Major mess-up: How the VA gave Congress and the media false information (The Washington Post)
The Department of Veterans Affairs this year issued false statements to Congress and the media about treatment delays and how many patients died or suffered as a result of wait times at its health clinics. The agency’s inspector general this week released a report saying VA issued “several key statements” about its reviews of treatment delays that were “misleading or incorrect.” One of the agency’s top health officials, Thomas Lynch, acknowledged and apologized for the mistakes in a September 2014 letter to House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.). According to the inspector general’s report, Lynch made false statements about the reviews at a congressional hearing in April, and VA released incorrect information in a fact sheet for news outlets around the same time. “It was never my intention to misinform or confuse the committee on this complex issue,” the health official said in his apology to Miller. The agency issued its false statements while trying to explain the extent of its record-keeping scandal, which involved scheduling methods that hid treatment delays at VA medical centers nationwide. The inspector general’s findings cast doubt on whether the VA has figured out yet how to gather and issue accurate information.
Pelosi slams Coburn for blocking veterans suicide prevention bill (The Hill)
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) didn’t mince words when blaming Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) for blocking a bill to help prevent veteran suicides. The House passed the legislation, which is named after a Marine veteran named Clay Hunt who committed suicide, by voice vote last week. But on Monday night, retiring Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) objected when senators tried to pass it by unanimous consent. Coburn argued that the bill wouldn’t effectively hold the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) accountable. In a blistering statement, Pelosi accused Coburn of not caring about veterans. “Our veterans have cried out to our nation to act to help them. But this week, Senator Tom Coburn decided that our veterans are not worthy of our help,” Pelosi said. Pelosi further slammed Coburn’s legacy of blocking otherwise bipartisan legislation. “History will not remember kindly the man who spent his final days in the Senate denying our veterans the help they desperately need,” Pelosi said. Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.), the bill’s sponsor, said this week that he will “immediately” reintroduce the measure when the new Congress starts in January.
Colorado Board of Health approves medical marijuana research grant for PTSD (The Denver Post)
Colorado’s Board of Health on Wednesday approved up to $8.4 million of grants to pay for eight studies on medical marijuana, part of the largest-ever state-funded effort to study the medical efficacy of cannabis. The studies will look at whether marijuana can be used to treat childhood epilepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder, Parkinson’s disease, inflammatory bowel disease, pediatric brain tumors and spine pain. University researchers will conduct all of the studies, meaning the results will provide some of the best — and most respected — evidence to date on whether marijuana is a useful medicine. “This is new and uncharted territory,” Dr. Larry Wolk, executive director of the Colorado health department, said prior to the board’s unanimous vote to approve the funding. Last year, the state legislature authorized the Colorado health department to spend $9 million on medical marijuana research, meaning there remains as much as $1 million that will be used to expand the already-approved studies or fund additional research. An additional $1 million will be used for the program’s administrative expenses.
VA official apologizes for Colorado hospital construction delays (Wall Street Journal)
A top official with the Department of Veterans Affairs apologized Wednesday for budget problems and delays that have stalled construction of a major new VA hospital here, and said he hoped that work would restart by Christmas. Speaking from the site of the troubled project, which is running hundreds of millions of dollars over budget, Deputy Veterans Affairs Secretary Sloan Gibson called the situation unacceptable and embarrassing. He vowed that a contractual dispute with the builder would be resolved. “For all the lapses that have occurred over the last number of years in this particular project—they are well documented and they are many—I want to apologize,” said Mr. Gibson. “My commitment is that we will do everything we possibly can to get this project back on track.” Earlier this month, the hospital’s building contractor, Kiewit-Turner, walked off the job after the Civilian Board of Contract Appeals in Washington ruled the VA had breached its contract with the company. Kiewit-Turner alleged the VA hadn’t properly planned or budgeted for the facility.
Denver VA hospital contractor will resume work by Christmas (Denver Business Journal)
The Department of Veterans and contractor Kiewit-Turner have reached an agreement to resume construction on the Denver VA Medical Center. The agreement calls for Kiewit-Turner (KT) and all subcontractors on the project to be reimbursed for all costs associated with the project up to the date of last week’s shutdown totaling $158 million, as well as $50 million to cover up to three months of work on the construction site, $20 million as a contingency fund to cover change orders already completed and $1.8 million per month to KT to cover a rate of return above costs. KT will begin ramping up work next week, in exchange for immediate payment to cover past costs, as well as Army Corps of Engineers immediately getting involved with advising on the interim agreement, negotiating a permanent contract with KT and managing the project from the beginning of the new contract through completion. The interim agreement, being finalized Wednesday, totals $234 million.
VA clinic construction delayed in Louisiana (The Ripon Advance)
After learning that construction deadlines for the Veterans Administration health clinics in Lafayette and Lake Charles, Louisiana, are being pushed back nearly a year, Rep. Charles W. Boustany (R-La.) voiced his displeasure on Tuesday. “Just when South Louisiana’s veterans are given a chance for optimism, the VA goes back on its word again,” Boustany said. “I am furious this agency would announce such a drastic delay in the construction timeline without consulting with Congress or with local veterans.” In August, VA Congressional Relations Officer Michael Huff told Boustany that the VA “anticipates completion of construction of Lake Charles in summer 2015, or six months after lease award, and completion of construction in Lafayette in winter 2015/2016, or 12 months after lease award.” That timeline was abruptly altered during a town hall meeting on Monday night, when a new timeline was introduced to South Louisiana veterans by the Alexandria VA. Completion of construction on the Lake Charles facility has been pushed back to April 2016. First patients would not be seen at the clinic until June 2016. A similar delay was also announced regarding the Lafayette clinic.
Veterans booted from Beaufort National Cemetery during check presentation (The State)
Members of a veterans group say they were asked to leave Beaufort National Cemetery on Tuesday when they went there to present a donation to an organization raising money to expand the burial grounds. “It’s a sad day when you have veterans raise money, and they can’t even take a picture of them passing a check from one group to another,” said Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling, who showed up for the 4 p.m. ceremony only to find everyone had moved to Pigeon Point Park. Chapter 12 of the Disabled American Veterans raised $10,500 to give to the Veterans Cemetery Committee of Beaufort for the Beaufort National Cemetery Expansion Fund. The intent is to buy and donate the 5-acre Lafayette Square apartment complex just north of current cemetery. Jeff Teas, acting director for the cemetery, said the veterans were not told to leave; rather, they were told they could not have the ceremony there. “This is a (Veterans Affairs) national cemetery,” he said. “You can’t just have someone walk in and have a ceremony.” Proposals for ceremonies must be submitted in writing and approved in advance, a process that can take a few days or longer, depending on the nature of the proposal. Any activity should be related to honoring veterans, Teas said.
Bradley Stone cleared by VA doctors one week before murders, suicide (The Washington Times)
A Department of Veterans Affairs psychiatrist cleared former Marine Bradley Stone of suicidal or homicidal tendencies just a week before he went on a killing spree, slaying six others and then taking his own life. Stone, who had been in a child custody battle with his ex-wife, killed her and members of her family Monday. His body was found near his home in Pennsylvania on Tuesday with self-inflicted stab wounds and cuts. He had a 100 percent disability rating at the VA for post-traumatic stress disorder and had seen his psychiatrist just one week prior to the incident, a VA spokesman told The Washington Times on Wednesday. “He met with his psychiatrist on December 8th at the Coatesville [Veterans Affairs Medical Center], and the provider noted that at the time of the evaluation, the veteran was without any suicidal or homicidal ideation,” the VA statement said. A House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs staff member said the committee plans to ask the VA for a “detailed history of any interactions it may have had with Stone,” but declined to comment on the specifics of his case until the committee receives that information. Just three days before the attack, Stone was at the Veterans Justice Outreach Program in Norristown, Pennsylvania, his final interaction with the VA, the spokesman said.
New veterans study touted as a national model (The Chronicle on Philanthropy)
An unprecedented study pinpointing the needs of military veterans in Los Angeles County is being replicated elsewhere, and it could serve as a road map for donors and nonprofits nationally, according to veterans service providers. The University of Southern California research is believed to be the first comprehensive study to drill down into the veterans population at the local level. Nonprofit professionals say there is a dearth of such data and that the USC study will help them better zero in on needs, pursue funding from foundations and government agencies, and allocate resources. “I think it should be a national model,” said Dan Goldenberg, executive director of the Call of Duty Endowment, which focuses on veterans issues. Some veterans’ advocates say numbers maintained by federal agencies are unreliable, while other statistics don’t reflect local realities. USC’s Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Families published the study, titled “The State of the American Veteran: The Los Angeles County Veterans Study,” in June. At its core is a survey of 1,356 veterans — half of whom served before 9/11 — covering topics including employment status, housing, and mental health. The study has already been replicated in Orange County, south of Los Angeles, with the results scheduled to be released in February. Preliminary talks with donors are being done to execute a third study in Chicago.
VA finally speeds up a project, but it’s not for veterans (AllGov.com)
Who in Los Angeles could complain about a beautiful new amphitheater being built with a generous private donation on one of the city’s most desirable parcels? As it turns out, the answer is veterans and their advocates, who are none too pleased that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) allowed construction to continue after a federal judge voided leases with businesses and organizations using the sprawling Westside campus for things that had questionable connections to vets. On Monday, a two-judge panel of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals put a halt to any further development of the Hollywood Canteen Amphitheater until the government completed its appeal of the lower court’s ruling. Mark Rosenbaum, a Public Counsel pro bono lawyer, told the Los Angeles Times, “At the same time they say they don’t have anything for housing for veterans, they put the pedal to the metal.” U.S. District Judge S. James Otero told the VA a year ago that it needed to put its 386-acre campus to better use. Right now the VA site is home to the 50-year-old Jackie Robinson Stadium (home of the UCLA Bruins baseball team), a 20-acre parcel used by the private Brentwood School for its athletic complex, practice fields for a private soccer club, Fox studio production storage facilities, a laundry processing facility for nearby luxury hotels, a farmers’ market and a 15-acre parcel used by community groups for events. Meanwhile, the VA has let languish a 396-bed, $253-million facility for housing veterans on site that was inadvertently built without a kitchen. The building, opened in 2010, is half-empty despite there being thousands of homeless veterans wandering around Los Angeles.
Former VA contracting official under investigation (FedScoop)
The Treasury Department’s inspector general has launched an investigation into a senior procurement official who was found to have steered multimillion-dollar contracts to a friend’s company when she served as the executive director of the Office of Acquisition Operations at the Veterans Affairs Department, FedScoop has learned. The news follows a report released Tuesday by the VA’s inspector general that found Iris Cooper and her former deputy at the VA’s main acquisition office, Wendy McCutcheon, funneled multiple sole-source contracts worth more than $15 million to Tridec Technologies, a veteran-owned small business founded by a close friend and former colleague of Cooper. The original IG report had been barred from disclosure under the Privacy Act and FedScoop requested a copy under the Freedom of Information Act. The Treasury inquiry into Cooper will seek to determine if Cooper disclosed the existence of the VA inspector general investigation or if she was untruthful when applying for her new position at Treasury, according to a source who spoke to FedScoop on background because they were not authorized to comment on the record. FedScoop also reviewed emails pertaining to the inquiry.
Ex-Palo Alto VA official indicted in bribery case (SFGate.com)
A former U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs official in Palo Alto, Calif., was indicted by a federal grand jury on Wednesday on charges that he accepted thousands of dollars in money and construction work in exchange for giving preferential treatment to government contractors. Conrad Lopez Alfaro, 69, of Fremont was charged with two counts of receiving an illegal gratuity by a public official in an indictment handed down by a grand jury in San Jose. The charges are the latest in an ongoing prosecution by federal officials, who have alleged in court records that there had been a “culture of corruption at the Palo Alto VA.” Alfaro is to appear Jan. 22 before U.S. Magistrate Nathanael Cousins in San Jose. According to the indictment, Alfaro accepted $7,000 in February 2010 from Jack Stringer, the owner of Aero Drywall Construction, a subcontractor involved in several contracts with the VA in Palo Alto.