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VA News

Call Wait Times Down 75 Percent For VA Debt Management Center

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The VA Debt Management Center just announced it reduced call wait times by over 75 percent while also increasing calls taken by 40 percent from 2016 to 2018.

As part of the agency’s Veteran-focused initiatives, they agency reduced call wait times from 21 minutes in 2016 to under 5 minutes during 2018. The initiatives include increasing staff levels, improving technology, and driving better employee development.

“The team at the DMC has enhanced services to our Veterans,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. “It’s our mission to take care of our Veterans, no matter what their needs are. DMC is in concert with our priority of improving customer service and will continue to gather customer feedback through direct feedback, surveys and outreach in FY19 to further enhance the Veterans’ experience.”

According to the press release:

For the past three years, DMC received around 1 million calls annually with an average call wait time of about 21 minutes. In FY 2017, DMC launched a series of internal efficiencies and process improvements to enhance contact center capabilities.

Initiatives included enhancing staffing levels to meet demand, enhancing contact center technology, focusing on employee development and engagement, and implementing an automated 12-month payment plan.

These Veteran-focused initiatives represent a 79 percent reduction over two years to the average time for waiting and a 40 percent increase of actual calls taken. These are all indicators of successful initiatives providing a better experience for Veterans and VA employees.

The DMC’s inbound contact center serves as the central point for Veterans and their family members to make payment arrangements, or receive guidance regarding the collection process on overpayments which could include debts created from education or pension payments.

Debt counselors at the DMC work with callers in a professional and service-oriented manner to help them understand their options to address overpayments with Veterans either through extended repayment plans, the dispute process, compromise process or waiver process

DMC’s contact center provides debt counseling for the Veterans Benefits Administration, and consolidated collection services of non-health care debt for Veterans Health Administration and National Cemetery Administration, enabling these entities to focus resources on accomplishing their core missions.

DMC has provided centralized debt collection programs of Veteran benefit overpayments since 1975 and became a fee-for-service Enterprise Center in 1996.

This is great news for Veterans trying to deal with the agency as a debt collector.


What is not great is the amount of information the agency publishes for Veterans dealing with the Debt Management Center for the first time. The agency gives us little information about how to advocate for yourself and what elements of your fact set to focus on when creating your argument – – whether for a waiver or to plainly dispute the alleged debt in full.

They instead focus on how to pay and how to submit a waiver with no limited discussion of disputing the alleged debt in full.

Ever have a run in with DMC? If you have a debt story, I would like to hear it below.

Any idea how the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act might apply to VA or one of its contractors attempting to collect an illegitimate debt from a disabled Veteran?


VA Announces Milestone in Modernizing Veterans’ Claims Processing

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Modernizing Vets Claims Processing


The Department of Veterans Affairs announced this week that it has achieved a milestone in moving from its old paper records processing system to a new electronic one designed to expedite the claims decision process for Veterans.

The VA removed more than 7.8 million paper files from 60 locations in fewer than 22 months, enabling rapid scanning into VA’s electronic claims processing system by multiple third-party vendors. The agency says this will lead to faster claims decisions for the Veterans waiting on them by moving from a cumbersome, paper-intensive process to an efficient, electronic process — resulting in a faster, more accurate and transparent claims process.

“Improving the delivery of benefits and services to Veterans is central to our mission,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. “This significant effort will not only improve VA’s claims process, it will also lead to quicker decisions for Veterans because millions more records will be available electronically.”

History of the Transition Process

In 2013, VA began removing paper records from its regional offices to save space and taxpayer money. The effort expanded in 2016 when the agency launched the File Bank Extraction initiative. This initiative removed more than 1.7 million paper claims files across 59 VA locations and contributed to reduced claims processing time by establishing more electronic records.

In Nov. 2017, the VA began extracting nearly 6.1 million paper records held within the Records Control Division (RCD) of the Records Management Center (RMC) in St. Louis. The 6.1 million paper records extracted from the RCD are temporarily stored in a secure facility certified by the National Archives and Records Administration where they are inventoried, prioritized and sent to multiple VA vendors for rapid scanning into VA’s Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS).

Records removed during File Bank Extraction will also be scanned and uploaded to VBMS.


Union demands investigation into VA official who displayed painting of KKK leader

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WASHINGTON — Union officials are calling for a full investigation into a senior Veterans Affairs official who prominently displayed a picture of a Ku Klux Klan leader in his office, accusing department leadership of ignoring the problematic behavior.

“The prominent display of images of Confederate leaders in the workplace is never acceptable,” said J. David Cox Sr., national president of the American Federation of Government Employees. “The actions of this official cross the line, and we’re calling on the VA to get to the bottom of what’s going on within their leadership at this facility.”

On Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that David Thomas Sr., deputy executive director of VA’s Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization, had a picture of Nathan Bedford Forrest — a Confederate general who became the white supremacist group’s first grand wizard — displayed in his office for years.

The picture was removed this week after the newspaper confronted Thomas about racial background of the portrait. Thomas claimed no real knowledge of Forrest’ background, saying he displayed the painting because “it was just a beautiful print that I had purchased, and I thought it was very nice.”

Employees in Thomas’ office — which includes numerous African-Americans — have been circulating a petition demanding removal of the painting prior to the news story.

In response, VA spokesman Curt Cashour said Thomas had not received any complaints about the painting prior to the Washington Post story. He said Secretary Robert Wilkie has taken steps to make sure VA is welcoming to all employees, but “achieving the secretary’s goal relies in large part on individual judgment and common sense of employees at all levels.”

“If an employee finds a work of art on display in a private office offensive, the employee should bring it to the attention of his or her supervisor, who will take steps to handle the issue quickly and appropriately as needed. That didn’t happen here. Mr. Thomas received no complaints from his fellow employees and only learned about these concerns from the Washington Post. Mr. Thomas immediately took down the print in question – a work by noted historical artist Don Stivers – and the matter is resolved.”

AFGE officials disagree.

“This is about more than one portrait — this is about ensuring all employees can work free from discrimination and intimidation,” said Jeremy Lannan, head of the union’s civil rights department. “We have serious questions as to whether that’s possible under Mr. Thomas’ leadership.”

AFGE said employees in the office had previously filed three claims of racial discrimination against Thomas, and has requested additional information from the department on the office’s morale and disciplinary actions.

The union has been a frequent critic of President Donald Trump and VA management in recent years, opposing a host of moves designed to more easily fire civil employees and limit union officials work on behalf of members during work hours.

Thomas began working at VA in 2013, during former President Barack Obama’s administration. The Washington Post report said employees complained that Thomas displayed the painting in previous offices before his most recent promotion to the deputy executive director role.


VA and DoD Joining Up for New Records System

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The U.S. Secretaries of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Defense (DoD) have signed a joint statement pledging that their two departments will align their plans, strategies and structures as they roll out a new electronic health records (EHR) system that will allow VA and DoD to share patient data seamlessly. "The new EHR system will be interoperable with DoD, while also improving VA's ability to collaborate and share information with community care providers. This will ease the burden on servicemembers as they transition from military careers…" said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. For more information about the new EHR system, visit the VA's Office of Electronic Health Record Modernization website.


VA Announces New Medical Center Director

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The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has announced it has appointed Michael S. Heimall, a former director at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, to take on new duties as director of the Washington DC VA Medical Center (DCVAMC). In that role, Heimall will oversee delivery of health care to more than 121,050 Veterans and an operating budget of $610 million. A retired U.S. Army officer with 30 years of progressive experience in hospital and health system leadership, Heimall served as the director for Walter Reed, where he led a 240-bed facility employing 7,000 people.


Blocking VA documents release protects 'shadow rulers' — not Vets

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U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie doesn’t want any sunlight on his agency’s “shadow rulers.” By blowing off a recent congressional document request, Wilkie is blocking the public from determining whether a secretive trio of outsiders is calling the shots at the VA.

Wilkie was just confirmed by the Senate in late July. His handling of the data request from the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee raises serious questions about his judgment so early in his tenure. After the scandal involving clinic wait times, public faith in the VA is lagging. Yet Wilkie’s stunning refusal last month to turn over the documents undermines trust even further, creating the damning perception that his priority isn’t Veterans but protecting the three outsiders, all of whom belong to President Donald Trump’s glitzy Mar-a-Lago club.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning ProPublica news organization first reported about the behind-the-scenes decisionmakers in a story published Aug. 7. E-mails and other documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act revealed that the three have “leaned on VA officials and steered policies affecting millions of Americans.” They weighed in on high-level staffing changes, meddled with a major software contract and pushed the agency to make a seismic and expensive push — outsourcing care to private providers.

One of the three also wanted the agency to bring in his son to develop an app. Despite this access to agency inner circles, none of three men ever served in the military. Nor is their expertise relevant. The three men are: Marvel Entertainment Chairman Ike Perlmutter, attorney Marc Sherman and Bruce Moskowitz, a doctor who runs a company catering to wealthy medical patients.

The congressional request for additional documents, filed on Aug. 8 by Rep. Tim Walz, the Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s ranking member, is sensible. The documents obtained by the reporters may have been redacted. The congressional request would also go beyond the correspondence the reporters were able to obtain through the Freedom of Information law. A thorough review is a must, especially when Veterans sense that “an ideological war is being waged within the VA below the radar of the media and of the public,’’ said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America advocacy group. “Veterans’ healthcare, benefits and general well-being are ending up as collateral damage.”

Yet on Sept. 15, Wilkie tersely declined the House committee’s document request. His reasons do not hold up to scrutiny. He said the documents are the subject of ongoing litigation. Yet that lawsuit was filed after the congressional committee’s data request. And its existence does not exempt the agency from complying with the committee’s request.

Walz, who is also the Minnesota DFL gubernatorial candidate, gave a deadline extension — until Oct. 31 — in a forceful letter this month. It is Wilkie’s best interest to meet that. Failure will sour the VA’s relationship with a key oversight committee and will only accelerate the public trust deficit in him and the agency.

A noncommittal response this week from a VA spokesman about whether Wilkie will release the documents did not inspire confidence. Wilkie made a mistake saying no once. He owes it to his agency and more important, to the 9 million Veterans served by VA medical facilities, to correct course.


Wilkie Jilts Walz On Mar-A-Lago Probe, Cites Pending Lawsuit

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VA Secretary Robert Wilkie has refused to provide Rep. Tim Walz (Minn.), ranking Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, with copies of emails and other internal communications between Department of Veterans Affairs officials and three members of President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago country club who allegedly influenced VA policies and executive hiring and firing decisions for at least a year.

Wilkie told Walz in a Sept. 14 letter that the documents the congressman seeks are “the subject of ongoing litigation alleging violations of the Federal Advisory Committee Act and, therefore, not appropriate for release at this time.”

“It’s stonewalling, plain and simple,” Walz said in an interview Wednesday, adding, “This just reeks of corruption. It’s cronyism.”

Hours later Walz’s office sent a second letter to Wilkie. This one set a new deadline of Oct. 31 for VA to release all documents showing VA interactions with billionaire Ike Perlmutter, Palm Beach physician Bruce Moskowitz and lawyer Marc Sherman, all of them Mar-a-Lago members who teamed to influence personnel decisions and to shape policy at VA after Trump became president.

Walz told Wilkie that his response was “a transparent attempt to stonewall not only a member of Congress but also the American public on a matter of significant importance to our nation’s Veterans. Be assured, this issue will remain a top concern of the Committee until all our questions have been answered.”

The lawsuit Wilkie cited was filed Aug. 18 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia by VoteVets Action Fund, which has been the highest spending liberal nonprofit organization active in recent federal elections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The fund is associated with, a political action committee and non-profit social welfare organization founded in 2006 by Iraq and Afghanistan war Veterans who hold progressive political views.

VoteVets contends the Trump administration empowered Perlmutter, Moskowitz and Sherman to influence VA in violation of the Federal Advisory Committee Act, a Watergate-era law passed to ensure that advisors to federal departments are objective and their advice is accessible to the public.

Alan Grogg, an attorney representing VoteVets, said its complaint relies on a lengthy ProPublica news article and VA documents that the online newsroom obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. It argues the President’s friends constituted an advisory group and yet the advisors, all of them non-Veterans, met none of the transparency requirements of the Federal Advisory Committee Act.

The law requires, Grogg explained, that if an agency is going to use an outside group to provide advice and recommendations, it has to file a charter for the committee, disclose the minutes of its meetings and disclose materials provided to the committee. VA took no such steps to legitimize the “Mar-a-Lago Crowd,” he said.

Documents ProPublica obtained “show the way these three individuals were empowered to not only provide advice and recommendations but even to influence decision making,” Grogg said. “It’s unfortunately part of a pattern with this administration, leaning on non-government individuals to exercise governmental authority, and it’s a jarring example of that trend.”

The lawsuit seeks a court order to stop the Mar-a-Lago trio from meeting with or advising Wilkie or other VA officials until VA complies with transparency obligations of the 1972 law.

Walz said the mid-term elections next month are the reason Republican colleagues on the committee haven’t joined him yet in pressing VA for documents to reveal how the Mar-a-Lago trio influenced the department.

“I don’t want to criticize them openly yet,” Walz said, adding, “I think it’s a fair hesitation on their part going into an election.”

Regardless of November election results, he added, “this is not going away. This is Veterans’ health care. These are unelected officials who I believe, just straight up, have financial interests in this with [computer applications] they are trying to promote, some of their companies that have been intersected. I think the potential for deep cronyism, getting an inside track, for corruption, is there.”

Walz said Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.), the House committee chairman, is “a man of great integrity.” Walz trusts him to “be right with me,” seeking answers about the Mar-a-Lago trio, after the election, assuming he too suspects undue influence.

Republicans on the committee “know, and they care, that this is wrong.”

Walz doesn’t give the same benefit of the doubt to Wilkie, who served as acting VA secretary earlier this year and was introduced to the Mar-a-Lago trio before Trump later nominated him to be VA secretary. He took office in July.

Wilkie’s refusal to release the documents made a bad situation “significantly worse by sending a letter falsely claiming” documents are being withheld “because of a lawsuit filed [eight days] after I requested the information,” Walz said.

“He knew what the situation was there. He made that choice. You lay with dogs, you get fleas,” Walz said.

Democrats on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee pressed Wilkie at hearing last month on his own interactions with the Mar-a-Lago trio. Wilkie told Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) he will reject improper outside influences on VA.

“A lot of those [interactions reported by ProPublica] took place before I became the secretary. And I am committed to making sure that I am the sole person responsible” for VA policy, Wilkie said.

Asked if any VA officials still consult with the Mar-a-Lago Crowd, Wilkie said, “Not that I know of. I met with them once for an hour when I was in Palm Beach the first week I was acting. I have had no connection with them since then.”

Pressed by Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Wilkie said the topic discussed with the trio in Palm Beach was the Cerner Corp. contract to create a new electronic health record system for VA, the same system adopted by Department of Defense.

“And if I’m going to believe the media stories, that the folks I talked to were against it, then I went against their wishes because I approved it two weeks later,” Wilkie said.

Wilkie also conceded to Hirono that his first contact with a member of the Mar-a-Lago group occurred the day he began his stint as acting VA Secretary days earlier, when Marc Sherman was waiting for him in his office at VA headquarters.

"What was discussed that day," Hirono asked.

“Somebody I had never met before…was standing there and told me for whom he worked. And I listened and I said thank you. I’m always happy to listen to anyone who wants to talk about Veterans. I was not familiar with what was going on. Again, that was my first day,” Wilkie said.

Wilkie’s decision to deny him the documents means “he owns this now,” Walz said. “We need to find out what their influence has been. They are unelected officials who are interfering and have no authority whatsoever…other than they bought expensive memberships and they’ve got an inside track to the president.”


Senior Energy Dept. aide moving to Veterans Affairs

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John Mashburn, a former Trump White House official, is leaving the Energy Department for a senior position at the Department of Veterans Affairs, according to three people familiar with the move.

Mashburn, a senior adviser to Energy Secretary Rick Perry, is stepping down after six months on the job. One of the people said he’s joining the VA in a high-level role advising the head of the department, Robert Wilkie.

Mashburn, a Veteran of conservative policy circles, served as the policy director of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. He then worked on Trump’s presidential transition team and subsequently became deputy cabinet secretary when Trump ascended to the White House.

The staff shuffle comes as the VA is recovering from a tumultuous year. Trump fired the former VA secretary, David Shulkin, after he clashed with White House officials over policy issues and faced criticism for allegedly wasting taxpayer money during a trip to Europe.

Mashburn became embroiled in the Russia scandal when The New York Times reported in May that he told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he believed he had received an email in 2016 from George Papadopoulos, telling the Trump campaign that the Russians had damaging information about Hillary Clinton.

Mashburn did not respond to a request for comment. After this story was published, VA press secretary Curt Cashour confirmed that Mashburn has joined the VA as a senior senior adviser to the secretary.

“John is a policy expert whose deep Capitol Hill, White House and private sector experience will prove invaluable as we work to build on the unprecedented progress at VA under President Trump,” Cashour said, adding that Masburn started Oct. 15.


Low rating force changes at Atlanta VA

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Low rating Atlanta VAMC


ATLANTA - Huge developments in the leadership at Atlanta VA Health Care System. The Department of Veterans Affairs announced temporary changes to the top brass in Atlanta after receiving low ratings.

“As Secretary Wilkie has said, Veterans deserve the best healthcare possible, and the steps we are taking today are designed to ensure that’s exactly what the Atlanta VAMC is providing,” Veterans Integrated Service Network 7 Director Leslie Wiggins was quoted as saying in a release sent to FOX 5 News.

The VA launched an investigation following the drop in ratings. It will be conducted by the department’s Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection and the Veterans Health Administration’s Office of the Medical Inspector.

“To be clear, this is not an indication of misconduct on the part of any Atlanta VAMC employee. Rather, we are making these changes out of an abundance of caution so that Veterans can have the utmost confidence in the facility’s commitment to quality of care,” Wiggins was quoted as saying.

The changed include the following moves:

  • Chief of Staff David Bower has decided to retire, and Dr. Ashley Slappy will serve as acting chief of staff
  • Deputy Chief of Staff Sanjay Ponkshe will be detailed to a staff position in primary care
  • Emergency Department Chief Robert Forster will be detailed to a staff position in Tele-Urgent Care, and Dr. Melissa Stevens will serve as acting emergency department chief
  • Clinical Access Services Chief Lee Singleton will be detailed to the Veteran Experience Office and Ms.Tammy Robinson will serve as acting clinical access services chief
  • Primary Care Chief Raman Damineni voluntarily stepped down to a primary care staff position, and Dr. Cedrella Jones-Taylor will serve as acting primary care chief

“Upon the conclusion of the OAWP and OMI investigations, which are expected to take approximately 30 days, we will reevaluate the Atlanta VAMC’s leadership needs,” Wiggins said.


Wyden cheers VA moves to stop 'pension poachers'

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WASHINGTON - Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., applauded Wednesday the Department of Veterans Affairs for making changes he has long advocated to better protect aging Veterans from financial scammers known as “pension poachers.”

Wyden said the reforms will help stop scammers who pose as “advisors” and profit by selling unsuspecting Veterans financial products they don’t need and pushing them to apply for benefits for which they would not normally qualify.

These poachers convince elderly Veterans to sell their homes, transfer assets, and pay exorbitant fees. In some cases, the VA does not approve Veterans for the benefit after they have locked assets away in difficult-to-tap financial products.

In addition, the financial maneuvering can often affect a senior’s ability to qualify for Medicaid benefits and other government assistance programs.

The new regulations go into effect on Thursday and will help ensure the pension “Aid and Attendance” benefit — designed to help elderly Veterans and/or their spouses who cannot afford essential services on their own — is no longer exploited by unscrupulous financial planners who profit from selling inappropriate financial instruments to Veterans and make sure that only applicants in need receive the benefit, the lawmaker said in a news release.

“These changes are long overdue but a welcome step forward in the fight to protect our Veterans from greedy scammers. Now, my work continues to ensure the VA implements this rule in a way that cracks down on poachers,” Wyden said. “It is imperative that Veterans who need this benefit have access. Because this new regulation includes additional restrictions that I did not propose, I will also work to make sure these limits don’t hurt those Veterans.”

Wyden introduced legislation to strengthen the program and protect Veterans after working with the Government Accountability Office to shed light on the issue. During the 2012 undercover investigation, GAO identified more than 200 organizations across the country that market financial and estate planning services to help potential pension claimants, who should not have been eligible, qualify for pension benefits.

The VA rule going into effect includes a provision from Wyden’s legislation that requires a three-year look back at an applicant’s financial history when they apply for the pension.

The GAO investigation also revealed that some of these organizations were overcharging Veterans for services — up to $10,000 — or profiting by selling potentially harmful financial products such as trusts or deferred annuities. Trusts can severely limit access to savings and deferred annuities may leave seniors without access to all their funds within their expected lifetime without facing high withdrawal fees.


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