Veterans news update for Nov. 7

Veterans news update for Nov. 7

Veterans news updateMore than 600 reported chemical exposure in Iraq, Pentagon acknowledges (New York Times)
More than 600 American service members since 2003 have reported to military medical staff members that they believe they were exposed to chemical warfare agents in Iraq, but the Pentagon failed to recognize the scope of the reported cases or offer adequate tracking and treatment to those who may have been injured, defense officials say. The Pentagon’s disclosure abruptly changed the scale and potential costs of the United States’ encounters with abandoned chemical weapons during the occupation of Iraq, episodes the military had for more than a decade kept from view. This previously untold chapter of the occupation became public after an investigation by The New York Times revealed last month that although troops did not find an active weapons of mass destruction program, they did encounter degraded chemical weapons from the 1980s that had been hidden in caches or used in makeshift bombs. The Times initially disclosed 17 cases of American service members who were injured by sarin or a sulfur mustard agent. And since the report was published last month, more service members have come forward, pushing the number who were exposed to chemical agents to more than 25. But an internal review of Pentagon records ordered by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has now uncovered that hundreds of troops told the military they believe they were exposed, officials said.

VA patients treated with bogus medical equipment, supplies (Washington Times)
Unauthorized and potentially counterfeit, dangerous surgical devices and medical supplies have flowed unchecked into the Department of Veterans Affairs supply chain and into VA operating rooms, according to internal agency correspondence from a major supplier who blamed new procurement rules. The bogus supplies gained a foothold when the department started using reverse auctions to fulfill some contracts, according to both department officials and a 2012 memo from Johnson & Johnson, the world’s largest medical device business. In the memo, the company told the VA it was getting surgical supplies bought from unauthorized distributors through the so-called “gray market,” and said those supplies raised serious questions about patient safety, according to emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. Officials also warned the VA that an ongoing corporate investigation into the gray market showed how some unauthorized sellers were passing off products stolen from other hospitals. “We do not believe that the VA intended for its efforts to utilize new procurement tools such as reverse auctions to result in these outcomes,” a company official wrote.

John McCain vows tough oversight of VA in GOP-led Senate (The Blaze)
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is promising that starting next year, the Republican-led Senate will conduct much tougher oversight of the Department of Veterans Affairs, which McCain said has failed to implement a new law aimed at bringing accountability to the broken department. “It’s been a significant disappointment to me,” he said in a Thursday interview with TheBlaze. “We are going to have to have a lot more vigorous congressional oversight.” McCain said it’s widely expected that Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) will be the chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee when Republicans take over the chamber next year. He also said he’s already talked with Isakson about the need to crack down on the VA. “He’s going to start up the hearings right away about what’s happened with the bill, what hasn’t happened, and frankly, he’s going to have to put their feet to the fire,” McCain said. McCain and other members of Congress have been increasingly critical of the VA for its failure to fire anyone involved in the VA health care scandal. Earlier this year, Congress passed a bill giving the VA secretary the authority to fire people, but Secretary Robert McDonald appears to have used it just once.

VA chief calls culture change key to improving system’s health care (New York Times)
Robert A. McDonald, the secretary of Veterans Affairs, spoke with reporters on Thursday about changing the culture of an agency that is still trying to recover from the scandal over delays in care at VA hospitals that was uncovered in May. Since then, he said, wait times for doctor visits at the hospitals across the country have gone down. Mr. McDonald said that at the department’s medical center in Phoenix — where delays in care contributed to the deaths of several patients — wait times have gone down by as much as 37 percent. Using that and other figures, he hopes to show that change is coming. “Changing culture is one of the most important things a leader can do, particularly coming out of a crisis situation,” he said. “We know that the trust has been compromised. And we know that we’re going to have to earn that back — one veteran at a time.” That was Mr. McDonald’s goal when he developed the “Road to Veterans Day” action plan that would address deep institutional deficiencies. The agency has extended clinic hours at facilities across the nation, sent out mobile units to constituents in places like Phoenix, and hired more doctors and nurses, all in an effort to accelerate patient access to care. More than 1.2 million additional appointments have been scheduled in the past four months compared with the same period last year.

VA should get veterans’ health care from private providers (Forbes)
Opinion: The military is all about missions, and we have given too many to the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA’s job is to serve veterans and their families, helping them re-integrate into society after often harrowing circumstances in the defense of our country and its values. This mission has manifested in a broad set of programs typically handled by many other Federal agencies and departments—including health, education, housing and social services. It is the health mission that is most at risk. VA Secretary Robert McDonald reported recently that the inspector general “was unable to conclusively assert that the absence of timely quality care caused the death” of veterans in Phoenix. However, the report uncovered systemic problems nationwide. Surely the VA aspires to a higher standard. Congress seems willing by having authorized an additional $16 billion to shore up the VA health system that already spends almost $60 billion annually on medical care. These funds will be used to hire even more doctors and medical staff—all in the hope of addressing scheduling and access problems. Perhaps there is a better way.

First ‘Choice Cards’ go to 320,000 veterans living far from VA care (Stars & Stripes)
The Department of Veterans Affairs has mailed its first medical “Choice Cards,” with letters explaining how to use them, to 320,000 VA-enrolled veterans who reside more than 40 miles from any type of VA medical facility. By late November, another 370,000 vets, those facing waits longer than 30 days for VA appointments, will be the second group to get the cards, said Dr. James Tuchschmidt, VA’s acting principal deputy under secretary for health. These are the two groups of vets eligible immediately to use information on their Choice Card to try to secure more convenient or timely care than VA can provide.  By the end of January another 8 million enrolled veterans also will receive Choice Cards. These vets, however, won’t be eligible to use them to access non-VA care unless they move beyond 40 miles of a VA-owned medical facility or VA can’t provide care within 30 days.  The 30-day window is based on a veteran’s preferred date to get care or the date deemed medically necessary by their physicians. To receive a Choice Card, veterans must have been enrolled in VA health care by Aug. 1, 2014.  Those who have enrolled later are eligible only if they served on active duty in a theater of combat operations in the previous five years.

3 reasons there’s no quick fix at Veterans Affairs (ABC News)
Nearly six months after the scandal that rocked the Department of Veterans Affairs over outrageous wait times and secret waiting lists, new secretary Robert McDonald says things continue to improve but he can’t fix everything immediately. Here are three reasons why: 1, Fixing wait times costs money; 2, Still can’t remove bad employees; 3, Choice cards need to be rolled out.

Past success won’t fix what’s broken at Veterans Affairs (San Diego Union-Tribune)
The last few years have been rocky for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, where a cascade of scandals have exposed the dysfunctional department’s sad record of mismanagement and bureaucratic malfeasance. That dysfunction has had serious effects on the health, well-being and even lives of veterans who depend on the VA for care. Which is why it’s alarming to see VA Secretary Robert McDonald’s most recent defense of the department’s shoddy record. In a recent column for The Baltimore Sun, McDonald defended the VA’s performance by pointing to the department’s historical record of standard-setting health care practices and technological innovation. Unfortunately, most of those accomplishments are in the distant past. Today, the VA’s reputation has fallen to the lows of the post-Vietnam 1980s. A department that could once claim to be the gold standard is now a rusting relic.

Ex-Young VA doctor gets $500,000 settlement (Tampa Bay Times)
A former doctor at the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center who said he was ousted in 2008 for his outspokenness on patient safety and workplace discrimination issues has won a $500,000 settlement of his federal lawsuit. The settlement by Dr. Jacques Durr, 66, who worked as a kidney specialist at the Seminole hospital, may be the largest individual settlement of a workplace discrimination lawsuit nationally against the Department of Veterans Affairs since at least 2009, according to a Treasury Department database of settlements. Treasury records indicate the payment was finalized Oct. 21. Durr confirmed the amount when contacted by the Tampa Bay Times, noting his legal fees exceeded the payout. In the last year, about $2 million in legal settlements have been paid to 13 current or former Young VA employees for complaints that included sexual harassment, racial discrimination and institutional retaliation involving those who speak out against management.