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Homeless Vets and Corruption, Part 3

Circuits VietnamA couple of weeks ago, House the Homeless blog talked about how the Veterans Administration (VA) arrived at an impasse where it could not even pretend to keep up with compensation claims. Documents were shredded, and requests for help ignored, resulting in immeasurable harm to veterans who are sick, disabled, unemployable, suicidal, potentially homeless, or actually on the streets.

How bad did the scandal get? In Texas, whose ruling politicians are traditionally loath to part with a dollar, the state even kicked in a few bucks to help the federal agency fund its payroll and get some claims processed.

The VA had its excuses, of course. Despite the fact that bosses collected bonuses (another scandal), the overall sluggish economy did not allow for the hiring of staff. Furthermore, the agency claimed that the problem could be traced to one of its very own accomplishments. Veterans were hearing about and applying for the available services in greater numbers, and the reason for this was that outreach programs had become so much more effective. The VA was doing its job too well!

Nice try, boys

Meanwhile, Agent Orange disability claims were mounting up, and the most egregious excuse of all was that the Veterans’ Administration didn’t see it coming. Really? Back in 1962, when the U.S. started dumping more than a dozen toxic defoliants onto Vietnam, the effects on human health were not a mystery. High school kids, if they knew which magazines to subscribe to, could read about what the herbicides used in that war would do to humans, including the troops on the ground in Southeast Asia. And the all-knowing military hierarchy didn’t know? That calls for a sarcastic eye-roll.

Stateside, Agent Orange had for some reason also been used extensively in Oregon, and in the ’70s a lot of dead babies were born there. That it caused liver damage and at least a couple of kinds of cancer was already known, and the Environmental Protection Agency banned the chemical for use in the United States. This information comes from a very thorough uncredited piece published by The U.S. Veteran Dispatch.

It doesn’t stop there. In 1979, Vietnam veteran Rep. Tom Daschle caused the National Veterans Task Force on Agent Orange to be created. Its mandate was to commission an extensive study of veterans who had been exposed. The writer says:

Over the next four years, the VA examined an estimated 200,000 veterans for medical problems they claimed stemmed from Agent Orange and other herbicides used in Vietnam. But many of those examined were dissatisfied with their examinations. They claimed the exams were done poorly and often in haste by unqualified medical personnel. Many veterans also claimed that the VA seemed to have a mind set to ignore or debunk Agent Orange connected [to] disability complaints.

The Centers for Disease Control spent $43 million trying to figure out what was going on, and screwed it up royally (according to the Institute of Medicine) by adopting a research method that excluded those veterans most likely to have been in contact with Agent Orange. A spokesperson for the Institute could imagine only two options — the study was either “monumentally bungled” or “politically rigged.”

Cassandra Anderson, writing for Infowars.com, came out in favor of “politically rigged,” alleging a cover-up in which the Environmental Protection Agency is also involved:

US courts have protected Monsanto and Dow Chemical from liability and criminal prosecution… President Reagans’s administration, in cahoots with the CDC, thwarted a $43 million Congressional Study of Agent Orange in 1987 to protect itself and its corporate pals Monsanto & Dow from accountability…

According to this theory, if the full truth got out it would not only bankrupt the herbicide makers, but would also negatively impact other industries including plastics, paper, and agriculture. And all the while, veterans were showing up with soft tissue sarcomas and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Since the government is pretty much untouchable, litigation must be aimed elsewhere, and vets filed a class-action lawsuit against Monsanto, Dow, and other manufacturers of Agent Orange. Apparently, they could have provided a defoliant that did the job without the horrible effects on humans, if only they had cared to take a little more time in the manufacturing process and relinquish a slight bit of profit.

Red flag disregarded

Now, check out this statement made by the assistant secretary of Health and Human Services, Dr. Edward Brandt, Jr., in the year this legal action started, 1982:

The early warning sign has gone up.

That was more than 30 years ago. Anyone who didn’t see the approaching wave of demand upon the VA system had their head someplace where heads aren’t supposed to be. The only wonder is that the deluge did not hit sooner. That lawsuit, by the way, was settled (for not nearly enough money once it was all divvied up) and the chemical manufacturers didn’t have to take any official blame. Anderson is not a fan of Judge Jack Weinstein, and believes he committed several offenses related to this lawsuit and similar ones:

Weinstein appointed attorneys to represent the veterans and then intimidated the attorneys into agreeing to a ‘nuisance’ settlement of $180 million — nowhere near enough money to cover the medical treatment of hundreds of thousands of injured vets.

In 2010, “automatic funding” of Agent Orange claims was instituted, which effectively transferred the liability to the U.S. taxpayers, who pay for the health care and hospitalization of affected veterans. Meanwhile, says Anderson:

The Veterans Administration claims they have no idea how many vets have been treated for Agent Orange injuries, or how much taxpayer money has been spent.

Reactions?

Source: “The Story of Agent Orange,” The U.S. Veteran Dispatch, Nov. 1990
Source: “White House, US Courts and EPA shaft Veterans to protect Monsanto,” Infowars.com, 02/08/12
Image by dancingqueen27.

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To Prevent Homelessness, Alleviate Veteran PTSD

Dr. PhilHouse the Homeless blog has been looking at the various ways in which veterans are denied their rights, a terrible situation which often results in homelessness and premature death. There are the enormously long waits before a case can be considered and acted upon. As we learned, workers in the Veterans Administration system have done disgraceful actions like shredding files.

Even when troubled vets are able to access the help they were guaranteed by the government, sometimes they sabotage their own treatment by not telling the whole truth about the extent of their symptoms (because they don’t want to be branded crazy) or by refusing to take their meds, for any number of reasons. Often, people who are mentally unbalanced don’t even realize how out of balance they are. This is part of the problem.

Activists put a lot of work into raising awareness, but sometimes the best intentions lead to trouble, as popular TV personality Dr. Phil (Phil McGraw) found out last spring. He aired a program designed to remind Americans that thousands of veterans, not only from Iraq and Afghanistan, but from Desert Storm and even the seemingly forgotten Vietnam conflict, are still suffering the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder on a daily basis.

A member of the public who entered the subsequent debate talked about how family members of PTSD victims “walk on egg shells,” always afraid they might say the wrong thing to the disturbed veteran who is their loved one. Dr. Phil encountered the media version of the same problem, making the very public mistake of titling this particular episode of his show, “From Heroes to Monsters?”

Despite the presence of a question mark, implying that the matter is not decided but is indeed under discussion, the host took heavy fire, with some elements of the veteran community demanding an apology. People called the episode’s title ignorant, unjustifiable, stigmatizing, insulting, and ratings-driven. On the other hand, the old Hollywood saying, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” might apply here. The well-publicized outrage served to get even more people talking about the issue.

Columnist Torrey Shannon, the wife of a 100% PTSD-rated combat veteran, was disappointed not only by the title, but by the advice given by Dr. Phil’s guest expert, Dr. Frank Lawlis, who wrote a book called The PTSD Breakthrough. He recommends chewing gum to relieve stress, though Shannon’s own internet research suggests that gum chewing is more likely to raise the person’s blood pressure and introduce artificial sweeteners of questionable value into the system.

Dr. Lawlis also recommends blue light bulbs, strong mouthwash, and colonic cleansing, none of which might be harmful in themselves, but which Shannon finds trivializing. She has little patience with the idea of yoga breathing exercises or participation in a drum circle, and is very upset by the suggestion of an ancient traditional method of self-healing, saying:

The book continues into dangerous territory by recommending a combat veteran with PTSD go on a vision quest, much like American Indians used to do. Vision quests require spending 7 days alone with no intake but water until a symbol appears in your consciousness.

However… such unconventional methods are also recommended by people who really, really do know what they are talking about, like Karl Marlantes, author of What It Is Like to Go to War, who believes that incorporating ritual and ceremony into a veteran’s return could truly make a difference. Many therapists are extremely impressed with the results obtained when PTSD victims are given the powerful psychedelic compound known as ayahuasca.

For a website called Healing Those Who Serve, Janice Arenofsky writes:

With the rise of psychological ailments among Iraq and Afghanistan War vets, military and VA hospitals have begun to rethink how they deal with this age-old scourge of war. Here is a rundown on six new methods of handling combat-related emotional trauma.

She proceeds to discuss acupuncture, meditation, music therapy, animal therapy, Emotional Freedom Technique, and Virtual Reality Treatment, all of which have been used by professionals. So, there is a lot going on in the PTSD recovery field of which Dr. Phil’s critics might not be aware.

Although Dr. Phil changed the controversial title of the episode before it was aired again, he remained adamant about the outrage he feels about the overall situation. According to the figures he found, for every battlefield death in the recent wars, there have been about 25 veteran suicides. Dr. Phil wrote for his online readers:

Some viewers expressed concern, and even disappointment, with the show’s original title… Our intent was to acknowledge the question so often cited in the media, not to make a statement, and to emphasize the severity of the pain and suffering our guests say they experience. I really wanted you to hear firsthand the effects that PTSD can have on war heroes and their families, and I’m grateful to our guests for being so candid and honest about their experiences.

One of Dr. Phil’s fans, by the way, in the comment section of his page offered information on The Soldiers Project, which the organization’s website describes like this:

We are a group of licensed mental health professionals who offer free psychological treatment to military service members (active duty, National Guard, Reserves and veterans) and their loved ones who have served or who expect to serve in the conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Source: “Regarding Dr. Phil’s ‘From Heroes to Monsters?’ Episode. Here’s Why America is Outraged, or Should Be!,” TorreyShannon.com, 04/21/12
Source: “Treating PTSD in Non-Traditional Ways,” HealingThoseWhoServe.org, 07/22/13
Source: “Heroes in Pain,” DrPhil.com, 04/25/12
Image by Keegan.

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Homeless Veterans and Corruption, Part 2

iRaqIn “Homeless Veterans and Corruption,” House the Homeless looked at the unauthorized and improper shredding of documents pertinent to compensation cases. Also, there is the land that has been given to America’s veterans, and manipulated to benefit everyone but them.

In 2011, when the Occupy movement was making news, critics complained that they didn’t understand what Occupy stood for. Surprisingly, a major network brought at least one answer to public attention.

ABC quoted an Iraq veteran who had returned to that troubled country after serving his military hitch. Aaron Hughes, of Iraq Veterans Against the War, spoke on behalf of thousands of service members who want real change and not public relations hogwash. Hughes told the news team:

There is a massive disconnect between the larger society and U.S. service members. Right now we have high unemployment, homeless and suicide rates among veterans.

No part of that declaration is difficult to understand, and the situation has not improved since it was made. Typical of the irregularities going on at the time was a problem that overtook a nonprofit group in Charleston, S.C.

Renee Dudley reported on the legal difficulties faced by the head of a nonprofit organization, a homeless shelter for veterans in Charleston. Director Nancy Cook was paid $130,000 per year, and juicy benefits, to run the place, and tax auditors called her remuneration “unreasonable.” The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs told the press:

The audit also found that health insurance coverage for the shelter’s two paid employees […] was paid entirely by the veterans’ grants… Recently released bank statements show Cook used the account to pay for a hotel stay at Folly Beach, downtown dining and yoga lessons…

You have to wonder how many such scams go undetected, to the detriment of veterans in need. Other shady, sketchy things have been going on. Waco, TX, is a major processing hub for Veterans Administration paperwork. At one point in a vanished glorious past, Texas was processing compensation claims faster than anybody. But somehow, starting around 2007, there were five years when the backlog increased, while the head honcho, one Carl Lowe, collected $53,000 worth of bonuses before his 2011 retirement:

It’s reprehensible that they would even consider bonuses at all. It reflects what I consider a broken culture that doesn’t put the veterans first.

Those words were spoken by U.S. Representative Bill Flores, a Republican who hails from Waco. Ignoring the needs of veterans is not the only sign of a broken culture. The very concept of bonuses for government jobs is messed up. A worker who does a good job gets promoted, and gets a raise. A worker who does a lousy job stays in the same pay grade forever and makes less than the hard workers who are promoted. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to go? Isn’t that why the civil service already has a multi-leveled and finely-tuned seniority scale?

And most importantly, the taxpayers have already paid for the work to be done. The expectation exists that these government employees are going to do their best, for the citizens who are paying their salaries, and for the veterans who need their expertise in shoving paperwork through the pipeline. And because they are Americans. As government employees — just like soldiers, they are duty-bound to give it their all — just like soldiers. How did this creepy bonus idea even get started?

A wealth of bonuses

In the spring of this year, that story still had legs, partly because the Waco office processing time had increased even more drastically. Nearly 45,000 veterans’ claims waited for decisions from the Waco-based bureaucracy, each individual service member facing a wait of an average 440 days, or 150 days longer than the national average; and in case it escapes anyone’s attention, 440 days is substantially more than a year.

A piece by Jeremy Schwartz of the Austin American-Statesman was followed up by one from the newspaper’s Editorial Board. It quickly became clear that the people working on veterans benefits out of Waco were messing up in a noticeably major way. Nationwide, executive bonuses of nearly $3 million were given out in 2011, while the backlog of unprocessed claims increased, along with waiting times in each individual case of a veteran needing medical attention. The Editorial Board pointed out:

In most endeavors, pay bonuses are awarded for efficiency and effort above and beyond the basic requirements of the job…

Overall, nearly a million veteran claims were waiting to be looked at and acted upon, and all anybody knew was that some government desk jockeys were getting giant rewards — and the less work that got done, the bigger the rewards became. Despite the fact that Texas officials had kicked in an extra million and a half dollars of state money to create a “strike force” team to hire more actual claims processors, the 440-day wait time became standard.

Reactions?

Source: “U.S. Vets, Suffering From Unemployment and Homelessness, Support Occupy Protests,” ABCNews.com, 10/29/11
Source: “Nancy Cook focus of Veterans Affairs inquiry,” The Post and Courier, 06/17/11
Source: “VA fix requires more than promises,” MyStatesman.com, 05/02/13
Image by Ayah (Abajooka).

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Homeless Veterans and Corruption

Duty, Honor, Country -- BetrayalWhen contemplating the shabby treatment accorded to America’s veterans, the question is how far back to go. In 2008, Amanda Ruggeri reported for U.S. News & World Report on the shredder scandal, which began with an accidental discovery, when an employee of the Veterans Administration Inspector General’s office found discrepancies in Detroit.

Documents were in the shredder bin that should not have been. Death certificates had not been placed in the service members’ files. Compensation claim forms, and notices filed in disagreement of claim decisions, were also headed for destruction without any action having been taken on them.

At the time, there were 57 VA regional offices, and further investigation revealed that 41 of them had been shredding paperwork inappropriately — without its having been duplicated for the individual veterans’ files. And since the bins of papers intended for shredding are emptied once or twice per week, the 474 questioned documents found during the investigation represented only a small fraction of the potential suspected negligence.

At the time, the VA had a backlog of 800,000 claims waiting to be looked at, and the absence of one crucial document from any one of those files could result in a denial of compensation. Patrick Dunne, the VA Undersecretary for Benefits, told the press:

We can’t tolerate even one veteran’s piece of paper being missing. We’re taking action to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Thanks to the efforts of Rep. Bob Filner, head of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, on March 3, 2009, there was a congressional hearing that involved two VA subcommittees — Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, and Oversight and Investigations. The title of the 104-page PDF report is: “Document Tampering and Mishandling at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Joint Hearing.”

“Shreddergate”

The result was not heartening. Boiled down to the essentials by a blog called Veteranclaims’s Blog, the goings-on at Veterans Affairs regional offices (VAROs) included 16,000 mishandled documents at a single regional office. The writer mentions, and then quotes, the congressional report regarding:

[…] the ‘Amnesty’ programs which the VA has been operating for at least two years, where they offer amnesty to employees that have removed evidence from veterans claims if they return that illegally removed evidence. ‘During an amnesty period in July 2007 at VARO Detroit, VARO employees turned in almost 16,000 pieces of unprocessed mail including 700 claims and 2,700 medical records and/or pieces of medical information. The VARO determined that none of these claims or documents were in VBA information systems or associated claim files.’

The government’s press release outlining the results of the hearings also mentioned that over the previous 12 years, approximately 50,000 surviving spouses of veterans were denied benefits or, worse, billed for supposed overpayment of benefits by the Department of the Treasury, wanting its money back. All these were mistakes caused by the “VA’s mistaken interpretation of the law.”

If the government bureau in charge of these matters doesn’t even understand the rules under which it supposedly operates, how can anything work? No wonder vets have been waiting a year or more to hear about their claims, with the resulting problems leading to homelessness, or in too many cases, suicide.

More recent developments

A new documentary film, titled Duty, Honor, Country — BETRAYAL, was reviewed for NewsWithViews.com by attorney Rees Lloyd. A while back, House the Homeless mentioned the Los Angeles real estate ripoff, but according to filmmaker Bill Dumas, the scandal is a national disgrace. It’s all about “enhanced use” agreements or leases, which allow non-veteran business interests with good political connections to benefit from land that rightfully belongs to American veterans. Lloyd says:

These leases are for as long as 75 years, at prices far below market value, often nominal payments of ‘$1 a year,’ sometimes nothing at all. Worst of all: The Secretary of Veterans Affairs has the authority to give that land to the lessees entirely in the Secretary’s sole discretion, without Congressional action, if the Secretary decides the land is no longer needed for veterans.

This cozy arrangement has been blatantly exploited by people and organizations accused by the film. And in the case of the large tract of land in the middle of LA, it’s even more disgusting:

Many large dormitory-like buildings on the land which could be used for the homeless, are empty, unused, deteriorating because the VA refuses to maintain them, or build adequate new housing, or use the available land for temporary housing as new housing is built…

There are an estimated 20,000 homeless veterans in Los Angeles.

Reactions?

Source: “Military Veterans’ Benefit Claims Records Wrongly Headed for VA Shredders,” U.S. News & World Report, 10/31/08
Source: “VA gives amnesty to employees while Vets suffer,” Veteranclaims’s Blog, 03/06/09
Source: “New Film: VA “Betrays” Homeless Vets,” NewsWithViews.com, 05/14/13
Image by Bill Dumas.

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Lack of Living Wage Contributes to Homelessness

Living WageIf there is one best way to solve the social crisis of homelessness it is this: Our society must pay people a living wage.

Some people balk at this assertion. They try to maintain that paying a living wage is “baloney,” and falsely claim that increasing wages will stifle economic growth. Yet, scores of studies by major economists demonstrates that minimum wage works.

But does the minimum wage in its current form work well enough? Many housing advocates say no. So, too, does a group not generally thought to be supportive of minimum wage hikes: business owners — even giant retailers like Costco.

Forgetting the social and ethical contract of caring for our brothers and sisters in need, let’s consider the economic advantages of switching from a federal, one-size-fits-few approach to minimum wage toward a sliding scale with minimum wages tailored for the local cost-of-living. Let’s review why the concept is gaining a momentum of support.

Why a Living Wage Instead of the Minimum Wage?

The answer is simple: Federal Minimum Wage (FMW) once stabilized incomes sufficiently that working people could afford housing. Not anymore.

The FMW no longer pays workers enough to meet the costs of housing and utilities of minimum-wage earning men, women, and their families in most areas of our country. This conclusion is based on HUD’s review of Fair Market Rents and applies to all housing markets both big and small. The reason? Inflation.

President Obama has proposed that today’s minimum wage be increased from $7.25 an hour to $9.00 an hour. That’s a step in the right direction, but minimum wage should pay a minimum of $9.31 an hour to yield the same purchasing power as minimum wage paid in 1974.

In short, inflation has stolen the present value of minimum wage. Combine that with extremely varied cost-of-living expenses across the country, and simply raising the FMW won’t cut it. Instead, we must adjust hourly wages to the local cost-of-living, rather than a one-size-fits-no-one federal mandate.

“Declining wages, in turn, have put housing out of reach for many workers: a household would need more than one full time minimum wage worker to afford a two-bedroom rental apartment at fair market rent (National Low Income Housing Coalition, 2009),” reports the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Further, with a lack of affordable health care and several states attempting to overturn the Affordable Care Act, medical bills can wipe out a family’s savings and put them on the street. That’s an unwinnable war for someone earning the minimum required by law. To add insult to injury, those earning the least are also the same people plagued with unhealthy diets and multi-generational diseases associated with obesity.

“[M]any apartment complexes run credit checks which can prevent people with poor credit from renting; things like unpaid medical bills can prevent working people from finding a place to rent,” writes Kylyssa Shay, a formerly homeless person now working as freelance writer and homelessness activist.

Once we had a social belief in this country that hard work would be rewarded, at least at a level that permitted the simple dignity of providing for your family. Once it was considered wrong to fire 20% of your staff in order to give yourself a raise, for instance. Not anymore. “Human nature does not change, but social structures can, and they did,” writes George Packer, author of the book, The Unwinding.

This historical shift has brought some seemingly unlikely supporters of a living wage: local business owners.

Local Economies Benefit, Too

One reason for the support of an increased minimum wage to a living wage is that, by default, excludes retailing giants like Wal-Mart whose business model is based on paying the lowest wages possible and allowing the taxpayers to pick up the tab, reports Michael Shuman in the book The Small-Mart Revolution.

Preventing massive players with extractive agendas from entering a local market means that a local economy can stabilize and grow. That is because more money is being retained locally (as opposed to being sent to Arkansas and into the coffer’s of our nation’s best example of wealth inequality). Smaller business owners do not begrudge the success of giants like Wal-Mart.

Instead, they point to the economic destruction caused by companies like Wal-Mart that pass the buck. These companies have no incentive to care for local workers, their environment, or the economic resiliency of the local market to which they and other local business owners contribute.

Paying better wages to employees means that retraining costs are lowered. It also benefits business owners because it builds employee loyalty. What some business owners fear as limiting has been shown to improve the situation for everyone.

“Furthermore, from a historical perspective, every minimum wage increase is spent right back into the economy, so this will stimulate the economy generally too,” says House the Homeless founder Richard R. Troxell.

Raising the minimum wage is necessary to prevent more working people from experiencing homelessness. Implementing a living wage will do even more to prevent homelessness and strengthen our local economies. Learn more about the issue at UniversalLivingWage.org.

Image by STEM Limited.