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ORLANDO, Fla. — Veterans Affairs Sec. Robert Wilkie told a large gathering of student veterans Friday that his No. 1 priority for the VA in 2019 is quality customer service.

That’s why the VA will correct inaccurate payments made to thousands of student veterans last fall. Stymied by technical problems, the department has been giving students the wrong housing stipend amounts for months and continues to do so — long after the Aug. 1 deadline Congress gave VA to calculate housing stipends under revised rules.

“The bottom line is: We owe you every penny that you’ve earned. That is what the nation has promised you, and that is what you deserve,” Wilkie said, addressing some 2,300 student veterans attending the annual Student Veterans of America National Conference via livestream, after his plans to attend in-person were cancelled last minute because of travel restrictions amid the government shutdown.

The Forever GI Bill, which became law in 2017, required VA to change the way it calculates housing stipends in two ways. One mandated that VA alter stipends for new students to match what the Department of Defense pays its E-5s with dependents. The other instructed VA to calculate stipends based on the campus where students take most of their classes, rather than the school’s main campus, which has traditionally been used to determine housing stipends.

VA wasn’t able to make either change by the initial deadline. But fixes are on the way, according to Wilkie.

GI Bill users who were shorted as a result of the first of those problems will receive a check in the mail for the difference by the end of the month, Wilkie said. Any veterans who were overpaid will be allowed to keep the extra money.

A solution to the campus problem will not come until December 2019. VA recently ended its contract with Booz Allen Hamilton, its initial partner for this part of the project. The department plans to have a new contract awarded by next month to another vendor, which it expects to correct the campus-based stipend problems in time for the spring 2020 semester.

At that point, the department will retroactively correct payments for students who would have received a larger housing allowance attending a branch campus, rather than their school’s main campus.

In his remarks after the secretary’s, Student Veterans of America President Jared Lyon called last fall’s delays “unacceptable” and said the “reset will allow the VA to step off on the right foot and create a better path that will better serve students and schools.”

“While the reset was needed, our work is not done. This new situation means a new process, and SVA will continue to be there ready to speak up on behalf of those most directly impacted by VA’s decisions,” Lyon said.

Wilkie assured student veterans that under his leadership, they have a permanent seat at the table at the VA and are “now at the center of our operations.”

He urged any veterans experiencing financial hardship because of the delays to reach out to the department to get their payments expedited.

Source: VA Sec. on GI Bill problems: ‘We owe you every penny that you’ve earned’

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HELENA, Mont. — A 46-year-old Columbia Falls man has admitted overstating his disabilities to receive government payments for nine years.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office says it will seek $830,000 in restitution from John Cicero Hughes, a Navy veteran who pleaded guilty Dec. 12 to theft of government money and Social Security disability fraud. Sentencing is set for April 12.

Prosecutors say the VA found Hughes was 100 percent disabled in 2009 after confirming his multiple sclerosis diagnosis. He said he could walk only a few steps, had no feeling in his left arm and leg and couldn’t care for himself. He received about $8,400 in benefits each month.

Investigators discovered Hughes drove himself to the VA in Helena in January 2018, walked around a grocery store using a cane and used both hands while gambling at a Helena casino.

Source: Government to seek $830,000 from Navy vet for benefits fraud

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WASHINGTON — Despite public pronouncements on their continued focus on preventing veterans suicide, Veterans Affairs officials failed to spend millions available for outreach campaigns in 2018 and severely curtailed their messaging efforts, according to a new report released Monday.

The Government Accountability Office study found that of $6.2 million set aside for suicide prevention media outreach in fiscal 2018, only $57,000 — less than 1 percent — was actually used.

In addition, social media content from VA officials on the subject dropped by more than two-thirds from fiscal 2017 to fiscal 2018. Two planned new public service announcements on the topic were delayed, and no public outreach messages were aired on national television or radio for more than a year.

Veterans advocates called the report shocking and disappointing.

“At a time when 20 veterans a day still die by suicide, VA should be doing everything in its power to inform the public about the resources available to veterans in crisis,” said Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., ranking member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “Unfortunately, VA has failed to do that, despite claiming the elimination of veteran suicide as its highest clinical priority.”

Both VA Secretary Robert Wilkie and former VA Secretary David Shulkin listed suicide prevention as one of their main focuses for the department and their top clinical priority for the Veterans Health Administration.

The 20-a-day suicide estimate includes about 14 veterans who have had little or no contact with VA in recent months, a statistic that advocates say illustrates the need for more outreach to individuals who don’t fully understand or typically use the mental health support available from the department.

In statements to the GAO, Veterans Health Administration officials blamed leadership turnover at the agency for the missteps. The department’s top suicide prevention post was vacant from July 2017 to April 2018.

And they said ongoing campaigns continued to show strong success in helping make veterans more aware of the Veterans Crisis Line as well as other support services. But GAO officials said more needs to be done.

The Veteran's Crisis Line -- available to veterans, troops and their families -- operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. (Zachary Hada/Air Force)

The Veteran’s Crisis Line — available to veterans, troops and their families — operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. (Zachary Hada/Air Force)

“By not assigning key leadership responsibilities and clear lines of reporting, VHA’s ability to oversee the suicide prevention media outreach activities was hindered and these outreach activities decreased,” the report authors wrote.

“As a result, VHA may not have exposed as many people in the community, such as veterans at risk for suicide, or their families and friends, to its suicide prevention outreach content.”

VA officials said new hires and “organization improvements” within the relevant offices should produce better results and resource management this fiscal year. They also plan to unveil new tracking metrics this spring, to help evaluate what tools are working best in the suicide prevention efforts.

Walz said that’s not enough.

“If VA actually wants to eliminate veteran suicide, then it has to take each of its roles in that mission seriously,” he said. “Our veterans can’t afford to have VA backslide on veteran suicide.”

To contact the Veteran Crisis Line, callers can dial 1-800-273-8255 and select option 1 for a VA staffer. Veterans, troops or their families members can also text 838255 or visit for assistance.

Source: VA left millions for suicide prevention unspent, report finds

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