Next CVO Meeting April 16, 2016

The next meeting of CVO will be held this Saturday, April 16th, from 10 AM to 12:30 PM in the 2nd Floor Conference Room at Jesse Brown VA Hospital. On the agenda: Nominations for 2016 CVO Executive Committee positions, the future of CVO, the Veterans Affairs Committee and meetings with our elected representatives, and more!

As usual, Coffee and Donuts will be served.

Come out and support CVO!

Labor Department announces final silica rule will save 600 lives a year

“It Took About 5 Years to Kill Him, and We Got to Watch”

When he was a kid, Tom Ward thought his dad was Superman, especially because he worked with his hands. When I sat down with Tom a few weeks ago, he talked about how heroic and invincible his father seemed, about his athleticism and his work ethic. But years of working as a sandblaster had taken their toll. They turned out to be this Superman’s kryptonite.

When he was just 34 years old, Tom’s father was diagnosed with silicosis, a progressive, incurable disease afflicting workers who drill, cut, crush or grind materials like concrete and stone. The disease suffocated him, and he literally worked until he dropped.

Decades later, Tom still gets choked up talking about the day his dad fell to the floor and cried, saying he just couldn’t work anymore. “It took about 5 years to kill him,” Tom says, “and we got to watch.” And it wasn’t just a personal tragedy for Tom, his mother and his sisters; it was a financial crisis, too. They lost everything.

Inspired by his dad’s memory, today Tom works as a masonry trainer for the Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers in Michigan. He’s teaching many of the safety measures that could have saved his father’s life. And he believes we need a better, updated safety standard that protects people who work around silica dust.

So on behalf of Tom and his family – and the 2.3 million hardworking people exposed to silica in their workplaces – that’s exactly what we’re doing. Today, Tom joined me as the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced a final silica rule that will save more than 600 lives a year and protect the health of thousands of others.

This step is a long time coming. Awareness of the dangers of inhaling dust is almost as old as civilization itself – it goes back to stone-cutting in ancient Greece and Rome. And we’ve known how to prevent silicosis for 80 years since my predecessor, Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, convened a panel of experts to study this issue in the mid-1930s. Throughout recent years, the body of scientific knowledge has expanded – and we know now that breathing in these tiny dust particles can cause lung cancer, emphysema, kidney disease and other diseases. We’ve had a silica standard since the early 1970s, but the overwhelming evidence is that it’s no longer up to the task – in fact, it was out of date from the moment it went into effect.

Now finally, we’re mustering the will to do what needs to be done. At long last, we’re rising to the challenge and taking the bold action this problem demands.

The new rule will substantially reduce the permissible exposure limit, setting it at 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air – that’s half the current limit for general industry and five times more stringent than the current exposure limit for construction. In most cases, this can be achieved using common-sense controls – like wetting down the dust or improving ventilation – to limit exposure. As Tom Ward says: “Turn the water on, turn the vac on.” In fact, some of the necessary equipment can be bought at a well-stocked hardware store.

The rule provides flexibility to employers, giving them room for creativity and options for different ways to achieve compliance. We were very careful to make sure this wasn’t a one-size-fits-all approach.

We also engaged businesses and other stakeholders throughout the process, soliciting their input and incorporating their recommendations. There was a robust comment period, as well as 14 days of public hearings. The final rule contains many changes and improvements from the proposal that we issued in September 2013. Every step of the way, we approached this rulemaking with a keen ear and an open mind. We’ve built a big table and invited everyone to pull up a chair. OSHA also will be all in when it comes to providing technical expertise and compliance assistance to employers.

As always when we take action to raise labor standards, we can expect to hear from plenty of “calamity howlers” – people who will hyperbolically claim that a stronger silica standard will devastate industry and kill jobs. But these kinds of claims never are borne out. The sky-is-falling crowd never finds itself on the right side of history. We can’t be sucked into a false choice between occupational safety on the one hand and a sound bottom line on the other hand. Responsible employers tell me all the time that the two go hand-in-hand.

The cost of doing nothing on silica is unacceptably high. It comes in the form of a slow and painful death for workers like Tom Ward’s father. That’s why we’ve worked so hard and so thoroughly to complete this rule. The tough men and women who work with steel, brick and stone – who build our homes, operate our foundries and maintain our roads – deserve nothing less than the best possible protection. Today, we protect their right – one of our most basic rights of all – to come home safe and sound after a hard day’s work.

Agent Orange benefit screening process scrutinized in Congress

By Frank Matt


A Vietnam Veteran is reflected in the Vietnam War Memorial Wall before a ceremony to mark the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War on March 29. Molly Riley AP Read more here:

The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs is looking into whether a contractor thoroughly reviewed the files of Vietnam veterans who might deserve benefits for illnesses linked to exposure to Agent Orange.

A contractor that pre-screens veteran files for evidence of those illnesses often spent just minutes reviewing each file, internal company documents show.

The contractor, QTC Medical Services, reviewed files for 160,000 veterans. They were paid approximately $300 for every file reviewed under 2 inches thick and $350 for files more than 2 inches thick.

160,000 The number of veterans’ files reviewed to determine eligibility for Agent Orange benefits

An unsealed lawsuit and contract documents obtained by McClatchy shed light on the contractor’s pre-screening process.

The suit alleges that QTC — a Lockheed Martin company — did not give their employees the necessary training to spot evidence of illnesses linked to Agent Orange and pressured employees to work at a pace that made it impossible to thoroughly review the file.

“This lawsuit raises a number of serious questions,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, in a statement to McClatchy. “Every veteran’s VA claim deserves a thorough and objective review. Our investigation will continue until we are satisfied that’s the case in this situation.”

QTC Medical Services and Lockheed Martin, citing ongoing litigation, declined to comment.

This lawsuit raises a number of serious questions. Every veteran’s VA claim deserves a thorough and objective review. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs

Agent Orange benefits are a moving target for the Department of Veterans Affairs. An ongoing class-action lawsuit — Nehmer v. Department of Veterans Affairs — requires the VA to review old veteran claims when new illnesses are linked to Agent Orange exposure.

That gives veterans who were previously denied benefits an updated review.

QTC reviewed 65,000 files for ischemic heart disease, Parkinson’s disease and hairy cell leukemia potentially linked to herbicide exposure in Vietnam, as well as 95,000 files for peripheral neuropathy. Only the files flagged by QTC as potentially eligible were sent back to the VA for a final decision.

The National Veterans Legal Services Program, who filed the class-action suit, told McClatchy that since 2010, they’ve identified more than 1,600 cases in which the VA failed to recognize and pay the required retroactive Agent Orange compensation, resulting in an additional $42 million being paid to veterans and their survivors.

Barton Stichman, NVLSP’s joint executive director, said they are paying close attention to the allegations against QTC to see if pre-screening is where veterans are falling through the cracks.

“If the contract or QTC did not ensure a process that was compliant with the Nehmer Court Orders, then the cases that were not flagged by QTC would have to be reviewed again.” Stichman said.

The lawsuit against QTC, brought by former claims file analyst David Vatan, was dismissed on grounds that Vatan did not know the terms of the contract, so whatever evidence he presented about how QTC performed the reviews, he could not prove the company misrepresented its work. Vatan and his attorneys have appealed.

McClatchy obtained the full contract with QTC through a Freedom of Information Act request.

$175 million Amount of fiscal year 2015 QTC contracts with the Department of Veterans Affairs


QTC’s contract stipulates the company must train its employees before they review files for Agent Orange-related conditions based on a guide provided by the VA. Vatan’s lawsuit alleges he and other analysts were not formally trained and were never given the VA’s training guide.

Instead, analysts were given a “reference manual” from QTC that omits much of the background information on relevant medical conditions included in the VA’s guide, as well as details about what supporting evidence for benefit eligibility might look like in a veteran’s file.

The contract also states that QTC must review each veteran’s entire file.

But QTC’s reference guide permits analysts to abbreviate the process, using summaries of prior benefit decisions printed on colored sheets of paper.

QTC’s senior vice president of operations, Dr. Margie Shahani, testified to Congress in 2008 that it would take a qualified analyst 60 to 90 minutes to review each claim file, an equivalent of seven or eight files per day.

Internal documents show QTC’s analysts worked much faster under a competetive performance rating system. Some analysts averaged nearly 30 claims per day and those who reviewed fewer than 12 to 15 were reprimanded for poor performance.

In the response to Vatan’s complaint, Lockheed Martin’s lawyers argued the contract did not spell out how much time they should spend on each file. “There is nothing inherently wrong with QTC encouraging people to work quickly,” the motion reads.

It takes 10-12 minutes for an experienced (analyst) to process one file in the computer system alone. How was the review conducted? Former QTC claims file analyst David Vatan

When one of his colleagues reported reviewing 50 files in a day, Vatan complained to a Lockheed Martin ethics officer. Vatan pointed out that 50 files a day would leave the analyst just 12 minutes per file if he or she worked two hours of overtime and took no breaks. “It takes 10-12 minutes for an experienced (analyst) to process one file in the computer system alone,” Vatan said. “How was the review conducted?’

Both the Department of Justice and the VA Office of the Inspector General investigated the allegations in the lawsuit, but neither chose to intervene and neither would comment on their investigation.

In fiscal year 2015, QTC’s various contracts with the Department of Veterans Affairs exceeded $175 million.

Frank Matt: 202-383-6159, @fxmatt4

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