The lead sponsor of the Fair Mental Health Evaluation for Returning Veterans Act, freshman Rep. Phil Hare (D-Ill.), praised the inclusion of Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) language limiting “personality disorder” discharges in the Defense Authorization Act conference report. By the time you read this, this bill is expected to have been signed into law.
“Thousands of psychologically wounded combat veterans are being denied benefits through a process that is downright scandalous,” Hare charged.
More than 22,000 servicemen and women from all branches of the military, although most notably the Army, have been discharged with so-called personality disorders since 2001. It seems obvious that this is yet another way to screw veterans: Declare that they are afflicted with a pre-existing personality disorder, bribe them with a few thousand dollars, and muster them out of the service. It’s only later that these veterans realize that they’ve made a pact with the devil.
What the DoD has never bothered to explain is this: If all these men and women have pre-existing personality disorders, why were they permitted to enlist in the first place? Or, if these pre-existing conditions only become apparent during their military service, let them be discharged before they have 180 days of active service.
The military’s actions make these veterans ineligible to receive service-connected treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and other health claims despite their combat service records. In addition, as Hare pointed out, many are required to pay back their re-enlistment bonuses, with interest, to the federal government.
Is this any way to treat our troops?
“When it comes to supporting the troops,” Hare said, “the Pentagon should not balance its budget on the backs of the men and women we put in harm’s way.”
Obama’s language would require the Secretary of Defense to report to the congressional defense committees by April on all cases of personality disorder discharges of servicemen and women who served in Iraq or Afghanistan since October 2001. Additionally, the provision would prohibit such discharges until such time as the Secretary submits that report, unless a clinical review is first conducted in the Office of the Surgeon General of the military department concerned.
Hare’s bill, H.R. 3167, would place a temporary moratorium on personality disorder discharges until a comprehensive review of DoD mental health policies is conducted by an independent review board.
“We need to put a stop to this until some entity independent of the Bush administration can justify the merits of these discharges,” Hare said.
PILOTING THE FRIENDLY SKIES
In what for too long was a Kafkaesque standoff, American pilots were not permitted to fly aircraft for American carriers once they hit age 60. This rule came as a shock to long-time pilots, many of whom are veterans of the Vietnam War. Since the rule went into effect, according to our information, at least two thousand pilots have lost their jobs—and some have taken their lives.
After a lot of behind-the-scenes maneuvering, Congress and the President came to the rescue, although they didn’t rescue all pilots. On December 11, the House passed H.R. 4343, the nicely named Fair Treatment for Experienced Pilots Act. The next day, the Senate cleared the bill for the White House. And on December 14, President Bush signed the bill into law.
There is one problem—one very significant problem—with this law: It is not retroactive. This means that, according to our information, more than two thousand pilots who turned age 60 between November 2006 and December 14, 2007, are left out in the cold. The majority of them are Vietnam veterans. They can go to work for other airlines, but they lose seniority. With seniority, a pilot gets more pay, better routes, and larger, more modern aircraft. In some cases, pensions would be jeopardized if pilots returned to work.
Politics may be the art of compromise, but the compromise that had to be agreed to in order to pass a much-needed bill singles out those pilots who had the unfortunate luck to be born between November 1946 and December 14, 1947, and punishes them for daring to question the administration and Rep. James Oberstar (D-Wisc.). We intend to work with our friends in Congress to right this wrong.
OMB’S SUDDEN CONCERN FOR VETERANS
According to the Washington Post, the federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in November advised federal agencies to discontinue the “Outstanding Scholar Program” and “the Bilingual/Bicultural Program,” two “programs created decades ago to replace a Civil Service exam that was deemed biased against minorities.”
The Post noted that the programs “lost out in a legal clash over the government’s obligation to show a preference to military veterans when filling jobs.” As a “general practice, veterans are supposed to have an edge for federal jobs if they meet the minimum qualifications for a position. But the two special hiring programs do not evaluate and rate applicants in ways that take the veterans’ preference into account, officials said.”
In 2005, two veterans, David Dean and Matthew S. Olson, filed suits contending they were wrongfully passed over for jobs and non-veterans were hired instead through the Outstanding Scholar program. They won the suit, hence OMB’s action.
VVA notes that the very best readjustment program for returning veterans is a decent job. So why is this administration, and all of the heads of federal agencies, not strictly enforcing veterans’ preference, and pushing managers and human resource staff to use the special hiring authority for veterans rated by the VA at 30 percent disabled or higher? Moreover, why is Congress not strengthening veterans’ preference laws and requiring veterans’ preference in the Senior Executive Service, from which veterans are consistently excluded?
And why is the OMB not getting its own house in order by hiring more veterans? Currently, out of 978 employees, there are fewer that ten veterans working for OMB, and not one disabled veteran. Can anyone believe such a record of exclusion just happened?
Clearly OMB is not enforcing veterans’ preference in its own hiring and has not for a very long time—over several presidential administrations. It is clear that such a sorry record could only be a deliberate pattern and practice to exclude veterans, if not outright discrimination against veterans, particularly disabled veterans.
It is time to get the federal and congressional houses in order when it comes to hiring veterans, especially disabled veterans.
Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), chair of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, offered both praise and reasoned caution about some of the recommendations of the Dole-Shalala commission on veterans’ disabilities and the need for prompt action on its recommendations.
“Most of the suggestions are worthy and, indeed, much work is underway on some of the points. There are, however, some conclusions about which I have serious concerns,” the Senator wrote. For the most part, these suggestions focus on fostering collaboration between the VA and DoD to meet the needs of service-disabled veterans.
“The commission recommended a restructuring of the Defense Department and VA disability systems. This recommendation has two key components that would fundamentally alter the manner in which the Pentagon and the VA administer those systems,” Akaka wrote.
“The first component—merging the departments’ existing systems—has strong appeal. If enough obstacles can be overcome, it is possible that, for some subset of those leaving the military it may prove feasible to have the two systems function collaboratively, with one physical exam and one disability rating for those who leave the service for medical reasons.” Indeed, as of early December, the VA was conducting these exams.
However, Akaka contends, “the second component, that the VA’s compensation system should be fundamentally restructured, is far more problematic. The legislation that the White House drafted to carry out this recommendation would have Congress cede responsibility for the proposed retooling of the VA’s compensation system to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, and it would require the secretary to accomplish this monumental task in just a few months.”
Akaka contrasted this recommendation with the findings of the congressionally mandated Veterans’ Disability Benefits Commission. Over its two-and-one-half-year existence, the VDBC focused exclusively on the complex and often inefficient disability structure that applies to all servicemembers and veterans in what was “the most extensive overview of the benefits provided to this nation’s disabled veterans in more than half a century.”
The Veterans’ Disability Benefits Commission, in its report issued October 3, made 113 recommendations designed to improve and update the VA’s disability compensation program. These recommendations address the appropriateness and purpose of benefits, benefit levels and payment rates, and the processes used to determine eligibility.
Many significant proposals among the VDBC’s 113 recommendations designed to improve and update the VA’s disability compensation program were not contemplated by the Dole-Shalala commission and warrant review before any action is taken on the Dole-Shalala recommendations relating to the overall disability benefits system.
“I do not believe,” the junior senator from Hawaii said, “that the timeline in the President’s legislation is remotely realistic.”
He voiced concern that the Dole-Shalala recommendations “would apply only to those who entered service during the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and would exclude veterans from earlier generations. Some have suggested that this recommendation would pit veterans of these recent conflicts against those from different eras. Such an outcome would be unacceptable. This nation must never forget the sacrifices made by those who served on the beaches of Normandy, at the Chosin Reservoir, in the jungles of Vietnam, and on the sands of Kuwait. Congress should focus on creating a system that is equitable for all of our veterans—young and old.”
VA TAKES ACTION
What sparked Sen. Akaka’s tentativeness over Dole-Shalala? The VA. This department, which is hardly famous for quick decision-making, seemingly rushed to judgment on Dole-Shalala, and moved quickly to solicit outside bids to be able to award one contract to conduct two “important technical studies” that will help decisions to be made regarding the updating of the whole military disability system.
One of the studies will focus on the creation of a schedule for rating disabilities based on current concepts of medicine and disability, taking into account loss of quality of life and loss of earnings resulting from specific injuries or combination of injuries.
The study will make recommendations concerning:
The appropriate injuries or combination of injuries to include in the schedule
The appropriate level of compensation for loss of quality of life
The appropriate standard or standards for determining whether an injury or combination of injuries has caused a loss in a veteran’s quality of life
The appropriate level of compensation for loss of earnings
The appropriate standard or standards for determining whether an injury or combination of injuries has caused a veteran loss of earnings.
The second study will attempt to determine the appropriate level and duration of transition payments that should be paid to all eligible veterans who are participating in a rehabilitation program.
Meanwhile, both the VA and DoD now have what officials describe as a “landmark agreement” to conduct a pilot study of a single physical examination to be used by both departments. For DoD, the exam would be used to determine the medical fitness of an injured troop, and for VA it would determine the level of compensation. Given the poor track record of the medical boards in recent years, particularly in the Army, VVA will take a wait and see posture on this pilot until they can show results that are fair and equitable to separating service personnel.
EXTRAVAGANT CARE FOR EX-DoD HONCHO
Mark Benjamin is a reporter who a few years ago broke several stories about sordid conditions troops faced waiting to be deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq. Writing for the online newsmagazine, Salon on December 4, he noted how a former Pentagon official in the Bush administration helped win an $800 million DoD contract for his healthcare firm.
“In April 2007, William Winkenwerder, Jr., retired from his position as assistant secretary for health affairs at the Department of Defense, where he had been in charge of all military health care” Benjamin wrote. “On June 1, he went to work for a Wisconsin-based private contractor named Logistics Health, Inc., which hired him to serve on its board of directors and ‘advise and counsel LHI on business development,’ according to a company press release. It was a hire that seems to have paid quick dividends.
“On June 13, 2007, the Department of Defense began accepting bids for a contract to give soldiers medical and dental exams before they head off to war. Logistics Health was among the companies bidding on the contract, which was worth hundreds of millions of dollars over four years.”
Before he left DOD, in addition to running military healthcare, Winkenwerder also had been in charge of the office that wrote the contract. Even though it was not low bidder—at least one other company bid $100 million less, Benjamin discovered—Logistics Health won the contract.
As Benjamin continued: “The contract has been ‘stayed,’ or put on hold, while the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, evaluates those complaints.
“Military healthcare,” Benjamin concluded, “is a lucrative wartime bazaar for private contractors that is largely free of oversight—and of Halliburton or Blackwater-size headlines.”
Winkenwerder never will be revered as one of the bright boys. When the Washington Post earlier this year broke the scandal at Walter Reed, Winkenwerder went on record as being “completely” surprised. Because he was responsible for military healthcare, the buck should have stopped at his desk.
It is worth noting that in the weeks leading up to the invasion of Iraq, VVA and a representative of the organization that has become Veterans of Modern Warfare met with then Assistant Secretary of Defense Winkenwerder to urge DoD to require a much more complete pre-deployment and post-deployment physical that included a clinical encounter with a mental health professional, and taking and preserving blood serum, blood platelets, and tissue samples.
We also urged Winkenwerder to prepare a way in which war veterans could seek assistance for acute stress problems and post-traumatic stress disorder upon their return that would not effectively end their military career. He refused on both counts, as he said such exams and lifting the stigma for PTSD would not be “appropriate” and would not be contemplated or considered at that time. Apparently Winkenwerder has reconsidered his earlier stands on these issues, as evidenced by his current employer seeking these contracts.
One has to wonder: Why do people who are both incompetent and obtuse manage to get promotions and bonuses while the real troops—grunts and corpsmen and nurses—toil for little recognition or pay while living every day with the fear of maiming and death?
Benjamin also noted that while Logistics Health put together its bid, “it partnered with other firms, including QTC Management, Inc., another contractor that is the largest private provider of government-outsourced disability examination services in the country.
“The company has raked in hundreds of millions through contracts with the VA. Anthony Principi, the former secretary of the VA, is chairman of the board.” The newly installed VA Secretary, Gen. James Peake, had been QTC’s chief operating officer when he received the President’s nod.
But just days before the contract was awarded, Benjamin learned, QTC “suddenly withdrew from the Logistics bid and pulled the plug on merger talks, both for reasons unknown. QTC, Principi told Benjamin, “decided not to have anything to do with LHI.”
Other contractors, Benjamin reported, “were flabbergasted that Logistics Health was still awarded that $800 million contract.”
In fairness, it should be noted that Winkenwerder was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying that he had nothing to do with the procurement process, had not talked to Logistics Health about working there until after he left the government in April, and had not lobbied the government for the contract after leaving the Pentagon.
$3.7 BILLION MORE
By the time you read this, the VA budget for the fiscal year that began last October 1 should be signed into law. Even though the government is operating yet again on a continuing resolution, all parties have agreed to add $3.7 billion to the VA’s healthcare coffers.
Just as we have fought to get this money for veterans’ health care, we will now, yet again, attempt to work even more closely with Congress to monitor the VA to try and insure that these funds are spent for the purposes for which they are intended.