Veterans news update for Nov. 6

Veterans news update for Nov. 6

Veterans news updateSecretary McDonald: VA will seek more money from Congress for healthcare (Reuters)
The U.S. Veterans Affairs Department will seek further budget increases to deal with medical appointment backlogs and the mounting costs of caring for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, VA Secretary Bob McDonald said on Thursday. The increases will be requested on top of about $16 billion in emergency funds that Congress approved last summer amid a scandal over veterans languishing on long waiting lists for care at VA clinics and hospitals. “We need more,” McDonald told a media breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. He said costs of caring for veterans keep rising because of claims for conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, which affects veterans of conflicts all the way back to World War II, and illnesses related to the Agent Orange defoliant used during the Vietnam War. He added that as veterans age, they have more medical problems.

VA secretary says he’s moving quickly to solve problems (USA Today)
The new Veterans Affairs secretary pushed back Thursday on congressional criticism that he isn’t moving quickly enough to restore accountability after a wait-time scandal. On his 100th day as VA secretary, Bob McDonald said the agency is tracking 2,000 employees for disciplinary action, and that at least 40 are high-level. A measure signed into law by President Obama in August gives the administration more power to discipline those responsible for delaying appointments — and, in some cases, falsifying data to cover up the problem. But the new law changed only the appeal time for disciplinary action, and applies only to the top 1% of executives at the VA. “These laws are very clear, and I’m skeptical of whether these congressman don’t understand the law,” McDonald told reporters at a breakfast sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor. “We’re using veterans to create controversy.” Last week, the VA fired its first official in connection with the wait-time scandal. House Veterans Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said that’s not enough.

Justice Department undercuts VA explanations for not firing executives (Stars & Stripes)
The VA says it has held off for months on firing top management linked to a nationwide health care scandal because of ongoing criminal probes by the Department of Justice. But the DOJ this week told House investigators it takes no position on the VA firing disgraced Phoenix hospital director Sharon Helman and others who were in charge while hundreds of veteran hospitals and clinics manipulated patient data. House and Senate lawmakers have hammered the Department of Veterans Affairs on the lack of firings three months after Congress passed a $16.3-billion overhaul law, which included a provision allowing Secretary Bob McDonald to fire senior executives at will, replacing a process that often took months with one that takes just four weeks. The VA told the House Veterans Affairs Committee it was asked by the DOJ to wait on terminations until criminal probes were completed. But the DOJ denied that when questioned by the committee in the run-up to a Capitol Hill hearing on the issue. “The Department of Justice takes no position concerning whether the employment matters … should proceed or be stayed,” according to a Nov. 3 DOJ email to the House committee, obtained by Stars and Stripes.

VA names new director of Phoenix VA Health System (ExecutiveGov)
The Department of Veterans Affairs has named longtime administrator Glen Grippen as the third interim executive to oversee the Phoenix VA Health Care System since it became the hub of a national crisis over mismanagement and delayed care. Grippen is being brought out of retirement to replace acting Director Glenn Costie on Nov. 17 as head of the Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center and its Arizona satellite clinics. The facilities serve about 80,000 veterans. “Mr. Grippen is an exceptionally talented leader who will guide the Phoenix VA Health Care System as we continue to improve access and the quality of care for veterans in the Phoenix area,” said Lisa Freeman, acting network director. “He has the experience and skills to lead the Phoenix VA Health Care System during this critical time.” The Phoenix leadership has seen a revolving door since Sharon Helman was suspended as director in May following the release of a VA inspector-general report that held her responsible for manipulation of patient appointment data and other problems. Grippen is a former director of the VA hospital in Milwaukee, and also has served as an assistant deputy undersecretary at department headquarters. He retired in 2011 as director of the VA’s Rocky Mountain regional network after four decades of employment.

Veterans Choice Cards are in the mail today. So what are they? (Washington Post)
The Department of Veterans Affairs on Thursday plans to issue its first round of Choice Cards to former troops struggling to access care at VA medical centers. So what are these things, and what do they do? Choice Cards are a temporary benefit stemming from the VA’s record-keeping scandal, which involved nationwide coverups of treatment delays at the agency’s medical centers. The items allow eligible veterans to obtain care outside the VA hospital network if they have waited too long for an appointment or live far away from the nearest agency clinic. The government picks up the tab, with Congress allocating $10 billion for that purpose earlier this year in response to the scandal. But former service members who have experienced long delays will have to wait several more weeks their cards are mailed, since the VA is implementing the program in phases. The department plans to mail the first round on Thursday for veterans who live more than 40 miles from the nearest VA health center. Phase two is scheduled to begin by Nov. 17, with the agency sending cards to veterans who have waited more than 30 days beyond their preferred date, or a date that a doctor has determined to be medically necessary.

After years of declining numbers, veterans may gain a seat in Senate (Los Angeles Times)
The number of military veterans in the U.S. Senate had declined in every election since 1982 — until Tuesday. Victories by three newcomers — Republicans Tom Cotton in Arkansas and Joni Ernst in Iowa and Democrat Gary Peters in Michigan — guarantee that the total will remain at least at 20. Going into the midterm election, 20 senators had served in the armed forces. Three whose terms are expiring chose not to run. The number of vets in the Senate will rise to 21 if Republican Dan Sullivan wins in Alaska, where he leads the incumbent by 3.7%, or 8,149 votes, with tens of thousands of absentee ballots yet to be counted. Cotton, Ernst and Sullivan all served in the recent wars. Seth Lynn, who heads Veterans Campaign, a nonprofit group in Washington that trains former service members to run for office, said he was celebrating. “The expectation was that the number would drop,” he said.

Program trains police to defuse confrontations with troubled veterans (Stars & Stripes)
Clouds of smoke plumed from the spinning wheels of a white Cadillac pinned between two Las Vegas police cars. Officers had ordered the driver to exit the vehicle, and when he failed to comply, they devised a plan to flush him out. One officer would fire a beanbag round to shatter the car’s rear window. Another would then shoot a canister of pepper spray. A witness filmed the standoff in the parking lot of an apartment complex in the early hours of Dec. 12, 2011. The video shows the plan mutate into a killing. The beanbag round was fired. Less than a second later, before the pepper spray could be shot, a third officer blasted seven rounds from his assault rifle into the Cadillac. The car’s wheels stopped, the smoke dissipated. Four bullets had hit the driver. He was unarmed. Stanley Gibson, a 43-year-old Army veteran, served in the Persian Gulf War two decades earlier and remained besieged by post-traumatic stress disorder. He carried home memories of picking up charred corpses along the so-called Highway of Death, where U.S. forces bombed Iraqi troops retreating from Kuwait near the war’s end in 1991. Gibson’s paranoia and depression had deepened in the weeks before his death. Records show he had run out of anti-anxiety medication days earlier, after a Veterans Affairs clinician canceled an appointment that would have enabled him to obtain a refill. His behavior in his final hours revealed a man astray in his own mind, unmoored from the world around him. His death was preventable for several reasons, and three years later, in part because of what happened to him, 30 officers sat in a training course on de-escalation strategies for veterans with combat trauma.

Death prompts changes at Hampton VA hospital (Associated Press)
A patient’s death has prompted policy changes at the Hampton VA Medical Center. The Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General recommended the changes to the hospital’s education and training policies. The inspector general conducted an inspection of the hospital after it received allegations that the patient’s death in 2013 resulted from improper nursing care. In a report released Wednesday, the inspector general says nursing staff didn’t follow the hospital’s policy requiring a patient to be checked every 30 minutes. Inspectors couldn’t find documentation of any actions taken after the staff was notified of a change in the patient’s condition. Inspectors couldn’t determine whether the patient’s death resulted from the nursing staff’s failure to immediately assess him.

Spokane VA scaling back hours of emergency room operation (KXLY-Spokane)
Seven years ago, responding to the needs of the veteran community, the Spokane VA Medical Center announced it was reopening its emergency room to 24 hours. On Wednesday, the VA confirmed it was now planning to roll back its emergency room hours again. The VA Medical Center ER will be running on reduced hours, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week starting on December 1. The modified schedule for the emergency room will run through the spring. A letter is reportedly being sent out to all patients that use the VA Medical Center to make them aware of the change. “This isn’t a budgetary decision in any way or a response to any sort of change in mission. It’s purely a patient safety decision based on the lack of adequate staffing at this time,” says VA Public Affairs Officer Megan Crowley. Crowley says the changes are temporary and the ER and ambulance services will resume normal operation in the Spring.

Report clears Young VA center of wrongdoing (Tampa Tribune)
Though the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center was one of more than 110 nationwide being reviewed by the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General over concerns of patient waiting list manipulation, an independent hospital group reviewing VA facilities around the country gave it a clean bill of health after a recent visit. The report by the Joint Commission, which accredits and certifies more than 20,500 health care organizations and programs in the United States, found no problems with access to or quality of health care, according to hospital spokesman Jason Dangel. It is unrelated to the OIG review, which was initiated under former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. On Aug. 8, Shinseki’s replacement, VA Secretary Robert McDonald, ordered that “every medical center will undergo an independent review of scheduling and access practices beginning this fall. The Joint Commission is the nation’s oldest and largest standards-setting and accrediting body in health care.” The Young center was visited by a Joint Commission surveyor on Oct. 20 and 21, according to a memo from hospital director Suzanne Klinker.