Veterans news update for Dec. 4

Veterans news update for Dec. 4

Veterans news updateAudit: Over 40,000 vets who called VA help line for homeless weren’t served (The Washington Times)
While first lady Michelle Obama has personally crusaded to end veteran homelessness, the Veterans Affairs marquee program to address the problem has stumbled badly in outreach to homeless veterans, failing to answer, check on or provide prompt service to tens of thousands who called its help line, an internal investigation found. Of the estimated 79,500 homeless veterans who contacted the VA’s National Call Center for Homeless Veterans last year, nearly 27 percent were unable to reach a counselor and had to leave messages, 16 percent could not be referred to VA medical facilities because their messages were inaudible or lacked contact information, and 4 percent were not referred to VA facilities at all, the VA’s internal watchdog reported Wednesday. “The Call Center lacked adequate management and operational controls to ensure homeless veterans had around-the-clock access to counselors and received needed homeless support services,” the inspector general reported. The VA-staffed call center, located in Canandaigua, New York, is the primary vehicle for the agency to communicate with veterans and community providers about support programs and services for homeless veterans. Theoretically, homeless veterans can call 24 hours a day seven days a week and speak with a trained counselor. But the inspector general identified 40,500 cases last year in which the call center did not refer homeless veterans to medical facilities or it closed referrals without following up with the VA to ensure the veterans received care.
Related: There were 49,933 homeless veterans during the 2014 count

High costs threaten veterans’ access to Hepatitis C drug Sovaldi (Stars & Stripes)
A new drug holds the potential to cure hepatitis C in tens of thousands of veterans but will require billions in new spending to cover the cost, Department of Veterans Affairs officials told a Senate panel Wednesday. The department has requested $1.3 billion from Congress to buy Sovaldi, a drug approved last year for the treatment of the potentially deadly liver disease. But the money will only buy treatment for about 30,000 infected vets while as many as 114,000 might need it, said David Ross, director of the VA’s HIV, hepatitis C, and public health pathogens programs. Sovaldi often results in a short-term cure instead of existing maintenance treatments that are long, painful and sometimes require liver transplants. Providing it to all the veterans at the current price of over $500 per pill could cost the VA another $2.6 billion. The VA has cut its cost for the drug in half through negotiations with the company that owns Sovaldi, Gilead Sciences, Inc., but is still asking for more than a billion dollars in new funding to begin treatments, said Michael Valentino, pharmacist and chief consultant to the VA Pharmacy Benefits Management Services. For now, the department is shifting money to provide Sovaldi to vets who request it, he said.

Former VA official: Burn pits could be the new Agent Orange (AlJazeera America)
Anthony Thornton has trouble speaking, can’t read anymore and has trouble keeping up with his 3-year-old daughter. He said he doesn’t remember everybody’s name. Thornton, 35, suffers from a rare and aggressive form of brain cancer. Doctors had to take out parts of his brain – his temporal lobe and part of his hippocampus.  “I’ve lost a lot, and what I would like to do, I don’t really have that anymore,” said Anthony Thornton. “I don’t like being like this.” Thornton believes he got sick from toxins he was exposed to from massive, open-air burn pits while serving his country. Burn pits operated on U.S. military bases across Iraq and Afghanistan. At the height of the wars, more than 250 bases burned their trash, releasing large plumes of black smoke into the air. “During the daytime, it was solid black. You could smell it,” he said. “And depending on where the sun was, it was so thick, it would block some of the sun.” Thornton was a staff sergeant and worked as a prison guard at Camp Bucca in Iraq. He said the smoke from burn pits lingered above his living quarters. He was diagnosed with asthma and bronchitis while he was in Iraq. Three years after he came home, doctors found the tumor. Kerry Baker is a former Veterans Affairs official who has analyzed the toxins found in burn pit smoke. For three years since he left the agency, he’s been fighting to get the Department of Defense and the VA to recognize that burn pit exposure has sickened veterans.

VA delay triggers $6,324 bill for dying veteran who got married (Seattle Times)
When Rob Arthur was diagnosed with brain cancer back in January, the gaunt, gray-haired Vietnam veteran decided to wed his longtime girlfriend, Debbie Shafer, in a hospital room. The marriage has been a source of comfort for this couple as they face the challenges of an unforgiving disease, deemed terminal, in a trailer home set by the steep flanks of the North Cascade mountains. It also has been a big source of stress in their dealings with the federal Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Last summer, the VA ruled that Arthur — his earnings boosted by his wife’s wages as a nurse’s aide — was no longer eligible for an income-based pension and would have to repay $6,324 in checks mailed out during the more than six months that the department took to make this decision. “They are mental abusers right now, is the way I look at it,” Shafer said. “And that’s not a kind way to look at your government. We got knocked down, and now they are stomping on us. We don’t have the money to pay them.” These overpayments are more fallout from the troubled VA’s inability to keep up with a massive caseload of veterans who turn to the department for benefits. These delays sometimes can create major financial problems for the veterans by sticking them with unexpected bills to repay checks they should not have received.

Critics: VA caregiver programs need improvement (Military Times)
When Congress created new assistance programs for veterans’ caregivers four years ago, the idea was to make caring for an injured loved one easier. But for many it has just become another headache, officials say. Caregivers face a host of disparate eligibility requirements and lengthy registration waits despite the obvious financial and emotional support they provide, researchers told members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Wednesday. They’re pushing for better coordination of Defense and Veterans Affairs Department offerings and an expansion of those programs, to ensure support services for all military and veterans caregivers. “No one-size-fits-all approach is going to work here,” said Rajeev Ramchand, a researcher with the Rand Corp. “These programs need to be adapted … for more veterans, for aging issues that will develop.” VA officials say they are making progress, with a caregiver coordinator in every VA hospital and a comprehensive national program for caregivers. Under the new programs, caregivers can receive formal training and assistance to provide for their injured veterans’ medical needs, and medical coverage for themselves if other health care isn’t available. Caregivers of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans can also receive a stipend for their home care work. The department has about 18,000 caregivers in its assistance program, more than four times the demand VA officials originally estimated. Government Accountability Office researchers said that has led to multi-month waits for some new applicants, and frustration with the application process.

Over 80 percent of veterans with PTSD believe current VA treatment ineffective (Independent Voter Network)
A new bill gaining speed on the Hill aims to make changes within the VA’s mental health care system that proponents hope will reduce the veteran suicide epidemic. It is no secret that the veteran suicide rate is extremely high, with 22 veterans per day taking their own lives. It’s also no secret that health care in general, and mental health care in particular, is lacking in the VA health care system. Unfortunately, the VA is the only option that many veterans have for their care. A new bill, called the “Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans (SAV) Act,” is currently being considered in the U.S. Senate with a version also in the House. The bill is named after Clay Hunt, a Marine Cpl. who committed suicide in 2011 after battling PTSD and depression following multiple combat tours. Hunt’s mother, Susan Selke, addressed the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee in November, urging lawmakers to pass the bill named for her son. Currently working its way through Congress, the Clay Hunt bill would impose a number of changes to VA mental health care. The most massive task that is mandated in the bill is a complete review of all current mental health care programs, including the suicide prevention programs already in place. These programs have little effect on the numbers of veteran suicides, as the rate has remained virtually constant for years.

VA has fired more than 500 employees since July (Federal Times)
The Veterans Affairs Department has fired more than 500 employees since secretary Bob McDonald was confirmed on July 29, according to the agency. The agency has fired more than 900 employees since the beginning of fiscal year 2013 and has proposed disciplinary action against 45 employees for manipulating data or for patient care issues. Verna Jones, the executive director of The American Legion said the firings were an indication that the VA is getting the message to punish wrongdoers with serious consequences. “We expect Secretary McDonald to continue dismantling a management culture that, in some areas, had forfeited proper medical treatment for veterans in order to receive financial bonuses.” The VA has come under fire from veteran groups and lawmakers for not doing enough to punish VA employees who manipulated wait lists and scheduling systems to boost performance numbers. Initial investigations showed systemic wait list and medical care issues and forced the resignation of then-secretary Eric Shinseki.

Congress punts on reducing retiree COLA pay (
A move to reduce retirement pay increases for future career service members by 1 percent lower will not go into effect for another year under the 2015 defense budget agreed to by the Senate and House armed services committees. The provision, which is targeted toward working-age retirees — those under 62 — has been criticized by military associations and veterans groups since it was first proposed in 2013 as a way to rein in spending. Delaying the start of the COLA-minus-one plan until Jan. 1, 2016, means anyone entering the military over the next year and remaining in for a full career will be exempt from the provision. The National Defense Authorization Act still must be voted on House and Senate, which is scheduled to occur before Christmas.

Inspector General will investigate Hibbing VA (Mesabi Daily News)
The Inspector General’s Office will investigate the allegations of former Hibbing VA Clinic employees who have said they were ordered to backdate medical records at the facility, according to 8th District U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan. In addition, in a telephone interview with the Mesabi Daily News Wednesday afternoon, the Democratic congressman said the investigation will also consider allegations by the former employees of a hostile work environment. “None of the six women I talked with (a week ago in Mountain Iron) told me they had ever been interviewed. That’s not an investigation if you don’t talk to people who are making the allegations.” Nolan said he believes the investigation will be processed quickly by Washington standards. “I’m thinking months, not years,” he said. The former VA workers have said that they were required to backdate medical appointment schedules to make it appear that some veterans were being seen far sooner than when the appointments actually took place. In addition, they also said there was a policy and attitude that put profits ahead of the wellbeing of veterans.

Bad things happen to whistleblowers when watchdogs become attack dogs (Washington Examiner)
Terrance Peterson was trained in the military to report wrongdoing, regardless of the consequences. That code of integrity did not serve him well after he reported wrongdoing to the Department of Veterans Affairs inspector general. In January 2013, Peterson complained to the IG about unsanitary conditions at the Wilmington, Del., VA hospital where he worked. He had filed previous complaints that veterans faced needless delays in getting care. The IG turned Peterson’s charges over to agency administrators so they could investigate themselves. They found they did nothing wrong and the case was dropped. What followed was a year of retaliation, the former Navy and Marine medic says. Hospital administrators claimed Peterson was a hothead prone to complaining to outside agencies. Peterson was transferred out of the dialysis unit, the one he complained about. He was accused of making threats against his boss, a doctor who ran the department, and was directed to attend anger management sessions.