20 February, 2019 06:07

Good morning Legionnaires and veterans advocates, today is Wednesday, February 20, 2019 which is Clean Out Your Bookcase Day, Love Your Pet Day, National Handcuff Day and National Cherry Pie Day.

This Day in History:

  • 1725: In the American colonies, a posse of New Hampshire volunteers comes across a band of encamped Native Americans and takes 10 “scalps” in the first significant appropriation of this Native American practice by European colonists. The posse received a bounty of 100 pounds per scalp from the colonial authorities in Boston.
  • 1962: From Cape Canaveral, Florida, John Hershel Glenn Jr. is successfully launched into space aboard the Friendship 7 spacecraft on the first orbital flight by an American astronaut. Glenn, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps, was among the seven men chosen by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1959 to become America’s first astronauts. A decorated pilot, he flew nearly 150 combat missions during World War II and the Korean War. In 1957, he made the first nonstop supersonic flight across the United States, flying from Los Angeles to New York in three hours and 23 minutes.
  • 1997: An episode of the hit TV sitcom “Seinfeld” titled “The Pothole” airs for the first time on this day in 1997; it includes a story line in which the character Kramer adopts a stretch of the fictional Arthur Burghardt Expressway through the real-life Adopt-a-Highway program.
  • 1919: Habibullah Khan, the leader of Afghanistan who struggled to keep his country neutral in World War I in the face of strong internal support for Turkey and the Central Powers, is shot and killed while on a hunting trip on this day in 1919.


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Military Times: VA’s new appeal process promises to be quicker. But will it be better?
By: Leo Shane III14 hours ago
WASHINGTON — A friend called Army veteran Ryan Gallucci last year, worried just before a scheduled court date to appeal a Department of Veterans Affairs decision to deny him part of hisdisability payouts.
“He told me he couldn’t remember what he had appealed, because the process had taken so long,” said Gallucci, deputy director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ benefits programs. “In a lot of these cases, we’re seeing cases returned because they need updated medical exams, because the process has taken so long those records are outdated.
“At least now, things should move quicker.”
As of today, VA officials have officially switched their benefits appeals process to a new system that promises more clarity and quicker decisions for the 1-million-plus cases handled by the department annually.
VA leaders are touting the move as another expansion of “choice” for veterans in the department’s systems and a radical rethinking of how benefits cases are handled. VA Secretary Robert Wilkie called the move part of “the greatest transformation event in the history of the department” at a launch event on Tuesday.
But how much the changes resonate with the veterans community and the general public remains to be seen.
Those who have applied for disability payouts know that small changes in ratings can mean significant increases in income.
Veterans with a 70 percent disability rating can receive as little as half of the benefits as those with a full 100 percent rating, a gap of more than $20,000 over the course of a single year.
That makes the appeals process — where veterans can argue that the department awarded them too low a rating — a critical component of the benefits system, one that has faced increasing strain in recent years.
At their core, the new changes shorten the wait for appeals decisions and simplify the process, which could help with eventually getting rid of a backlog of cases in the system numbering above 400,000.
Veterans can choose one of three options for their appeals — a supplemental claim (introducing evidence left out of the initial decision), a review by a senior official (“calling the manager to complain,” as one advocate called it), and a direct line to the Board of Veterans Appeals, where a panel of judges will rule on the case.
The first two options carry with them a goal of 125 days from start to finish. The appeal to the judges has a target of a year. But officials are promising that all three will be significantly speedier than the legacy system, where veterans face a typical wait of somewhere between three and seven years.
More than 600 new staffers have been added to work on the backlog and help shuffle through new cases quicker. Board of Veterans Appeals Chairwoman Cheryl Mason called it “the biggest change to the appeals process in decades.”
What officials are not promising is that the success rate of those appeals will increase.
That means that even with the sweeping overhaul, tens of thousands of veterans will still leave the appeals process with lower payouts than they hoped. VA officials and advocates are banking that better customer service will end up making rejections less painful.
“Veterans are hoping for a favorable decision, but they also want to see it fast,” said Greg Nembhard, deputy director of claims services for The American Legion. “If they have to wait years for a decision, they can forget they even have a case on appeals.
“We think these changes are going to mean higher levels of satisfaction, even if it results in a denial.”
David McLenachen, director of VA’s Appeals Management Office, said for the last three years department officials have been working closely with groups like VFW and the American Legion to make sure the new process is easier for veterans to navigate.
In the past, Gallucci said, even starting an appeal could mean filing an initial letter of intent, waiting on a VA response, filing a response to that response, waiting on more VA documentation and then formally launching the process.
“It was like some bureaucracy out of Futurama,” he said.
Now, veterans will be able to start more directly. In the past, appellants could introduce new medical evidence and paperwork at almost any part of the process, resetting the entire case. Now those options are limited, in an effort to simplify evaluations.
If veterans are unhappy with a decision, they can go back and try again (with a clearer understanding of what they have to prove, McLenachen points out.) Some veterans may opt for multiple appeals, still spending years in the system. Others may better understand why their appeals will not ever win and drop out.
But McLenachen said regardless, everyone will have faster decisions and a clearer understanding of what the flaws in their cases are. He is hopeful that the backlog of about 265,000 non-board appeals cases can be brought down near zero over the next two years.
Outside groups are optimistic too, though they warn that both sides will have to carefully monitor the new process to ensure that mistakes aren’t creeping in.
Rene Bardorf, senior vice president of government and community relations for Wounded Warrior Project, called the changes “a major step in the right direction to ensure our veterans receive the benefits they have earned,” but she said her organization will be monitoring for unexpected problems.
Nembhard said officials at the Legion are unsure whether faster decisions will mean a greater workload for his benefits advisors or a simpler process (though he is more confident that veterans will be happier with the quicker rulings).
Gallucci said veterans may not be able to see the differences immediately, but the next few years should see significant changes in how the overall process is viewed.
“What’s more frustrating, waiting five years to be denied or moving along quicker?” he said. “I think most veterans will at least understand what is happening (with their cases) now. And that does mean happier customers.”
More information on the process is available at VA’s web site.

Stripes: VA launches new benefits appeals process, promising faster decisions
By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPESPublished: February 19, 2019
WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs launched a new system Tuesday that promises faster decisions for veterans who are trying to obtain VA disability compensation and other benefits – a process that historically has taken years to navigate.
With a short ceremony at VA headquarters in Washington, the agency finalized the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act. The law, approved by Congress in 2017, created multiple avenues for veterans who want to contest their claims for benefits.
Under the old system, veterans waited an average of three to seven years to reconcile their appeals. The new one could get final decisions to veterans in as little as 125 days, VA officials vowed.
“We are making VA a 21st century health care administration, and now, today, we have the fulfillment of Appeals Modernization Act on time for you, for veterans,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said at the launch event.
Wilkie called the moment “historic,” and Cheryl Mason, chairman of the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, said the new process was “the biggest change to appeals in for decades.”
The new process gives veterans three options for appealing a decision on their claim:

  • Submit extra evidence for another review.
  • Receive a review from a higher-level adjudicator without submitting extra evidence.
  • Go directly to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals for a full hearing.

David McLenachen, director of the VA’s appeals management office, said the VA will track the amount of time it takes veterans to get through each option. The agency will make that information public to help veterans decide which route to take, he said.
If veterans disagree with their decisions from one path, they have one year to select another avenue and appeal again.
Though the law changes how veterans appeal, it doesn’t change the system the VA uses to determine whether veterans are eligible for benefits.
“Our employees are not changing the way they determine whether they’re entitled to disability compensation,” McLenachen said. “What is changing is the process of how you get a review of that decision.”
With the new process, VA officials have the goal of cutting down the backlog of appeals, which stands at 402,000 cases. In 2013, the number of backlogged claims hit a peak of 611,000.
The agency hired 605 new employees in the past four months to help with claims.
The Appeals Modernization Act requires the VA to submit quarterly reports to Congress about the new process for the next seven years.
“This law is a great example of what is possible when we put partisanship aside and work together toward a shared goal,” said Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., who introduced the Appeals Modernization Act. “I’ll continue to perform my oversight role in Congress to ensure that the VA serves our veterans and implements this law effectively.”
Lawmakers are also overseeing the implementation of several other major changes at the VA.
Last year, the VA missed a deadline to implement part of the Forever GI Bill – an expansion of veterans’ education benefits Congress approved in 2017. When the agency went to make the necessary changes, they faced critical information technology errors that resulted in thousands of veterans receiving late payments. The total cost of the failures to veterans and taxpayers is not yet known.
Congress is also overseeing a multibillion-dollar project to overhaul the VA’s electronic health record, as well as a sweeping change to how the agency uses private doctors. The VA Mission Act, which aims to expand veterans’ care into the private sector, is scheduled to take effect in June. Lawmakers have recently criticized the VA for its lack of transparency about the measure.
Twitter: @nikkiwentling

WaPo: Trump approves plan to create Space Force but puts it under Air Force control, as Pentagon officials wanted

By Dan Lamothe
February 19 at 3:17 PM
President Trump signed a policy directive Tuesday that laid out a framework for the Space Force he has long sought, but the plan falls short of his initial vision for a new service that is “separate but equal” to the Air Force.
In the document, the president directed the Pentagon to create legislation for Congress that would place the Space Force under the control of the Air Force Department, in a fashion similar to how the Navy Department oversees the Marine Corps. It marks a partial win for senior Air Force officials, who had argued that creating a separate military department — as Trump had stated he wanted — would create unnecessary Pentagon bureaucracy.
Trump signed the directive Tuesday afternoon in the Oval Office while flanked by senior defense officials that included acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The president said he was “thrilled” to do so, and believes it is just the beginning of an important process.
“Our adversaries … whether we get along with them or not, they’re up in space,” Trump said. “And they’re doing it, and we’re doing it. And that’s going to be a very big part of where the defense of our nation — and you could say ‘offense,’ but let’s just be nice about it and let’s say the defense of our nation — is going to be.”
The plan, which requires congressional approval, could mark the first time the U.S. government has established a new military branch since the National Security Act of 1947 created the Air Force in the wake of World War II. The administration could press for a full Space Force Department in the future, but it is unclear whether or when that would happen.
The move appears to mark a rhetorical and political compromise: While the Trump administration will continue to call the new service the Space Force, it will more closely resemble a previous proposal on Capitol Hill for a smaller Space Corps that does not have a new, separate service secretary appointed by the president. Like the Marine Corps, it will be led by a four-star general who takes a new seat among the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Pentagon’s top officers.
A Pentagon spokesman, Charles E. Summers Jr., said that in coming weeks the Defense Department will submit a legislative proposal to Congress that authorizes the establishment of the Space Force as the sixth branch of the U.S. military.
“The United States considers freedom to operate in space a vital national interest, one that is fundamental to our prosperity and security,” Summers said. “With Space Policy Directive-4, President Trump is posturing the United States to compete, deter and win in a complex multi-domain environment characterized by great power competition.”
Gen. David L. Goldfein, chief of staff of the Air Force, said Tuesday morning that U.S. officials examined options ranging from the creation of a full space department that would have had its own service secretary to something akin to the Medical Corps, a part of the U.S. Army comprising medical professionals in uniform.
“We wanted a robust debate, as you would imagine, on where was the right place to land that aligns with the president’s direction, and what’s going to roll out today is a service within the Department of the Air Force,” Goldfein said during a public appearance at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Shanahan was expected to sign a memo directing Wilson to establish a team to finalize details of the Pentagon’s space plan, Defense One reported last week, citing a draft memo. The Pentagon also will create a Space Force undersecretary who reports to Wilson and a four-star vice chief of staff who reports to the Space Force service chief, the report said.

Trump created a new position, chief of U.S. Space Command, in December. The four-star officer will oversee the U.S. military’s operations in space, which are currently focused on communications, surveillance and defending U.S. satellites from threats posed both by the elements and by adversaries such as Russia and China.
Goldfein said Tuesday that he sees the creation of the head of Space Command as the most important step. It will allow the services to prepare troops for the Space Command chief to use, he said, similar to how the services prepare troops to be deployed under the control of U.S. Special Operations Command.
“I think the fact that we’re having a national debate on space is really healthy. Really healthy,” Goldfein said. " . . . We’re the best in the world at space, and our adversaries know it, and they’ve been studying us and investing in ways to take away that capability in crisis or conflict. That, to me, is the problem statement, and we as a nation cannot let that happen.”

Stripes: Pentagon debt collection needs overhaul, says GAO
By JENNIFER H. SVAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 19, 2019

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — A congressional watchdog has criticized the Defense Department’s debt collection procedures, saying it needs to do a better job of informing servicemembers of their rights when told they owe the government money — often through no fault of their own.

The Government Accountability Office found problems in a review of dozens of debt notification letters sent to military personnel, according to a report published last week.
Letters did not explain servicemembers’ right to a review and written decision on the matter, or their right to inspect and copy records related to the debt, among other issues, the report said. Often, the military services’ policies and procedures involving debt collection were not current, complete or clear, and were inconsistently applied, the GAO stated.

As a result, servicemembers “may not have been properly notified of their debt, their rights to dispute it, or the potential consequences of inaction, such as involuntary payroll deduction,” the report says.

Last year, Congress tasked the GAO to study the Pentagon’s process for recouping overpayments made to military personnel. The direction came after the Pentagon decided to waive more than $190 million in disputed enlistment bonuses and other payments for California National Guard members.

About 17,500 soldiers were faced with paying back hefty bonuses given to them in error between 2004 and 2010 by recruiters under pressure to meet enlistment goals during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

The Pentagon said at the time it would review its process for collecting erroneous payments, after it was criticized for using tax liens, wage garnishments and other aggressive tactics to try and get the money back.

The GAO didn’t review the California Guard incident, but noted the Pentagon’s acknowledgement that trying to collect overpayments has placed an undue burden on servicemembers and their families, including financial hardship, garnishment of wages and damage to credit scores.

For its audit, GAO examined 49 debt notification letters sent by the department’s various collection offices to military personnel between January 2016 and May 2018. It found that 45 of the letters were missing key information required by DOD’s own debt collection regulations.

More than 40 letters did not include a statement that repayments would be promptly refunded if later waived or found not to be owed; others did not inform the servicemember of the right to inspect and copy DOD records related to the debt or include a statement regarding the right to request a debt remission. Some letters did not advise servicemembers that pay would be deducted if repayment was not received within 30 days, according to the report.

GAO recommended several revisions to the Pentagon’s debt collection process, such as updating debt notification letter templates to include all required information and ensuring DOD regulations and websites clearly state whether and when collection should be suspended during the review process for servicemembers who dispute their debt.

The Pentagon agreed with all recommendations.


Military.com: Program at VA Ceremony Featured Gender-Neutral Version of Lincoln Quote
19 Feb 2019
Military.com | By Patricia Kime
Despite a gender-neutral version of the Department of Veterans Affairs‘ mission statement popping up Tuesday on programs for a ceremony heralding the VA’s new appeals modernization system, the department isn’t officially changing its motto.
The statement on the program, "To care for those ‘who shall have borne the battle’ and for their families and survivors," is a variation on the department’s official version: "To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan," uttered by Abraham Lincoln during his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865.
But a VA spokeswoman said Tuesday that the language in the program, which was captured in a Twitter photo by Stars and Stripes, was "incorrect."
"VA’s policy on the use of Lincoln’s direct quote as our mission statement remains unchanged," spokeswoman Susan Carter said, forwarding a statement made July 23 by Acting Chief of Staff Jacquelyn Hayes-Byrd.
The statement notes that the VA interprets the use of "him" as assuming "gender neutrality in this historical usage and context."
"This mission statement is effective department-wide. Administrations and staff offices may not paraphrase it or alter it on official VA documents or in external or internal presentations," Hayes-Byrd wrote.
In October, the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School, supported by several veterans organizations, including the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), the Service Women’s Action Network and the NYC Veterans Alliance, petitioned the VA to change the motto to encompass all department beneficiaries.
During the last Congress, two New York Democrats, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Kathleen Rice, introduced legislation to change the motto to read "To fulfill President Lincoln’s promise to care for those ‘who shall have borne the battle’ and for their families, caregivers and survivors.’" The bills had the support of 11 other lawmakers but never made it out of committee.
VA officials have said they are reviewing the issue, but no change has officially been made.
Last year, Kayla Williams, director of the VA Center for Women Veterans, told Fox News that the VA had gradually been introducing the gender-neutral version.
An annual survey of IAVA members released in early February showed that most respondents favored the change or had no opinion on it. Of the 4,600 members polled, 46 percent "strongly" or "somewhat" supported the change, while "30 percent "strongly" or "somewhat" opposed it. Another 24 percent were neutral.
The program was distributed at a ceremony marking the debut of the VA’s new appeals modernization system, a major update to the department’s process for reviewing all appeals for claims and program application denials.
Calling the new system "better for our veterans," David McLenachen, director of the VA’s appeals management office, said it will fix a broken process.
"Starting today, every person who receives a decision on a VA benefit claim, regardless as to whether that was made in one of [the Veterans Benefits Administration’s] six benefit business lines, or in programs administered by the Veterans Health Administration or the National Cemetery Administration, will have a new decision-review process that is timely and transparent," he said. "It’s truly a historic event for millions of veterans, family members and survivors who receive these decisions each year."
McLenachen thanked VA Secretary Robert Wilkie and his predecessors, especially former acting Secretary Sloan Gibson, who initiated the modernization.
Wilkie said appeals modernization is the direct result of collaboration between the VA, veterans service organizations and Congress "to deliver on veterans’ long-standing desire for reform of the legacy appeals system."
"Beginning today, veterans will have greater choice in how VA reviews their disagreement with a VA claims decision and enjoy timely resolutions of disagreements through a streamlined process," he said.
For more information on how the new appeals process will work, see VA to Rollout Appeals Modernization Process. All claims filed under the old system will remain in the legacy review process.