Thursday, July 24 2014 11:25 PM EDT2014-07-25 03:25:49 GMT
A condemned murderer took nearly two hours to die and gasped for about 90 minutes during an execution in Arizona that quickly rekindled the national debate on capital punishment in the U.S.More >>
The nearly two-hour execution of a convicted murderer prompted a series of phone calls involving the governor's office, the prison director, lawyers and judges as the inmate gasped for more than 90 minutes.More >>
Thursday, July 24 2014 11:05 PM EDT2014-07-25 03:05:13 GMT
A law enforcement official and online marketplace StubHub say cyber thieves got into more than 1,000 customers' accounts and fraudulently bought tickets for events.More >>
Some of the hottest tickets in town - to Broadway hits, Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake concerts, a New York Yankees-Boston Red Sox game - were snapped up by an international ring of cyber thieves who commandeered more than...More >>
Thursday, July 24 2014 10:04 PM EDT2014-07-25 02:04:46 GMT
An 80-year-old man says he shot and killed a fleeing woman whom he had caught burglarizing his home, despite her plea that she was pregnant.More >>
Police said Thursday they're deciding whether to arrest an 80-year-old man who shot a fleeing, unarmed burglar despite her telling him she was pregnant, but they have arrested the woman's accomplice on suspicion of...More >>
Thursday, July 24 2014 9:25 PM EDT2014-07-25 01:25:19 GMT
Sen. John Walsh said his unattributed use of others' work in his master's thesis was not plagiarism but "a few citations that were unintentionally left out of a term paper" that he blamed in part on...More >>
Sen. John Walsh remained steadfast Thursday amid an investigation into whether he plagiarized a research project required for a master's degree, winning fresh backing from fellow Democrats in Montana and the governor...More >>
Thursday, July 24 2014 8:22 PM EDT2014-07-25 00:22:52 GMT
A caravan of Canadians bringing jugs with 1,000 liters of water arrived in Detroit on Thursday afternoon in a symbolic protest against the bankrupt city shutting off water to residents who haven't paid their...More >>
A caravan of Canadians bringing jugs with 1,000 liters of water arrived in Detroit on Thursday afternoon in a symbolic protest against the bankrupt city shutting off water to residents who haven't paid their bills.More >>
Thursday, July 24 2014 8:15 PM EDT2014-07-25 00:15:07 GMT
The nation's third botched execution in six months offers more evidence for the courts that lethal injection carries too many risks and amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, death-row lawyers and other...More >>
The nation's third botched execution in six months offers more evidence for the courts that lethal injection carries too many risks and amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, death-row lawyers and other opponents...More >>
Thursday, July 24 2014 7:38 PM EDT2014-07-24 23:38:16 GMT
The family of an Indiana teenager who crashed in the Pacific Ocean during an around-the-world flight says he knew the risks and had prepared for them.More >>
A man who saw a plane flown by an Indiana teen who was killed during an around-the-world flight attempt says the aircraft was flying low but didn't show any obvious signs of distress before diving into the ocean off...More >>
Thursday, July 24 2014 7:38 PM EDT2014-07-24 23:38:13 GMT
A northeast Ohio woman convicted along with her boyfriend of enslaving a mentally disabled woman in their home for nearly two years will be sentenced in federal court in Youngstown.More >>
An Ohio woman convicted along with her boyfriend of enslaving a mentally disabled woman in their home for nearly two years through intimidation, threats and abuse was sentenced Thursday to 32 years in federal prison, the...More >>
Thursday, July 24 2014 7:24 PM EDT2014-07-24 23:24:58 GMT
Albert Thorn awoke in his rental cottage Thursday to the sound of heavy rain and wind. Then, there was screaming. Within minutes, the sky turned dark, cellphones pinged with emergency messages and a tornado tore...More >>
Albert Thorn awoke in his rental cottage Thursday to the sound of heavy rain and wind. Then, there was screaming. Within minutes, the sky turned dark, cellphones pinged with emergency messages and a tornado tore through a...More >>
Judge rules gay couples can continue to wed in Colorado, despite state's same-sex marriage banMore >>
Judge rules gay couples can continue to wed in Colorado, despite state's same-sex marriage banMore >>
By MATTHEW DALY Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) - The Department of Veterans Affairs says it has made "tremendous progress" in reducing a disability claims backlog that reached above 600,000 early last year. Members of Congress and the department's assistant inspector general don't believe it.
Allison Hickey, the VA's undersecretary for benefits, told Congress that at the insistence of officials from President Barack Obama on down, the benefits backlog has been whittled down to about 275,000 - a 55 percent decrease from the peak.
Hickey's claims were met with disbelief by some. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, told her flatly that he thinks the VA's numbers are inaccurate.
"I don't believe anybody at the table is telling the truth from the VA," Miller said at a contentious hearing that lasted more than five hours Monday night. "I believe you are hiding numbers."
Asked if she trusted numbers produced by VA, the agency's assistant inspector general, Linda Halliday, said no.
"I don't want to say I trust them," Halliday said.
In a report issued earlier Monday, Halliday said that in its rush to reduce the backlog of disability claims, the VA has made benefits payments of more than $85 million to veterans who lacked adequate medical evidence that they deserve them. Without improvements, the VA could make unsupported payments to veterans totaling about $371 million over the next five years for claims of 100 percent disability alone, Halliday said.
The IG's office also found widespread problems at VA regional offices in Philadelphia and Baltimore, including mail bins full of disability claims and associated evidence that had not been electronically scanned for three years.
"Improved financial stewardship at the agency is needed," Halliday told the House veterans panel. "More attention is critical to minimize the financial risk of making inaccurate benefit payments."
Special initiatives designed to remove older claims and speed processing of new claims are worthwhile, Halliday said, but in some cases they "have had an adverse impact on other workload areas" such as managing appeals filed by veterans and reducing overpayments to veterans.
Hickey defended her agency, saying the department has spent the past four years redesigning and streamlining the way it delivers benefits and services to veterans.
Last year, the Veterans Benefits Administration, which she oversees, completed a record 1.2 million disability rating claims, Hickey said. The agency is on track to complete more than 1.3 million rating claims this year and pay a total of $67 billion in benefits - about half the VA's budget, Hickey said. More than 90 percent of the claims are being processed electronically, she said.
The VA has long struggled to cope with disability claims. The backlog intensified in recent years as more solders returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, and as the VA made it easier for Vietnam-era veterans to get disability compensation stemming from exposure to Agent Orange.
The VA has set a goal to process all claims within 125 days at 98 percent accuracy in 2015, but so far has fallen far short. The agency now processes most claims within 154 days - or more than five months - at a 90 percent accuracy rate, compared with an accuracy rate of 86 percent three years ago, Hickey said. At one point, veterans were forced to wait an average nine to 10 months for their disability claims to be processed.
"It has never been acceptable to VA ... that our veterans are experiencing long delays in receiving the benefits they have earned and deserve," Hickey said, adding that she was "saddened and offended" by related problems that have plagued VA health centers in recent months. Investigators have found long waits for appointments at VA hospitals and clinics, and falsified records to cover up the delays.
Halliday, in her report, said she found similar problems with the benefits agency, including faulty claims processing that "increases the risk of improper payments to veterans and their families."
Inspectors surveying Philadelphia's VA benefits center in June found mail bins brimming with claims and associated evidence dating to 2011 that had not been electronically scanned, she said.
Inspectors also found evidence that staffers at the Philadelphia regional office were manipulating dates to make old claims appear newer. The findings are similar to problems in which investigators have found long waits for appointments at VA hospitals and clinics, and falsified records to cover up the delays.
In Baltimore, investigators discovered that an employee had inappropriately stored in his office thousands of documents, including some that contained Social Security data, "for an extensive period of time." About 8,000 documents, including 80 claims folders, unprocessed mail and Social Security information of dead or incarcerated veterans, were stored in the employee's office, Halliday said.
Kristen Ruell, an employee at the VA's Pension Management Center in Philadelphia, told the committee that mail routinely "sat in boxes untouched for years" at the pension office. Once, after becoming concerned that unopened mail was being shredded, Ruell opened the boxes and took photos. Instead of addressing the problem, she said, VA supervisors enacted a policy prohibiting taking photos.
After VA officials in Washington issued a directive last year ordering that a backlog of claims older than 125 days be reduced, the Philadelphia office "took this to mean that they could change the dates of every claim older than six weeks," Ruell said. While pension center managers later told the IG's office that the mislabeling was based on a misunderstanding of the directive, Ruell said, "these behaviors are intentional."
"The VA's problems are a result of morally bankrupt managers that through time and (government service) grade have moved up into powerful positions where they have the power to and continue to ruin people's lives," Ruell said.
Follow Matthew Daly on Twitter: https://twitter.com/MatthewDalyWDC
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.