Tuesday, August 26, 2014

COMMENTARY: Allison Hickey Should Resign! VA's Under Secretary for Benefits Has Lost the Trust of America's Veterans!

Allison Hickey, VA's under secretary for benefits
Contrary to the fervent wishes of a growing legion of critics, including members of Congress on both sides of the aisle and many high-profile veterans advocates, Allison Hickey, the brigadier general and under secretary for benefits at the Department of Veterans Affairs, still has her job at VA. 

But she needs to go.

Hickey's been under fire for years over the Veteran Benefits Administration's (VBA) inadequate benefits system and tragically ongoing backlog of unprocessed veteran disability claims. Members of Congress have reportedly caught Hickey telling alleged half truths more than once, and have urged President Obama to remove her from the position she's held since June 2011. 

In March 2013, Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), who chairs the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs (HVAC), called for Hickey to resign from her VBA post.

“I don’t think she’s equipped to handle the problems that exist out there,” Miller told the Center for Investigative Reporting last year. "I think she is overwhelmed, and I would call for a replacement.”

One of Hickey's more egregious actions, or inactions, if you will, is her virtual dismissal of Gulf War Illness as a real condition. 

As the Military Times reported last year, after the Institute of Medicine recommended that VA use the term “Gulf War illness” (GWI) to describe the myriad of symptoms affecting more than 200,000 Gulf War veterans, Hickey said in an email that that changing the name from Chronic Multisymptom Illness (CMI) to GWI "might imply a causal link between service in the Gulf and poor health which could necessitate legislation for disability compensation for veterans who served in the Gulf."

Veteran advocate quickly and rightly attacked Hickey's remark, saying it reflects VA's ongoing cynical efforts to avoid acknowledging that Gulf War Illness is real because it would open the door to tens of thousands of new disability claims.

In May of this year, the Washington Post reported that when the American Legion, the nation’s largest veterans group, called for the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, the Legion also urged the President to oust Hickey.

As Nextgov.com reports, VBA employees and the VA's Inspector General (IG) told the House committee that Hickey's department changed dates on claims to make them appear new, manipulated data, and misplaced and possibly shredded thousands of claims documents.

But while several top execs at VA have been ousted, Hickey has somehow managed to hold on to her vitally important position. Last month, she appeared before the HVAC and was summarily grilled by lawmakers. At the hearing, Hickey looked defensive and at times overwhelmed. 

Hickey said at the hearing that the disability claims backlog dropped 55 percent from a peak of 611,000 in March 2013 to 275,000 on July 14. But Miller said he had no faith in Hickey's veracity. “I don’t believe anyone [from VBA] is telling me the truth about the claims backlog," Miller said.

Glenn Bergmann, a partner at Bergmann & Moore, a law firm that solely represents veterans with appealed disability claims at VA, said his firm has been disappointed with VBA's claims initiatives over the last two years. 

"Those in charge seem to have forgotten that the VA claims system was set up to be paternalistic and pro-veteran," Bergmann said. "In the rush to deal with backlog issues, quality has severely suffered. VA's own IG reports invariably spell failure. It is a sad state of affairs."

Mike Zachea, a combat-wounded, medically retired Marine Lt Col. and respected veterans advocate, said Hickey has "no credibility" with Congress or with veterans. "She is the visible person most directly responsible for the VA benefits fiasco - the buck should stop with her, but for some reason, of all the officials, she has gotten a pass," he said.

Zachea added that just this past month, more than 200,000 “e-claims” filed by veterans expired because of the VA’s failure to work through them. Zachea said Hickey's tenure has been an "unmitigated disaster. This expiration of 200,000 claims should be enough to fire her. It is a failure, and failure is not acceptable. It is a lack of leadership, and a lack of integrity. In the military, she would have been sacked. A commander would lose confidence in her ability to lead."

Clearly, it's time for a new leadership at VBA. In a petition demanding that Hickey be removed, Faatimah Sabir, the wife of Sgt. Bilal Sabir, a decorated Vietnam veteran, said her husband has been fighting to get a decision on his VA benefits claim for more than eight years. 

"Many military heroes have died, many VA claims have been destroyed, many VA employees have violated employment rules and regulations while under the supervision of this woman," Sabir writes. "Few have been held accountable, especially directors, managers, and supervisors. How many more of our military heroes have to die, never receive benefits they're entitled to, and struggle to find housing, good medical care, and employment under this wicked, uncaring, impersonal, unsympathetic General?" 



4 comments:

  1. Based on your research, Jamie Reno[2], her past e-mail to Institute of Medicine (IOM)[1], and the fact that Veterans Benefits Administration is reported to have denied 80% of 1991 Gulf War Illnesses claims[3], including my own, I think she and dysfunctional managers should be be ousted.

    Quote: “Hickey “was concerned that changing the name from CMI to GWI might imply a causal link between service in the Gulf and poor health which could necessitate legislation for disability compensation for veterans who served in the Gulf,” according to the email.”[1]

    When I was called by the VA Regional Office handling my claim, I told them of the error rate that the GAO had recorded. The woman on the phone, the lead person for my case, became bellicose, raised her voice, and said the GAO was wrong and their error rate was near 5-10%. GAO had reported an average error rate of 31%:

    Quote: “The OIG reviewed a sample of redistributed claims and found that 69 percent had accurate entitlement decisions, well below VBA's reported rate of 87 percent for the 12-month period ending in February 2008.”[4]

    I suppose the VARO in question, mine, could be above average, but they denied my 1991 Gulf War Illness claim even though the VA intra-institutinional experts, War Related Illness and Injury Study Center (WRIISC) had diagnosed me with 1991 Gulf War Illnesses. My WRIISC physician was so upset, she contacted the Chief of Compensation of my claim.

    References:

    [1] Kime, Patricia. Top VA official questions use of term ‘Gulf War Illness’: Undersecretary for benefits said name change would be ‘limiting.’, Apr. 22, 2014. military times.com[online]. 2014. Available from: http://www.militarytimes.com/article/20140422/BENEFITS04/304220036/Top-VA-official-questions-use-term-Gulf-War-illness-

    [2] Reno, Jamie. (2014, Aug. 26). COMMENTARY: Allison Hickey Should Resign! VA's Under Secretary for Benefits Has Lost the Trust of American's Veterans! Retrieved (2014, Aug. 26). http://therenodispatch.blogspot.com[online]. Available from: http://therenodispatch.blogspot.com/2014/08/commentary-allison-hickey-under.html

    [3] Kime, Patricia. VA denies 4 in 5 Gulf War illness claims, new data show, June 05, 2014. militarytimes.com[online]. 2014. Available from: http://www.militarytimes.com/article/20140605/BENEFITS06/306050064/VA-denies-4-5-Gulf-War-illness-claims-new-

    [4] US Government Accountability Office. VA Has Improved Its Programs for Measuring Accuracy and Consistency, but Challenges Remain, GAO-10-530T, March 2010. gao.gov[online]. 2012. Available from: http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-10-530T

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    Replies
    1. sincere thanks for sharing your thoughts, and your research.

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  2. Question: Should the success of the Undersecretary for VA Benefits be measured by how "fast" VA claims are handled?

    Answer: No

    Truth: Ever since Amodei's inquisition of Allison Hickey and the VA claim backlog, the "speed" of claims indeed has increased. They are now handled in a "fast track" mode, without proper in depth analysis and over 90% are turned down. You guys wanted "fast track", you got it!

    Veterans don't want a fast track treatment!

    A.Q Recio
    Retired US Army veteran

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    Replies
    1. huh? that's got to be the most bizarre and misguided interpretation i've seen of the VA disability claims backlog, which is a very very serious problem.

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