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Vital VA Project Got Off on the Wrong Foot

Phoenix

Phoenix Rises from the Ashes

If there is one state in the union where military veterans might expect to be rendered top-shelf service every time, that state would be Texas. There are two regional benefits offices (Houston is the other) and the Waco office has not been living up to the Lone Star state’s reputation for honoring vets.

Six years ago, the Waco RO (which serves Bell County and central Texas) was one of the epicenters of a scandal that affected an entire federal bureaucracy. Ultimately the Department of Veterans Affairs sent out the order to suspend all document shredding until they could figure out what was going on. Belinda J. Finn, the VA’s Assistant Inspector General for Auditing, testified before a federal House of Representatives subcommittee:

In September of 2008, we were conducting an audit of claim-related mail processing, in the Detroit Regional Office. At the suggestion of a VBA employee, we looked in the shred bins and found claim-related documents. We continued our work in the Waco, St. Louis, and St. Petersburg Regional Offices, finding a total of 132 documents, about 45 of which could have affected benefits.

Jeremy Schwartz of the Austin American-Statesman tirelessly keeps track of what the VA is up to. A couple of years back, the situation was so bad that the Waco RO had the country’s longest waiting time for claims processing.

And then it improved and got the claim processing time down to only 464 days. (Yes, that is sarcasm, and yes, that is more than a year.)

About a year ago, bureaucrats told the reporter that there was no need to hire a full-time county veterans service officer, and that there had been no complaints. A volunteer liaison officer who mostly referred calls to the Texas Veterans Commission said that he only saw five or six veterans each year. Still, the Bell County commissioners promised to improve their website by adding referral information for vets, and to hire a veterans service officer before 2014.

The latest

More recently, Schwartz has been looking into a promising and costly medical research program that somehow went off the rails and into the woods. A decade ago, the Veterans Administration okayed the spending of $6.3 million for a brain imaging center to study physical changes in the brains of soldiers before and after their tours of duty in the combat zones of Afghanistan and Iraq. Previous wars produced a lot of gunshot wounds, but in these more recent conflicts, traumatic brain injury (TMI) has been the “signature wound” which could with dark humor be called “the gift that keeps on giving.” The result of such injury is often Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which can affect an individual for the remainder of his or her life, or lead to suicide, whichever comes first.

The center originally opened at UT Austin, but didn’t work out at that location. It was re-established at the Center of Excellence in Waco, where subjects would be available from both Fort Hood (before going overseas) and the VA hospitals in Waco and Temple (after returning). In 2007 a director was hired, but Dr. Robert Van Boven’s first move was to declare that already, $2.1 million had been spent on a project unrelated to traumatic brain injury.

His claims of financial misappropriation did not interest the VA, which at first declined to investigate, although later a report from the office of the agency’s inspector general partially confirmed the allegations of mismanagement. At any rate, the director was fired in 2009. He sued because he had been wrongfully terminated and retaliated against for being a whistleblower. In 2010 the case was settled for an unpublicized amount of money. For the new and much-needed project of learning more about brain damage, this was not an auspicious start.

(…more next time…)

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Source: “Document Tampering and Mishandling at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs,” gpo.gov, 03/03/09
Source: “Troubled beginnings,” Statesman.com, 09/07/14
Source: “Gaps in research,” Statesman.com, 09/07/14
Image: Prairie Kittin