effort and support for the Postal Service, which an aide noted employs a large number of veterans. Over the years, Congress has authorized various semipostal stamps, which sell for more than their face value to raise money for causes. Most well-known may be the now-55-cent breast cancer stamp, authorized in 1997, which has generated more than $75 million for breast cancer research. [Source: Stars & Stripes Richard Simon article 27 May 2012 ++]

VA Disputed Claims

Posted: July 10, 2012 in Uncategorized
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While Americans spent 28 MAY at parades and ceremonies honoring service members killed in the line of duty, one Queens veteran believes government bureaucrats can’t wait for him to die. Frank Bari, a 62-year-old lawyer, has been waging an eight-year legal battle with the Veterans Administration over his claims that he was left permanently disabled by the Agent Orange that was sprayed on him while he served with the Coast Guard in Vietnam. “I did one year, two months and three days” in the war zone, he said. His job was boarding small local fishing boats called sampans in search of Viet Cong weapon stashes. He and his crewmates were stationed in an area where fierce firefights regularly took place and US planes dropped the powerful defoliant to expose the enemy’s jungle hiding places. Bari says he has suffered from a rare form of cancer, Type II diabetes, chronic post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety. He said the Veterans Administration has admitted all of these maladies have been linked to Agent Orange. 

Bari won a significant legal victory several months ago in the US Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, but it has been sent back to a lower court. Meanwhile, as Bari’s health continues to deteriorate, he’s left wondering whether the government of the country he fought for would rather see him dead. “There are many other former Vietnam War veterans like me and sometimes, I think they [US government bureaucrats] are waiting for us all to just die,” said Bari, a former Newark public defender who now practices criminal law. In 1999, he was diagnosed with Stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and given just four months to live, he recalled. Many of the doctors he consulted, Baris says, were “fitting me for a casket,” until he found one who saved his life through a newly approved drug therapy program. He took another hit after 9/11 when he was activated as a Coast Guard reservist and assigned to Ground Zero — a tour that he says led to chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder that is part of a separate medical claim with the government. Randy Noller, a spokesman for the VA, declined to discuss Bari’s case, citing privacy issues. Noller was unable to provide data on how many other Vietnam War era veterans have pending medical disability claims, but officials say the number climbed in the past several years, as additional maladies have been included. [Source: New York Times Philip Messing article 28 May 2012 ++]

Veterans Pension

Posted: July 10, 2012 in Uncategorized
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A yearlong investigation into a federal pension program for low-income veterans has concluded that weak oversight and unclear rules have made the system ripe for abuse, including by financial planners and lawyers who help well-off retirees qualify for benefits by transferring or hiding assets. The report by the Government Accountability Office, released 6 JUN, found that more than 200 firms had sprouted up across the country to help veterans “restructure” assets so they can appear indigent and therefore eligible for tax-free pensions, which can pay more than $20,000 a year. While transferring assets to qualify for the pension is not illegal under current rules, Congressional officials and veterans groups say the practice undermines the purpose of the pension system — aiding poor veterans — and burdens federal spending at a time of deep budget cuts. The G.A.O. also found that some firms overcharge veterans for services — in some cases more than $10,000 — or sell them financial products that are potentially harmful, like trusts that limit a veteran’s access to the money or deferred annuities that generate income only after the veteran’s death.
The report placed partial blame for the problems on the Department of Veterans Affairs, saying it has unclear eligibility rules, does not systematically verify financial information and uses forms that do not require applicants to report asset transfers and other financial details. The G.A.O. also said Congress should consider giving the department “look-back” authority to deny applicants who transfer or hide assets in the years just before applying for pensions. Other means-tested programs, like Medicaid, have such policies. A bipartisan group of senators, including Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Richard M. Burr (R-NC), plans to introduce legislation giving the V.A. look-back authority. The Senate Special Committee on Aging was scheduled to discuss that bill and the G.A.O. report in a hearing. “If things continue as they are, and people see this program as a magnet for rip-offs and waste, I believe that in this financial climate support for the program will fall apart,” Mr. Wyden said. “I want to preserve this for people who need it.” The Department of Veterans Affairs said it concurred with the G.A.O.’s recommendations. A senior official said the department was also drafting new regulations that would clarify the types of asset transfers that might disqualify a pension applicant. Some transfers, such as for medical expenses, would remain acceptable under the new rules. “By making it clear the impact of asset transfers, we would close this gap and reduce the incentive for people to engage in this kind of behavior,” said Michael Daugherty, assistant director of the V.A.’s Pension and Fiduciary Service.
To qualify for the pension, applicants must be over 65 or be permanently disabled, have served during wartime and fall below the income threshold: about $12,200 for a person with no dependents. Last year, the system paid $4.3 billion to 517,000 veterans or their survivors — up from about $3.7 billion in 2007. In addition to their pension checks, veterans who cannot cook, bathe or otherwise care for themselves can also receive stipends to pay for help, a benefit known as aid and attendance. The G.A.O. and Congressional officials said firms that market services to veterans had been particularly aggressive about obtaining aid and attendance benefits, which can increase a pension by more than 50 percent. The number of applicants approved for aid and attendance has grown sharply, to 38,000 in 2011, up from 22,500 in 2006. Though the G.A.O. and Congressional officials suggested that lax oversight had contributed to the high acceptance rate, V.A. officials said there were other factors at play, including a weak economy and a desire to get benefits quickly to frail veterans.
As part of their investigation, G.A.O. employees also posed as the children of an 86-year-old veteran who was seeking help qualifying for a pension. In calls to 19 firms, they were told time and again that they could qualify even with assets worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, provided they put their money in annuities or trusts, for which the firms charged administrative fees. “V.A. allows you to qualify, regardless of what your assets are,” one company representative said, according to a G.A.O. transcript. “And I’ve had people with over a million dollars qualify for this benefit.” Investigators working for the G.A.O. and the Special Committee on Aging found that financial planners and lawyers often worked through nursing homes or assisted living centers for the elderly to gain access to veterans. In those cases, the pensions presumably helped finance the cost of living in the homes.
Investigators also found numerous cases of firms charging high fees for helping veterans apply, even though organizations like the American Legion, as well as many states, offer the same assistance free. In one case, a veteran in Utah reported signing a contract that gave his first pension check to an agent who helped him apply. But because of delays in the system, that check was unusually large: $16,000. Investigators said some firms posed as veterans advocates when marketing services. And some of those services included selling products that turned out to be harmful to the veterans. A Montana woman, for instance, reported that a lawyer advised her father, a World War II veteran, to sell his house so he could move into an assisted living development. The lawyer assured the woman that her father would qualify for aid and attendance benefits that would help pay the bill. But the V.A. rejected the application, leaving the veteran on the hook for the entire monthly rent for his new home. “I do not know, fully, who is at fault,” the woman, Kris Schaffer, says in testimony submitted to the Senate committee. “I only know that, for my father, this is a terrible miscarriage of justice.” [Source: New York Times James Dao article 5 Jun 2012 ++]