Hiring Surge Needed At VA to Address Appeals


By Debbie Gregory.

Although the National Work Queue initiative is reducing the claims backlog and improving processing wait times, the Department of Veterans Affairs is warning that this progress may be hindered by the backlog of veterans seeking to appeal decisions involving disability benefits.

Whether the VA will receive the additional funds remains in question due to a tightening Trump administration budget.

Without the additional staff, the VA said, the backlog could exceed 1 million within a decade, and “veterans may have to wait an average of 8.5 years” to have their appeals resolved.

The department provides disability compensation payments each year to about 4.1 million veterans with disabling conditions incurred during their military service.

In order to meet the goal of deciding most of the appeals within one year by 2021, the VA set aside additional money in 2017 to add 242 full-time staff members. It now seems that a surge of up to 1,458 more staff would be necessary in 2018.

President Trump’s proposed budget calls for a 6 percent increase in VA funding. The funds are mostly earmarked to pay for rising health costs to treat veterans. But the White House plan has yet to spell out specific funding for hiring of more VA staff to handle both disability claims and appeals.

VA Secretary David Shulkin has called the current system “broken.” He has backed legislation introduced last year aimed at streamlining the appeals process, but has been less clear about available money for hiring.

Sen. Jon Tester, the top Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee was among a group of senators, including Democrat Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, who re-introduced legislation to overhaul the disability appeals system.

In the GAO report, auditors as a whole found the VA’s staffing estimates sound but cautioned the government’s second largest agency needed a better plan to make sure additional staff are properly trained and have adequate office space.

VA officials said they had been devoting additional staff in recent years to address the appeals backlog but that broader reform from Congress, including added staffing, was urgently needed.

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

VA To Provide Mental Health Care To Veterans with Less Than Honorable Discharges


By Debbie Gregory.

More than a half-million Veterans with other-than-honorable discharges will begin receiving mental health care services through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“We are going to go and start providing mental health care to those with other-than-honorable discharges,” VA Secretary David Shulkin testified to the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. “I don’t want to wait. We want to start doing that.”

Shulkin said he had the authority to start providing the care without legislation and credited Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo for “changing my whole view of this.”

Coffman has reintroduced the Veteran Urgent Access to Mental Health Care Act, which would allow the VA to provide initial mental health assessments and urgent mental health services to veterans at risk of suicide or harming others, regardless of an other-than-honorable discharge.

In addition to providing care to veterans with bad paper, the VA secretary also announced his plan to hire approximately 1,000 more mental health care providers..

After the hearing, Shulkin said he’s working to notify medical centers about providing mental health care services to veterans with other-than-honorable discharges, and that he’d like to implement a program sometime in the next few months.

“So many veterans we see are disconnected from our system, and that’s the frustration,” he said. “We want to do as much as we can.”

Shulkin is also working with educators, researchers and other health care systems to determine other actions the VA can take. He said he will go to Congress soon with more proposals.

VA officials said they expect to finalize plans for rolling out the program in early summer. Shulkin intends to consult with members of Congress, veterans service organizations and the Pentagon on the best way forward.

Discharges that are other-than-honorable, including a “general” discharge, are known as “bad paper” and can prevent veterans from receiving federal benefits, such as health care, disability payments, education and housing assistance.

Note from Debbie Gregory and

Please pass the word to those you know who need help and can now obtain these important mental health benefits.   Please tell us what you think and share any comments regarding this important issue.

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

Info on VA Streamline Home Loans


By Debbie Gregory.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) strives to help  servicemembers, veterans, and eligible surviving spouses obtain home loans so that they may become homeowners.

A VA loan provides a home loan guaranty benefit and other housing-related programs to help buy, build, repair, retain, or adapt a home for personal occupancy. These loans are obtained through private lenders such as banks and mortgage companies. The VA guarantees a portion of the loan, enabling the lender to provide more favorable terms.

A VA Streamline (also known as Interest Rate Reduction Refinance Loan, or by its acronym IRRL ) is a refinance opportunity that enables refinancing of a VA Loan to a lower rate, or from an adjustable rate to a fixed rate. When deciding on refinancing, it’s important to determine whether it is beneficial to do so. The general rule of thumb is that if you can refinance and reduce your interest rate by 1% then it is something worth considering. However, it’s important to consider other factors, such as closing costs and how long you plan on living in the property.

An IRRRL can only be made to refinance a property on which you have already used your VA loan eligibility. It must be a VA to VA refinance, and it will reuse the entitlement you originally used.

An IRRRL may be done with “no money out of pocket” by including all costs in the new loan or by making the new loan at an interest rate high enough to enable the lender to pay the costs. But there is no opportunity to receive any cash out from the loan proceeds.

The occupancy requirement for an IRRRL is different from other VA loans.  When you originally got your VA loan, you certified that you occupied or intended to occupy the home.  For an IRRRL you need only certify that you previously occupied it.
The loan may not exceed the sum of the outstanding balance on the existing VA loan, plus allowable fees and closing costs, including funding fee and up to two discount points.  You may also add up to $6,000 of energy efficiency improvements into the loan.

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

Drugs Vanish at Some VA Hospitals


By Debbie Gregory.

Opioid theft, missing prescriptions, and unauthorized drug use by staff at federal hospitals has increased sharply since 2009, according to a recent investigation.

Now, federal authorities are stepping up investigations at more than 1,100 Veterans Affairs medical centers.

The investigation by the Associated Press revealed that drugs intended for patients simply disappeared.

Aggravating the problem is that some VA hospitals have been lax in tracking drug supplies.

“Drug theft is an area of concern,” said Jeffrey Hughes, the VA’s acting assistant inspector general for investigations.

Both the inspector general’s office and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) said they have increased scrutiny of drug thefts from the VA, with the DEA reporting more criminal investigations.

It’s not clear if the problem is worse at the VA than at private facilities, where medical experts and law enforcement officials say drug theft is also increasingly common in a time of widespread opioid abuse in the U.S.

But the VA gets special scrutiny from lawmakers and the public, given Americans’ esteem for veterans served by the agency, and because of past problems at the VA, especially a 2014 wait-time scandal in which some patients died.

The drug thefts from VA also raise the possibility that patients will be denied medication they need or that they will be treated by drug-impaired staff.

Perhaps the problem of missing medicine is no worse at the VA than in private facilities, but the VA is charged with caring for the nation’s wounded or ill veterans, and should be held to a higher standard. Our nation’s new VA secretary should make fixing this problem a priority, and ensuring that the drugs designed to treat our military veterans end up in the hands for which they are intended.

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

Veterans’ Disability Claims Turning Around Faster

disability claim

By Debbie Gregory.

The Veterans Affairs Department says the National Work Queue, an electronic workload management initiative designed to reduce the claims backlog and improve processing wait times, is helping the department turn around veterans’ disability claims more quickly.

The National Work Queue is a national workload approach for processing claims, which, in some cases, may result in a veteran’s claim being processed outside of their home state.

The National Work Queue automatically assigns a veteran’s claim to a Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) regional office that has available employees and expertise to process it. In the past, the department processed a veteran’s claim at the regional office in the state where he or she lived.

The backlog of disability claims is higher now than it was before VA stood up the National Work Queue because more veterans are submitting more claims.

The number of disability claims rose from roughly 76,000 in May 2016 — before VA fully implemented the National Work Queue, to nearly 101,000 as of Feb. 4, 2017, according to Rep. Mike Bost (R-Ill.), chairman of the House VA subcommittee.

“As we get more efficient, more veterans are aware of benefits that are available to them,” said Willie Clark, deputy undersecretary for field operations at VBA. “They come in and submit more claims.”

The backlog of claims waiting for initial review dropped from 56,000 pending cases in May 2016 to 18,000 by the end of January 2017.

In 2015, VA completed 45 percent of veterans’ claims within 125 days. As of January 2017, 66 percent of claims finished within the 125-day standard.

So far in 2017, the average number of days for VBA to make the first developmental action dropped from 25 to 10. The average time for a rating decision fell from 29 to 16 days. Award time dropped from eight to four days, and the authorization time fell from four to two days.

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

VA to Recognize Tribal Organizations as Veteran Representatives

native vets

By Debbie Gregory.

On July 20, 2016, the VA issued a proposed rule to amend part 14 of title 38, Code of Federal Regulations, to provide for the recognition of tribal organizations that are established and funded by tribal governments. The amendment would allow representatives of the organizations to assist Native American veterans and their families in the preparation, presentation, and prosecution of their VA benefit claims.

Native Americans serve in the military among the highest rate, per capita, compared to other groups.

For more than a year, the VA’s Office of Tribal Government Relations (OTGR) and Office of General Counsel (OGC) have worked together to implement this rule change.

“This rule is a positive step forward for Indian Country and VA,” said Reyn Leno, Vietnam Veteran and chairman of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.  “For decades, tribes with accredited facilities have been able to provide quality services to our Native American Veterans and Veterans alike. The piece that was missing was the ability to provide assistance on VA benefit claims. This rule recognizes the unique relationship our tribes have with our federal government and Veterans in some of our most rural communities. No Veteran should have to drive hundreds of miles to receive care they could be eligible to receive next door at a tribal facility. The ability to credential tribal employees as VSOs will also help to further extend services to Native Veterans in a culturally appropriate manner. I applaud the rule and VA for their due diligence on this matter.”

Receiving VA accreditation is not an easy process, as the VA must ensure that all accredited VSOs can provide long-term, quality representation.  As such, tribal organizations must meet the same stringent requirements as national and state VSOs. OTGR can assist with tribal applications before they are sent to OGC, which makes the final approval.

The VA invites all interested tribal organizations to consider beginning the process of becoming a VSO. For more information, visit

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

Provisions Omitted From Veterans’ Bill Because of Costs


By Debbie Gregory.

The Jeff Miller and Richard Blumenthal Veterans Health Care and Benefits Improvement Act of 2016 (HR 6416) signed into law December 16th, fails to make truly significant program improvements.

The law fails to address several controversial issues, including: a solution to the veterans appeals process, new accountability procedures for VA employees or an extension or alternative to the Veterans Choice Program. Those challenges will get punted to the 115th Congress.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the law will raise VA appropriations by only $33 million over the next five years, with 1/3 of spending earmarked for “reports, studies and surveys.”

The Veterans First Act, which a bipartisan majority approved in May, had a host of substantive initiatives, most notably expansion of the VA caregiver benefit to families of older generations of severely injured veterans back to World War II.

How to cover the hefty $3 billion price tag? By robbing Peter to pay Paul: raising interest rates on veterans reusing their home loan benefit, rounding down disability compensation payments, and reducing the housing allowance stipend for the Post-9/11 GI Bill benefit.

The law’s most welcomed provision bestows honorary “veteran” status on many Reserve and National Guard retirees who, until now, have not been recognized as such. Affected retirees spent careers in reserve components, attending monthly and annual drills, but never having completed a qualifying period of active duty service under Title 10 to meet the legal definition of veteran and receive a DD-214 “Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty.” Today, however, they are able to be call, and to call themselves, veterans.

Other highlights the law will require the VA to enter into an agreement with the National Academy of Medicine to conduct an assessment on scientific research relating to the descendants of individuals exposed to toxins including Agent Orange; direct the VA to provide a medallion to be affixed to a privately purchased headstone or marker of an individual, signifying their status as a veteran, if they served in the Armed Forces on or after April 6, 1917; require the VA to arrange for an independent assessment of exams it gives individuals seeking disability compensation for traumatic brain injury; authorize contract physicians to conduct compensation and pension examinations at any location in any state as long as exams are within the scope of the authorized duties under the contract; and expand the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims from seven judges to nine to help address a backlog of claim appeals

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.


Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

Lockheed Martin Exec a Possible VA Secretary Nominee


By Debbie Gregory.

President-elect Trump may be considering Lockheed Martin Senior Vice President Leo Mackay, Jr. to fill one of the few remaining cabinet posts, the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Trump has publicly sparred with Lockheed Martin in the past few weeks, arguing that the defense contractor wastes billions in tax dollars building F-35 fighter jets that are behind schedule and over-budget.

Mackay, who served as deputy VA secretary under President George W. Bush, met with the president-elect, and said that he and Trump had a “good discussion.”

He added that “things are progressing; we’ll keep having a conversation.”

“The president-elect is up on the issues and very concerned about the department and veterans issues,” Mackay said. “He’s a first-class veterans advocate and we had a good conversation.”

Other rumored contenders have included former Sen. Scott Brown, former House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller and Fox News contributor Pete Hegseth, who helped grow Concerned Veterans for America into an influential veterans’ advocacy group.

A 1983 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Mackay was born into a military family in San Antonio, Texas and grew up on, and around, military installations. He lived in Japan as a child and spent two years of high school in Tehran, Iran. He served in the Navy as a naval aviator. He completed pilot training in 1985, graduating at the top of his class. He spent three years in Fighter Squadron Eleven flying the F-14, attended Fighter Weapons School (Topgun), and compiled 235 carrier landings and 1,000 hours in the F-14. He also served as an instructor at the Naval Academy

The VA secretary search carries unusual significance for the Trump team given how intensely the president-elect focused on veterans issues during his campaign.

Trump regularly blasted the VA as a prime example of the Obama administration’s failures, especially when whistleblowers exposed the agency’s nationwide use of fake patient waiting lists to conceal long delays in health care in 2014.

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

VA to Go Live With Online Scheduling System

va health

By Debbie Gregory.

Beginning next month, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs plans to begin online scheduling of medical appointments nationwide.

The technological advance will allow the scheduling of primary-care appointments for more than 6 million patients via an app on their phones, tablets or computers.

“Do I think this is a huge step forward for the VA? Absolutely,” said Dr. Neil Evans, chief of the office of connected care for the Veterans Health Administration. “I think this is really, really, really important for us to be able to offer.”

Kathleen Frisbee, executive director for connected health at the VA’s office of connected care, added that the new software will open up in the agency’s health system for more public inspection as patients view open appointments and choose which times are best for them with the click of a computer mouse.

“I mean, we are exposing our availability to the world,” Frisbee said.

VA developers had first planned to offer online requests for appointments rather than actual scheduling, but veterans who use the VA’s online portal, called MyHealtheVet, advocated for actual do-it-yourself online scheduling. In fact, online scheduling was the most requested item of vets using the VA’s online portal.

The move comes after the VA scandal in 2014 when a whistleblower in Phoenix revealed that VA schedulers were pressured to fake records to make appointment wait times appear shorter. The new app software promises to remove the VA scheduler from the equation.

The portal software cost $3.2 million, and runs on technology infrastructure from Agilex Technologies, now Accenture Federal Services, and the VA’s internal development.

In the future, VA officials plan to add online appointment scheduling capabilities for optometry, audiology and mental-healthcare.

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

Most Private Sector Doctors Unprepared to Treat Veterans


By Debbie Gregory.

While many veterans get some health care from private doctors, those doctors often fall short when it comes to identifying service-related illness.

Jeffrey L. Brown, M.D., a clinical professor of pediatrics at New York Medical College who also teaches at Weill Cornell Medicine, said, “While everybody seems to be mostly focused on the health care that veterans are getting at the VA, it sort of went unnoticed that 80 percent of veterans get most of their health care from civilian providers.”

According to a 2015 government survey of health and health care use, about 40 percent of veterans get some health care from the VA, but only about 20 percent of all veterans rely totally on the VA.

Dr. Brown, a retired U.S. Army medic, read a New York Times article that alerted him to his possible Agent Orange exposure. The carcinogenic defoliant that was used to kill thick plant growth and expose hiding Vietnamese fighters also exposed U.S. servicemembers to  serious illness such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

Dr. Brown learned of the risk from a newspaper, not his doctor. This prompted him to educate physicians about service-specific ailments.

“The biggest deficiency: Most health care providers don’t ask patients as they come through the door if they’ve ever served in the military,” the pediatrician said.

Service-related issues also could affect women’s health, especially when it comes to bearing and delivering children, according to Dr. Brown.

Pediatricians also seldom are trained to identify psychological and learning problems among veterans’ children related to their parents’ service or the effects after returning from deployment, he said.

“Unless you speak up and say you are a veteran or your spouse is a veteran, the issue might not even come to light,” said Richard R. Silbert, M.D., a psychiatrist and senior medical director for the Community Care Behavioral Health Organization.

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.