Veterans news update for Dec. 16

Veterans news update for Dec. 16

Veterans news updateSuicide prevention bill likely sidelined until 2015 (Military Times)
Supporters of a sweeping veterans suicide prevention bill suffered a major setback Monday when retiring Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., blocked the measure in the waning hours of the year’s legislative session. The move likely means the end of the effort for this year, and potentially months of rebuilding work for advocates who championed the bill as a critical step forward in veterans mental health care. “This legislation is already long overdue,” said Bonnie Carroll, president of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. “The price we’ve already paid in lives waiting for this bill is already too high.” The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention act, named for a Marine veteran activist who took his own life in 2011, would create new peer support programs for troubled veterans, mandate new online mental health resources, repay student loans for psychiatrists willing to work at Veterans Affairs facilities, and evaluate existing suicide prevention programs to insure their effectiveness. The measure costs $22 million over five years. Supporters have said VA can absorb those costs within existing budget parameters, creating no new funding need. But Coburn disputed that, saying at best the new effort will drain funds from existing programs. With Congress just a few days from adjourning for the year, the legislative defeat likely means supporters will have to reintroduce and rebuild momentum for the measure next year.

Report: VA misled Congress and media about patient deaths, wait times (CNN)
The Department of Veterans Affairs misled Congress and members of the media about how many veterans died or suffered serious harm as a result of extreme treatment delays, according to a new report by the department’s top watchdog. The VA shared a fact sheet in April with Congress and the press that said 23 veterans died and a total of 76 suffered serious harm throughout the nation while waiting months or years for health care since 1999. But the report released Monday by the VA’s Office of Inspector General highlights multiple errors with these findings and a lack of evidence for statements the VA released about them. Amongst the misleading facts highlighted in the report, the VA overstated the timeframe of its review by eight years, since the VA said it examined unresolved requests for health care since 1999, but in reality only examined requests dating back to 2007. Moreover, the inspector general says there may have been “overstatements or understatements” about the number of deaths or illnesses resulting from delays at specific VA hospitals and that the fact sheet contained a number of other errors. These errors also included an incident reported to have occurred at one VA facility when it actually happened at another, and the number of “institutional disclosures” — where the VA admitted delays caused severe harm — as being overstated at one facility. The report raises questions about how many veterans may have had their appointments erased by VA staff before they received treatment.

Military’s use of other than honorable discharges will get increased scrutiny (Colorado Springs Gazette)
President Barack Obama is expected to soon sign a bill ordering an investigation of whether the military has improperly used other than honorable discharges to rid the services of wounded troops who commit minor offenses. The amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act passed both chambers of Congress and is on Obama’s desk. The amendment, written by U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., follows a Pulitzer Prize-winning 2013 Gazette investigation that found the Army used disciplinary discharges to part with soldiers who were later denied health care benefits that might help them recover from combat wounds and mental illness.  “We have heard from veterans in Colorado who believe that some service members are receiving less than honorable discharges for behavior that could be related to mental trauma from combat,” Bennet said Monday in a statement. “Clearly, we can’t have a system that punishes service members for injuries sustained in service and this bill will help us understand whether this is happening and what we need to do to change it.” Under the measure, the Government Accountability Office will investigate the discharges. Specifically, the report will show whether the military unfairly discharges troops for minor misconduct. It will also examine whether officers are trained to balance misconduct against war-caused mental illness and other factors. Other areas of inquiry include how often misconduct discharges can be related to troops with post-traumatic stress and whether troops are counseled on veterans benefits before agreeing to a dishonorable discharge.

Doctor says VA destroyed his career after he reported problems (Stars & Stripes)
For 24 years, Navy Cmdr. Jeff Hawker served his country, leaving active duty to continue treating his military brethren as a Department of Veterans Affairs doctor. After he started working at the Salem VA Medical Center, though, he said it took just a few months for officials at the medical center to oust him and to destroy his career after he reported dangerous medical practices. “You serve and you come back and you run into the corruption and malpractice” of the VA , he said. At a time when the VA is scrambling to hire doctors to make up for a critical shortfall, Hawker said he was the victim of a so-called “sham peer review,” a problem many say is widespread in the VA and little reported because the victims fear bringing attention to their negative reviews. Hawker said vindictive local VA officials have effectively ended his career after he voiced serious concerns about patient safety at a busy Virginia hospital, including a doctor performing procedures Hawker said he wasn’t trained to do and life-threatening medical errors. Worse, Hawker said, veterans there are still at serious risk months after he reported the problems. His allegations, passed through the office of Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., were enough to trigger a health care inspection by the VA Office of the Inspector General and an investigation by the Virginia Board of Medicine. Those inquiries are ongoing.

New faces for Senate VA panel (The Hill)
Senate Democrats and Republicans have announced who will lead the panel tasked with overseeing the Veterans Affairs Department as it emerges from one of the worst scandals in its history. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) will chair the Veterans’ Affairs Committee in the 114th Congress, Senate Republicans announced Monday. On Friday, Democrats said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) would serve as the panel’s ranking member. Current VA Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is due to become the ranking member on the Budget Committee next year, while the panel’s top Republican, Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.), is leaving to helm the Intelligence Committee. The committee will feature an expanded GOP roster, including incoming lawmakers Bill Cassidy (La.), Mike Rounds (S.D.), Thom Tillis (N.C.) and Dan Sullivan (Alaska). Sullivan is a Marine Corps veteran. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) is due to join the panel next year, Democrats said last week.

VA, contractor progressing toward deal on Colorado hospital (Denver Business Journal)
The Department of Veterans Affairs and contractor Kiewit-Turner are making progress toward a deal that would get construction going again on the VA’s hospital project in Aurora with estimated costs as high as $1 billion. “We received correspondence from the VA in an important first step in getting all workers back on the job and completing this project for Colorado-area veterans,” said Kiewit-Turner spokesperson Tom Janssen in a statement late Monday. “We have been encouraged by our conversations with Deputy Secretary (Sloan) Gibson since the (Civilian Board of Contract Appeals) decision and appreciate his personal attention and leadership on this matter,” Janssen’s statement continued. “We will be meeting with Deputy Secretary Gibson this week to discuss the critical details necessary to moving this project forward as soon as possible,” the statement said. Work on the Denver VA Medical Center ceased last week after a decision by the Civilian Board of Contract Appeals, an independent tribunal within the General Services Administration, said that VA had breached its contract with KT to build the hospital.