May 1, 2010

AP: VA Makes It's too Easy for Veterans to File Claims ... Seriously

By Michael Leon

As PTSD claims soar, the systemic problem at the U.S. Dept of Veterans Affairs is the ease with which veterans file for disability benefit claims, in the view of Allen Breed, a national writer for the Associated Press. This is a hit job on veterans and the progress being contemplated by some at the DVA to help veterans.

Do you have that? Things are too easy for veterans dealing with the VA now, asserts the AP's Breed.
Moved by a huge tide of troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress, Congress has pressured the Department of Veterans Affairs to settle their disability claims — quickly, humanely, and mostly in the vets' favor.
Continues Breed in his piece, PTSD cases rise and rules for claims ease, VA warned that more frauds will slip through: "The problem: The system is dysfunctional, an open invitation to fraud. And the VA has proposed changes that could make deception even easier."

That's the issue and it's political.

No deny-delay-and-hope-you-die culture at the DVA, just too many veterans taking advantage of "profitably working the levers of sympathy for the wounded and obligation to the troops, and exploiting the sheer difficulty of nailing a surefire diagnosis of a condition that is notoriously hard to define."

No years waiting on a claim, it's the ease with which veterans navigate the system now that is the real issue. This is just crazy.

Stated Atty Robert Walsh at oral arguments in a federal criminal case cooked up by the VA and DOJ in October 2007:

... (I)t's a total distortion in this record, and any suggestion that any veteran can just walk into the V.A., file a claim and say, you know, a peace time Veteran, that I was here in the states and I was sexually assaulted, and it's stressful, give me money. And the (VA’s) answer is, did you tell the chaplain, did you go to the hospital, did you confide in a family member, do you have a contemporaneous letter, do you have documentation? ‘No, I was embarrassed’. Then the claim fails. Your own statement, no matter how compelling the argument, how tragic the circumstances, is not going to be the basis of an award of PTSD.
Breed disagrees.

No "system stack[ed] deck against injured soldiers by forcing them to prove they have post-traumatic stress disorder [PTST]…,’ (Marine Corp Times (Kelly Kennedy, April 5, 2007)).

PTSD

The only reason that PTSD is "hard to define" is the DVA's contrived definition and the VA's systemic barriers to proving its existence in our veterans.

This is axiomatic to any veteran's advocate, but evidently eludes Breed. He did not talk to Paul Sullivan at Veterans for Common Sense or any other veteran in these pages who could have set him straight.

Let's get back to Wisconsin Navy veteran Keith Roberts targeted by the U.S. Dept of Veterans Affairs (VA) in 2003-05, who became the central figure in an Alice-in-Wonderland tale, after U.S. Attorney Stephen Biskupic of Wisconsin and top VA officials schemed to convict Roberts’ of fraudulently receiving VA benefits (by wire transfer as the VA requires).

Breed quotes the prosecution approvingly, taking the VA's and CAVC's positions at face value as though these institution have a shred of credibility.

The basis of the prosecution: Holland and Roberts were not friends (an assertion knocked down) it was divined 35 years by VA cops after the death of Roberts' friend and fellow airman.

The VA cop Raymond Vasil of a VA regional Inspector General's office found that Navy veterans could not recall the presence of a given person 35 years later as another man lay being slowly crushed to death. No kidding.

Navy veteran Keith Roberts filed a claim, several claims as he learned how, and then listened to his veteran service officer and asked for retroactive awarding of his benefits to his discharge.

Roberts often screamed at the Milwaukee VA regional office that they were illegally altering his C-File. He was right. But they turned around and charged him with fraud.

The case had drew the attention of Harper's magazine contributor and human rights attorney, Scott Horton, after the U.S. Attorneys' scandal broke during the Bush administration:

(T)ake a look at another prosecution brought in Wisconsin against a wounded vet, whose claims for benefits was turned into a criminal prosecution for wire fraud. As Wisconsin Public Radio reports,Keith Roberts, a Navy veteran got into the U.S. attorney’s crosshairs by filing a claim for benefits related to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) diagnosed as occurring because he witnessed and tried to prevent his friend from being crushed to death by a C-54 airplane while stationed at a Naval air base in Naples, Italy 1969, and unrelated assault by the Navy Shore Patrol—granted and then denied, has not yet been decided by the CAVC. But the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) after being accused of fraud in 2003 by Roberts ignored the CAVC process and investigated and asked that Roberts be prosecuted for fraud by the US Attorney’s office.

The prosecution smacks of retaliation and a plan to suppress veterans claims—Roberts was prosecuted for tenaciously pursuing a claim for benefits, which VA resisted and which is still in the benefits review process. It may be that the veteran is making claims which shouldn't’t be granted, but the decision to resist them by a criminal complaint is very heavy handed. What happens if the Veterans’ Appeals process rules for Roberts? As I read these papers, that seems possible. ...
Who knows? Roberts's case now is being appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit and we can expect a decision in a few years.

In reading Breed's piece, a rare national piece on the processes at the VA, I cannot for the life of me believe he reports that VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki is making things too easy by proposing new rules.

Breed cites the Board of Veterans Appeals and CAVC on decisions made against veterans without comment and context.

This is like asking Karl Rove for his objective opinion of President Obama's performance. Did Breed talk to any member of the CAVC bar board off-the-record on the opinion?

And of course, Breed essentially takes the position of the chickenhawks at the American Enterprise Institute's (AEI) like Dr. Sally Satel who ridicules veterans diagnosed with PTSD, a view that has permeated the Dept of Veterans Affairs, though the proposed changes are bemoaned by Breed's sources.

See the Post: "Psychiatrist Sally Satel, who is affiliated with the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said an underground network advises veterans where to go for the best chance of being declared disabled. The institute organized a recent meeting to discuss PTSD among veterans."

Don't you think it's odd that VA investigators ordered by top VA officials pulled this prosecution?

Why not mention the political environment?

Roberts was targeted by the US Dept of Veterans Affairs (VA) in 2003-05, and became the central figure in this Alice-in-Wonderland tale, after U.S. Attorney Stephen Biskupic of Wisconsin and top VA officials schemed to convict Roberts’ of fraudulently receiving VA benefits (by wire transfer as the VA requires).

Veterans’ advocates know well Roberts is a victim of a vigorous attempt to marginalize, investigate, and prosecute veterans receiving disability benefits in an aborted attempt to fabricate a fraud crisis among veterans who were injured and traumatized during their service to their country.

As the Iraq and Afghanistan wars produce 100,000s more wounded veterans—a phenomenon that is was the subject of an unprecedented class action law suit by veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan against the VA [dismissed but its allegations found as fact}—advocates allege that Roberts’ extraordinary prosecution was part of the Bush administration’s priorities to discourage VA disability benefits claims, especially among Vietnam-era veterans, serving to carry out the American Enterprise Institute (AEI)/Bush policy that demeans veterans for seeking help with PTSD in what the AEI derisively brands a “culture of trauma.”

The Pentagon has gone so far as to blame veterans “personality disorders” and lack of faith in God for veterans suffering after service. [A VA May 1, 2008 e-mail obtained via FOIA request reveals, that because of “compensation seeking veterans,” VA staff should “refrain from giving a diagnosis of PTSD straight out” and they should “R/O [rule out] PTSD” and consider a diagnosis of “Adjustment Disorder” instead.

One administration initiative to investigate 72,000 cases of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was halted in 2005 after a storm of outrage from veterans’ groups and Democrats, including the then Senator Obama.

Here's how Breed concludes his piece without casting a single doubt on the Roberts prosecution, ignoring why he was a political target, or even quoting a knockdown from one source on his thesis that the VA is taking it too easy on veterans now-a-days:

But investigators later determined that Roberts didn't even participate in the rescue effort and was not as close to Holland as he'd claimed. The Board of Veterans Appeals said the VA's regional office "simply conceded" Roberts' claims "without obtaining credible supporting evidence."

After losing his benefits, Roberts was convicted of wire fraud, sentenced to 48 months in prison and ordered to pay $262,943.52 in restitution. Last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims concluded in a 45-page ruling that Roberts "committed fraud in securing VA benefits for his PTSD" and affirmed the BVA's decision to sever them.

In a recent telephone interview, the 62-year-old veteran denied that he lied, but argued that under VA rules, he could have PTSD from merely being "vicariously aware of the situation."

When asked whether the new rule would throw open the doors to more fraud, Shinseki stressed the need for more research into PTSD and traumatic brain injury, the war on terror's other "signature" wound.

"I know if we take your temperature and you're registering at 102 degrees, you've got a fever, and there are ways to cope with that," the VA secretary told the AP. "PTSD and TBI are in need of the same kind of metrics."
___

AP Writer Kimberly Hefling in Washington, D.C., also contributed to this report. Allen G. Breed, a national writer for The Associated Press based in Raleigh, N.C., can be reached at features@ap.org.

- elements of this story were previously published -

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