Veterans news update for Jan. 13

Veterans news update for Jan. 13

Veterans news updateClay Hunt bill to overhaul veterans suicide programs passes House (Stars & Stripes)
The House on Monday passed a bill named after deceased Marine Corps veteran Clay Hunt that would overhaul VA suicide prevention programs. The vote was a crucial first step by supporters who hope to pass the bill through the new Congress after it was blocked in December by retiring budget hawk Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. There were 403 votes for the bill, no opposition and 30 lawmakers who did not vote. Now, it heads to the Senate. The legislation calls for a one-stop website with suicide prevention resources for veterans, more Department of Veteran Affairs psychiatrists and an independent review of current department programs. Hunt, who suffered with post-traumatic stress disorder, committed suicide in 2011. His parents and veterans service organizations back the overhaul as a way to reduce an average of 22 vet suicides daily in the United States. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., co-sponsored the bill. Despite the VA’s growing budget, staff and programs in recent years, Miller said on the House floor, “We have not seen a corresponding decrease in the number of our nation’s heroes who take their lives.”

VA data show wide disparities in veterans benefits spending (NPR)
If you’re a veteran and rely on benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, where you live may have an effect on whether you receive the benefits you’ve earned. NPR, together with member stations WBUR, Lakeshore Public Radio and KUOW, looked at data from 3,000 counties nationwide, and found there’s a huge variation in coverage from state to state — and even within a state — on how much the VA spends per veteran. We also found there’s no obvious pattern. And there’s no strong association between spending per veteran and the size or age of the veteran population, or the affluence of a particular area. Veterans’ benefits cover a wide range, including health care, monthly disability checks, home loans, life insurance, and education through the GI bill, among others. Among the states, West Virginia and Arkansas had the highest per-veteran spending in 2013 — just over $7,600. Indiana, New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania had the lowest — less than $5,000. Nationally, the average is just over $6,000. That’s after filtering out things like costs to build and operate VA facilities. When looking specifically at health benefit spending, calculating the amount of spending per “patient” — with a patient being a veteran who gets health benefits — there’s a wide variation that doesn’t fit discernible patterns. For example, spending is nearly $30,000 per patient in San Francisco, and less than $7,000 per patient in Lubbock, Texas. Nationally, the average is just under $10,000. In places where more veterans are enrolled in VA health benefit plans, spending per veteran did tend to be higher.

Factchecking Boehner’s claim that dozens died awaiting care at Phoenix VA (The Washington Post)
President Obama “won’t be far from the Phoenix VA facility, the epicenter of the VA scandal where dozens of veterans died while waiting for basic care.” — House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), news conference, Jan. 8, 2015. The Veterans Affairs scandal suddenly popped up again at House Speaker John Boehner’s news conference. We had previously noted that many lawmakers, Republican and Democrat, had jumped the gun and had blamed the deaths of some 40 veterans on the fact they were still on waiting lists to get an appointment at the Phoenix VA facility. But a report released in August by the VA Office of Inspector General (OIG), while highly critical of VA practices that included unofficial waiting lists, said it could not conclusively link that many deaths to being on the wait list. After reviewing the records of 3,409 patients from a variety of sources, OIG uncovered 44 deaths that took place while a patient was on an electronic waiting list. But in the complete list of patients, OIG found only 28 instances of “clinically significant delays in care associated with access to care or patient scheduling.” Of that group, six were deceased. … Initially we were inclined to believe that the speaker was exaggerating the number of deaths and ignoring the results of the OIG report. But OIG officials have acknowledged that wait lists might have contributed to the deaths, in effect negating the previous conclusion that just six deaths could be traced to scheduling delays. The OIG found 44 patients who died while on the electronic waiting list, so that certainly qualifies as “dozens.”

Philadelphia VA announces incentives of cash and food for deciding cases quickly (The Washington Times)
The Philadelphia VA announced a new incentive program earlier this month that rewards employees with cash and food for deciding cases quickly — a move that some employees say will encourage staff to rush claims and reject deserving applicants, once again leaving veterans struggling for benefits. For some, the program is too similar to one at the Phoenix VA hospital last year that led to patients dying while waiting for care, even as employees manipulated wait time data to collect bonuses. The new Philadelphia program is designed to push employees to clear a backlog in disability claims. The team that has processed the most claims at the end of every other week will receive a breakfast, luncheon or snack as a reward, according to an incentive fact sheet obtained by The Washington Times. Each team that hits its target of claims processed before Feb. 28 will receive a $15,000 bonus to be divided among team members. An employee at the Philadelphia VA facility said the program could lead to the same kind of cooked books that landed the Phoenix VA in trouble and ignited the nationwide scandal that cost the former VA secretary his job and led to vows that the department would put veterans’ needs ahead of the bureaucracy.

Military designation on N.Y. municipal IDs delayed (Gotham Gazette)
New York City officially launched its new municipal identification card program, called IDNYC. The new form of ID, which will be accepted by city agencies including the NYPD and some financial institutions, gives a new opportunity to New Yorkers currently unable to get state or federal identification due to immigration or housing status. During the press conference announcing the roll-out of IDNYC, Mayor Bill de Blasio made special reference to the benefits military veterans would receive with the new ID. “We want to make sure that every veteran gets all the support and the benefits due to them, so there will be a special veterans designations on this card to help each and every veteran get the benefits they deserve,” de Blasio said at the press conference. But the cards being issued this week will not have a military veteran designation. In fact, the only mention of anything related to veterans on the two-page card application is the use of a military ID as one form of documentation that can be used to apply. Gotham Gazette reached out to the mayor’s press office for clarification and was told the veterans designation will be added “later this year,” according to an email from a city official who would only communicate on background. The official said neither a veteran-identifying logo nor a date for availability had yet been determined. It is unclear at this point how the City will identify veterans for the new ID. Beginning January 1, 1950 the Defense Department issued all veterans a DD214 form upon being discharged (honorably or otherwise). But veterans who deserted their posts (which happened with some frequency during the Vietnam War) did not get DD214 forms. In addition, homeless veterans may no longer have the papers. It is also unclear if veterans with dishonorable discharges will be allowed veteran status with IDNYC cards. Veterans with dishonorable discharges are not allowed to receive VA medical benefits.

Lawmaker works to cut pensions of fired VA directors (
Veterans Affairs executives fired for cause could find their pensions trimmed under legislation being drafted by House lawmakers. Under the bill, VA Secretary Bob McDonald would be able to reduce senior executive service employees’ pensions by nixing benefits accrued during years they engaged in the actions that got them fired, a House Veterans Affairs Committee staff member confirmed on background. The bill is being drafted by Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Lou Celli, legislative director for The American Legion, said Miller hopes to avoid the situation as occurred last year, when Susan Taylor, a senior VA acquisitions official, was found to be steering VA business to FedBid, a Virginia company that facilitates so-called reverse auctions in which vendors compete with each other to offer the lowest bids on federal contracts. Taylor retired with her pension – based on 29 years of federal service – intact, even as the VA was moving to fire her. The VA’s Office of the Inspector General referred her case to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution, but DoJ declined to press charges, according to the IG report. “Should she have been allowed to resign and retire with her full pension?” Celli asked.

Phoenix VA employee alleges suicides mishandled at hospital (ABC15-Arizona)
A Phoenix VA hospital employee risks it all to speak out to ABC15. He alleges veteran suicides are mishandled at the Carl. T. Hayden VA Medical Center. This comes months after the VA scandal broke and whistleblowers came forward, alleging a secret list of patient wait times and widespread mismanagement at the Phoenix VA. Brandon Coleman has filed for whistleblower protection with the Office of Special Counsel, which means he should be protected as a federal employee for speaking out. He said his supervisors told him he’d be fired if he came forward with his concerns. But Coleman wants something to change, so he’s breaking the silence. “I’m a proud veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and I choose to use the Phoenix VA for a lot of my health care,” Coleman said. Coleman is an addiction therapist at the Phoenix VA. He helped develop a 52-week outpatient program for veterans enrolled in Veterans Court. Coleman said he lost six veterans to suicide in the last three years. “It’s like being punched in the gut over and over again,” he said. In one case one of the veterans in his program relapsed. Coleman said he went to veteran’s court and was told his next stop was jail. “Instead the veteran decided to jump off a rooftop and commit suicide,” he said. Another veteran even killed himself on VA property. The VA has confirmed this with ABC15, but was not able to release any details. “How symbolic is that as a veteran to commit suicide on VA property, and nobody knows about it?” Coleman said.

VA officials get an earful on medical care (Fort Wayne Journal Gazette)
Patient advocacy, issues with the types of medication prescribed, long wait times and inadequate communication and doctor staffing levels at the Fort Wayne VA Medical Center were among the complaints many veterans voiced Monday at a town hall-style meeting. Department of Veterans Affairs officials hosted the meeting to get feedback from veterans and their families about the care they receive when using VA services and facilities. About 70 people attended the forum. Fort Wayne resident Dori Overly said her husband, Gary, a retired U.S. Marine, is not getting the care he needs from VA because his primary caregiver is not a doctor but a licensed practical nurse. “We don’t need care providers. You have care providers in nursery schools,” she said. “We need physicians, not care providers. He’s not getting the help he needs; most of these men aren’t.” Overly said she had heard VA-related horror stories in the past but now that she and her husband are living one, she understands other veterans’ concerns. “And they say Fort Wayne VA is one of the better VAs,” she said. “I’m astounded. Just astounded.” Ajay Dhawan, chief of staff at the VA Medical Center, said several new doctors were hired recently, including a primary-care physician. The facility plans to hire 12 to 14 more doctors within the coming months, he said.  “We are not going to stop until all those access issues and all those concerns are resolved,” Dhawan said.

Vietnam veteran loses clemency appeal in death penalty case (
Georgia has denied clemency for Andrew Brannan, 66, a decorated Vietnam War veteran convicted of murdering a 22-year-old sheriff’s deputy in 1998. Brannan’s execution is scheduled for Tuesday evening. “In reaching its decision, in addition to hearing testimony during the meeting on Monday, the Board prior to the meeting had thoroughly reviewed the parole case file on the inmate which includes the circumstances of the death penalty case, the inmate’s criminal history, and a comprehensive history of the inmate’s life,” said a Monday statement from the State Board of Pardons and Paroles. Brannan’s attorneys had hoped his sentence would be found unconstitutional. His defense attorneys claim Brannan, who served in Vietnam in the early 1970s, was suffering from post-traumatic stress and bipolar disorder at the time of the shooting and was off his medication. In a petition filed Monday with Butts County Superior Court, Brannan’s attorneys requested Brannan’s life be spared because “executing American combat veterans whose service-related mental impairments played a role in subsequent violent conduct violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and analogous provisions of the Georgia Constitution.” The document went on to say “death is inappropriate for those with diminished capacities to understand and process information, to communicate, to abstract from mistakes and learn from experience, to engage in logical reasoning, to control impulses and to understand the reactions of others.”

Vets hopeful, skeptical new law will bring choice outside VA system (New Hampshire Public Radio)
Last April, the news broke that 40 veterans had died while waiting for medical care from a VA Hospital in Arizona. That provoked a national outcry at long wait times for sick vets. Congress passed a $16.3 billion law to overhaul the Veterans Affairs Administration, and a crucial aspect of that law is now unfolding in New Hampshire. The idea is for the VA to pay for medical treatment outside the VA system. At a recent town hall-style meeting at the VA clinic in Conway, Stan Solomon expressed the frustration many vets feel with accessing the VA system. For eight years he was a volunteer driver, bring vets from up north down to the VA hospital in Manchester. “For things like diabetics having to have their toenails cut. The cost of driving them down there and back would be far greater than having the cost of a podiatrist up here,” says Solomon. “I thought that this perhaps might make the difference,” Soloman adds, holding up his shiny, new Choice Card. Congress passed the Veteran’s Choice, Access and Accountability Act last year to get this card into Solomon’s hands. It’s like an insurance card that, in theory, will allow him to see a local doctor, who will then be reimbursed by the VA at Medicare rates. But Stan already tried using the Choice Card to set up an appointment with a local dermatologist. And he got conflicting information from staff at the Manchester VA about whether he even qualifies for the program. “For one person to tell me that I’m qualified and for another person to say well I have to wait to see if you’re qualified – well I don’t know what stage I’m at. Do I make another appointment with Manchester, or do I just wait?” Solomon asks VA staff. The Choice Program is supposed to make things easier. New Hampshire is home to more than 117,000 veterans, and about one-quarter of them uses the VA system.