Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Review of Alleged Breach of Privacy and Confidentiality of Personally Identifiable Information at the Milwaukee VARO


RESULTS AND RECOMMENDATIONS - VA’s Processes and Controls Allowed the Dissemination of Wisconsin Veterans’ PII to Unauthorized Recipients
We substantiated the allegation that on April 1, 2015, a WDVA employee improperly disseminated over VA’s email server a monthly claims report that contained updates on Wisconsin veterans’ disability claims to unaccredited CVSO and TVSO employees not authorized to handle sensitive information, as well as to a Wisconsin veteran. The employee obtained the report from the Milwaukee VARO, which contained PII, including 638 names along with 416 Social Security Numbers (SSNs) and 222 claim numbers of Wisconsin veterans. While we determined that the VARO’s sharing of claims information with WDVA was consistent with Federal policy, WDVA staff did not need the report to help veterans facilitate the timely adjudication of their disability claims filed with VA. Furthermore, we determined that the improper dissemination of PII over VA’s email server was a violation of the Federal Information Security Management Act........... (read more, click on link, above)

Veteran Groups Intervene in Fired Phoenix VA Director Lawsuit

Stars and Stripes | Sep 27, 2016 | by Travis J. Tritten

This undated handout photo provided by The Veterans Affairs Department, shows Sharon Helman, director of the Phoenix VA Health Care System. (AP Photo/Veterans Affairs Department)

WASHINGTON — A dozen veteran and military groups have entered the legal fight with former Department of Veterans Affairs executive Sharon Helman in hopes they can salvage a law allowing the department to fire top managers more quickly.

A federal appeals court this month allowed the Veterans of Foreign Wars, AMVETS, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and nine other groups to join the lawsuit between Helman and the VA. They argue the law used to fire her is constitutional and should be upheld.

The outcome will determine the future of the 2014 law that allows executives to be terminated in three weeks with no option for an appeal and was part of an effort by Congress to root out a "corrosive" management culture after the VA's national wait-time scandal. The VA announced it would abandoned the law in June — potentially handing Helman a win in court — because the Justice Department decided it violated the rights of the roughly 300 executives employed by the sprawling department.

"This ruling is an important win for us," the attorney for the veteran and military groups, Michael Morley, wrote in an email to Stars and Stripes. "Most basically, it shows that the court takes our arguments seriously and will not invalidate the [law] without considering them."
If the groups prevail, the VA could continue to expedite its firings of executives guilty of wrongdoing, which supporters including veterans groups hope will help fix the troubled department. Otherwise, Helman could win her lawsuit and the VA will return to the previous firing guidelines used for all federal executives.

Morley, when reached by phone Monday, said the court has allowed the groups' argument that the streamlined firings are constitutional to be added into the lawsuit. Now, Helman and the VA will likely file responses with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in the coming weeks and there could be oral arguments heard in December or January, he said.

The lawsuit also includes the National Association for Uniformed Services, Reserve Officers Association, Non-Commissioned Officers Association, Marine Corps League, Army Reserve Association, Marine Corps Reserve Association, U.S. Army Warrant Officers Association, Special Forces Association and Jewish War Veterans of the United States.
Helman is suing the VA over her firing in 2014 when she was director of its Phoenix hospital system. A whistleblowing doctor triggered a national scandal with claims that veterans in Phoenix had died while waiting for care. Federal audits found secret wait lists were kept there and at VA health care facilities across the country to hide long delays.

Helman was ultimately fired for accepting thousands of dollars in gifts that included a paid trip to a Disney theme park and concert tickets. An appeals judge found in December 2014 that the VA did not have grounds to fire Helman for the wait-time issues.

But the law used to fire her quickly has been at the center of the case.

In the wake of the 2014 scandal, Congress passed the new rule streamlining the firing of executives implicated in wrongdoing. It allowed an administrative judge to make a final decision on a termination appeal within 21 days and included no option for a further appeal.

Like other federal executives, VA managers had been able to appeal their termination to the Merit Systems Protection Board in a process that could typically take months.

Concerns over the legality of the quick firings bubbled up even before the law was passed and the VA later told Congress it had misgivings.

The firing rule suffered a major blow in May when the Justice Department said denying any appeal after an administrative judge's decision violates executives' due process rights and is unconstitutional.

The VA followed in June with the announcement that it would no longer firing executives using the expedited rules.


Senators Seek Inquiry into Concerns about Veteran's Suicide

DENVER — Two U.S. senators said Tuesday they asked for an investigation into a whistleblower's report that an Army veteran killed himself while awaiting treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder at a U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs clinic in Colorado Springs.
Sens. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said they also asked the department's inspector general to investigate whether the whistleblower faced retaliation after reporting his concerns.
The inspector general's office is the Veteran Affairs department's internal watchdog.
The department will work with the inspector general and the senators to determine what happened, agency spokesman Paul Sherbo said.
The senators did not identify the soldier who killed himself but said he was 26 and had served as an Army Ranger.
Gardner said he wanted to avoid a repeat of a 2014 scandal over long wait times that veterans endured to get health care, and allegations that some VA officials falsified records to cover up the problem.
The scandal led to the ouster of Veteran Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.
Gardner said the whistleblower also reported that the Colorado Springs clinic might have tampered with its wait list records after the veteran's death.
Seven months ago, the Veteran Affairs inspector general said workers at the Colorado Springs clinic incorrectly reported that some veterans got appointments sooner than they actually did.
Investigators did not say whether the records were deliberately falsified.

Union Bosses, VA Bosses Rigging System for Failure

Military.com | Sep 05, 2016 | by Rep. Jeff Miller
U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, a Republican from Chumuckla, Florida, is the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

A visitor leaves the Sacramento Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Rancho Cordova, Calif., on April 2, 2015. Rich Pedroncelli/AP

In an expletive-laden rant delivered earlier this year, a belligerent American Federation of Government Employees President J. David Cox threatened Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald with physical violence.
Cox was "prepared to whoop Bob McDonald's a--," he said. "He's going to start treating us as the labor partner … or we will whoop his a--, I promise you," Cox continued.
McDonald's response? Absolutely nothing.
The exchange perfectly encapsulates the corrosive influence government union bosses are having on efforts to reform a broken VA. It's a never-ending cycle in which pliant politicians and federal agency leaders bow to the bosses' demands to preserve the dysfunctional status quo of our federal personnel system, which almost guarantees employment for government bureaucrats no matter how egregious their behavior.
The problem with union bosses like Cox is that they are more interested in protecting misbehaving VA employees than the veterans the department was created to serve.
The problem with VA leaders like McDonald is that, in their perpetual quest to placate big labor's powers that be, the taxpayers and veterans they are charged with serving are paying the price.
It's no wonder McDonald was silent after Cox's violent threats. Cox's bellicose behavior is precisely the type of employee conduct VA leaders and union bosses routinely defend.
Take the case of a VA Caribbean Healthcare System employee who AFGE helped to keep her job after she participated in an armed robbery. Unwilling to admit the crucial role AFGE union bosses played in helping the criminal keep her job, VA has offered a series of outrageous excuses in order to explain her continued employment. "There was never any indication that the employee posed a risk to Veterans or VA property," VA Under Secretary for Health David Shulkin said, adding that the employee couldn't be terminated for her armed robbery participation because it occurred in her free time. Really?
The fact that AFGE routinely defends the indefensible among VA employees is not surprising. After all, the organization's first loyalty is to government workers above everyone else. What's disappointing, however, is VA leaders' refusal to challenge AFGE and its tactics. VA's silence is more proof that the bosses -- both VA and union -- are all part of the same system, which specializes in protecting its own.
Consider how VA safeguarded two senior bureaucrats when the department's inspector general caught them orchestrating a scheme to rake in thousands in taxpayer-funded relocation benefits.
According to the IG, VA regional office directors Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves inappropriately used their authority, enabling them to benefit from a total of more than $400,000 in taxpayer-funded relocation payments. Rubens, alone, received more than $274,000 in benefits to make the roughly three-hour move from Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia. That's almost $100,000 per hour of driving.
When alerted to Rubens' and Graves' conduct, VA's inspector general made criminal referrals to the Department of Justice, while VA leaders went out of their way to allow them to keep their jobs, as well as the benefits they collected as part of the scheme. VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson even expressed confidence in the pair's leadership abilities and said keeping them on the payroll as regional office directors was "the morally right thing to do."
For VA and union bosses, however, it's about more than just protecting their own. They are also actively fighting to protect VA's broken status quo.
Case in point is the Veterans First Act, a Senate bill that was ostensibly designed to address the department's number one problem: its widespread and pervasive lack of accountability for misbehaving employees.
AFGE union bosses got their hands on an early draft of the legislation and demanded that senators water down the bill in four key areas. After senators made all of the changes the union bosses had dictated, AFGE endorsed the bill.
Once the union bosses gave the revised Veterans First Act their stamp of approval, McDonald began rallying support for the legislation.
McDonald's sudden support for the Veterans First Act marked a remarkable change of heart for him on the subject of VA accountability. Previously, McDonald's VA had opposed almost every bill that would have attempted to meaningfully help VA solve its accountability problems. Perhaps McDonald only supports accountability reforms that union bosses have had the chance to render toothless.
And so it goes at VA, where union and VA bosses fight to maintain a system in which corrupt and incompetent employees have more rights than the veterans they are charged with serving.
Meanwhile veterans and taxpayers are paying the price.