House approves bill to improve suicide prevention programs for veterans (Associated Press)
The House unanimously approved a bill Tuesday aimed at reducing a suicide epidemic that claims the lives of 22 military veterans every day. A bill named for Clay Hunt, an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran from Houston who killed himself in 2011, would require the Pentagon and Veterans Affairs Department to submit to independent reviews of their suicide prevention programs. It also would establish a website to provide information on mental health services available to veterans, offer financial incentives to psychiatrists who agree to work for the VA and create a pilot program to assist veterans transitioning from active duty to veteran status. The suicide rate among veterans is about triple the average rate for the general population. The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.
PTSD and Pot: The fight to get veterans some weed (Rolling Stone)
American soldiers and veterans diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder are often given a duffle bag of drugs, from antidepressants like Zoloft and Paxil to any number of highly addictive opioids. Doctors who work with these soldiers in Veterans Affairs clinics are encouraged to prescribe such medications, and any thought of prescribing alternative medicine that has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration is generally forbidden. But some doctors break the chain. Sue Sisley is a psychiatrist who’s worked with veterans for 20 years. While she has never smoked marijuana herself, she’s heard how it can work from some of her patients who use it on their own to treat PTSD. “Nobody is claiming it’s a cure, but they report they have been successfully managing their symptoms,” she says. Sisley was set to begin studying the benefits of using medical marijuana to treat symptoms of PTSD at the University of Arizona – until she was fired in July, which she suspects happened for political reasons. Sisley has now been nominated for a $2 million grant by Colorado’s Medical Marijuana Scientific Advisory Council to fund her triple-blind study into how marijuana can help treat PTSD. (The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s health board will approve or deny the grant on December 17th.) Sisley hopes to treat half of the 76 veterans participating in the study in Arizona, as well as cooperating with doctors at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore for the other half. “Johns Hopkins has a long history of doing high quality marijuana research,” she says. One obstacle the study still faces is getting government-approved research marijuana.
Researchers testify before Oregon Senate committee on effects of service dogs (The Oregonian)
Some researchers have long believed that service dogs can benefit veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, and now they’re armed with some preliminary data to support their premise. Carla Green, a senior investigator with Kaiser Permanente’s Center for Health Research, testified today before a joint House and Senate Veterans Committee at the Oregon Legislature with initial results from a study on veterans with service dogs. “The Legislature was considering funding a pilot study to try and determine whether these types of service dogs are effective for treating psychiatric problems among veterans,” Green said in a phone interview following her testimony. “This gives them information that suggests that funding these kinds of dogs may be beneficial.” The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in 2012 cut funding therapy dogs for veterans with PTSD or other mental health issues. The agency says there isn’t enough clinical research yet to prove dogs effectively treat PTSD and other symptoms.
House committee to probe VA contracting scandals (The Washington Times)
The chairman of a House investigative subcommittee overseeing the Veterans Affairs Department says lawmakers are planning a series of hearings in the new Congress next year to investigate ongoing VA contracting scandals. Rep. Mike Coffman, the Colorado Republican who heads investigations for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said in an interview that he expects a “critical mass” of whistleblowers to help the panel probe mismanagement in the agency’s $15 billion-plus procurement system. “There’s no question that there are a lot of problems there,” he said. “My hope is that the subcommittee will be a catalyst for change.” He said he wants to probe further on a recent inspector general’s report that found a senior contracting official leaked protected information while trying to strong-arm staffers into using reverse auction company FedBid. That inspector general investigation also showed the company plotted to “assassinate” the character of another senior VA executive who questioned the contractor’s costs and complained about mismanagement of the contract. Ultimately, the inspector general recommended the company be disbarred from VA contracting and the contracting official, Susan Taylor, resigned. The agency cut ties with the company. FedBid has denied any wrongdoing and said it’s cooperated with the inspector general investigation.
Prudential reaches $40 million settlement with veterans families over death benefits (MassLive.com)
A $40 million court settlement has been reached between insurance giant Prudential Insurance Company of America and family members of 67,000 fallen veterans who said they were shortchanged on death benefits. Among the lead plaintiffs was Kevin Lucey, father of a soldier from Belchertown who committed suicide after he returned from combat duty in Iraq in 2003. The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District court here in 2010, and eventually morphed to include tens of thousands more as a class action lawsuit. The plaintiffs argued Prudential mistreated beneficiaries by paying woefully low interest rates and holding back lump sum payouts in favor of investing the money. In addition, beneficiaries typically did not receive checks for cash but “draft checks” that were subject to negotiation among retailers and financial entities, plaintiffs’ lawyers said during court hearings. The debate focused on the use of “Alliance Accounts,” akin to checking accounts, that come with a booklet of drafts. The policy allows families to write a check for the full amount of the payment or in 36 monthly installments.
Contractor walking away from VA hospital in Aurora (Denver Post)
The contractor building a new Veterans Administration hospital in Aurora said it will walk away from the troubled project after a federal board of appeals decision Tuesday that the VA breached its contract. “Kiewit-Turner must cease all work on the project,” Kiewit Corp. executive vice president Scott Cassels said in a letter to VA Secretary Robert McDonald and Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson. “We will take all reasonable actions to preserve and protect work currently in place and materials on-site as we begin a safe and orderly demobilization from the project,” Cassels wrote. The U.S. Civilian Board of Contract Appeals agreed with Kiewit-Turner that the VA failed to meet its contractual obligation to manage the Denver VA Medical Replacement Project. The VA did not produce a design that could be built for $604 million but instead has designed a project that would cost more than $1 billion, the board determined.
Report: VA physicians not checking for adverse reactions from opioids (The Daily Caller)
A government watchdog report shows Veterans Affairs physicians aren’t properly checking the documentation system before prescribing and renewing opioids for patients. This oversight leaves veterans at risk for adverse effects and narcotics abuse. Investigators carefully examined the VA Chillicothe medical center in Ohio after receiving allegations that physicians were prescribing opioids without evaluating patients. On top of that, physicians were reportedly not monitoring veterans to see the effectiveness of the medication, or whether abuse or adverse reactions were occurring. Not all of the allegations were true. After a detailed site visit, investigators determined there was no substance to the claim that physicians were prescribing opioids to patients they had never seen. However, physicians did at least renew prescriptions without seeing patients, but that is not directly against VA policy.
Veterans offer problems and praise to Cleveland VA (Cleveland.com)
The first murmurs of dissent surfaced even before Dr. Murray Altose had finished his presentation Tuesday about the Louis Stokes Cleveland Veterans Affairs Medical Center, where he is chief of staff. Altose was joined by Todd Weber, assistant director of the VA’s Cleveland Regional Benefit Office, for a third town hall meeting of this year, inviting vets and their families to provide feedback about the agency’s performance. The event, held at the Parma VA Outpatient Clinic, is part of a national effort to restore confidence in the VA‘s medical treatment and benefits system. Local officials said the meetings will be held quarterly, with the next one possibly in March. The two previous sessions were marked by sharp criticism and complaints, and this latest gathering was no exception. As Altose extolled the medical center’s commitment to quality, one woman in the audience muttered, “Then why doesn’t this happen?” A veteran seated nearby was even harsher. “Lies!” he simply said. Questions about individual circumstances raised by some of the 60 or so veterans attending were referred to consultations with case workers in separate rooms. Other remarks by veterans and family members were met with sympathy and promises to improve.
VA system has been unfairly maligned (Tacoma News-Tribune)
Opinion: “One of the biggest – and most misunderstood – stories of 2014 was about the nation’s largest health care system, the Veterans Health Administration. Revelations that managers at the VA were concealing long wait times led to the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and has left the lasting impression that the VA does not deliver high-quality care. The drumbeat of negative coverage has also made it difficult for the new VA secretary, Robert A. McDonald, to recruit more physicians, nurse practitioners and physicians’ assistants to ease the staffing shortage that caused the waits in the first place. And this negative coverage also obscured the basic fact that the VA delivers some of the best – indeed, some of the only – coordinated health care in the entire country. While many health systems and hospitals in the private sector talk about patient safety and teamwork, the VA actually delivers. In many primary care clinics in the VA, a veteran going in to see his or her primary care physician will be treated by a team of nurses, nurse practitioners, licensed practical nurses, pharmacists, nutritionists and psychologists who actually hold daily huddles about their patients face to face.”
Federal worker job satisfaction 2nd lowest in government at the VA (Politico)
Federal employee satisfaction is at its lowest in 11 years, according to a new study on Tuesday that ranked NASA and the Commerce Department as among the best federal agencies to work for and the Departments of Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs the worst. The Partnership for Public Service and Deloitte’s 2014 rankings found that employee satisfaction has decreased for its fourth consecutive year since 2010. The ranking includes 389 federal agencies, about 97 percent of the federal workforce. Agencies were placed into four categories: large, mid-size, small and federal subcomponents. Federal employees ranked their workplaces on 10 different factors, including effective leadership, pay, strategic management, training and development, innovation, employee skills-mission match, work-life balance and support for diversity. From these ratings, agencies are given a score between 1 and 100. Overall, federal agencies received a score of 56.9, falling 0.9 points over the past year and 8.1 points since 2010.