Veterans news update for Jan. 30

Veterans news update for Jan. 30

Veterans news updateAt troubled Phoenix VA, delays continue in one department (USA Today)
Eight months after a health care scandal rocked the Veterans Administration that centered on a Phoenix hospital, investigators said Thursday that a crucial department at that facility continues to create delays in treating veterans. The Department of Veterans Affairs issued an apology late Thursday for any continuing delays in care. The urology department for the Phoenix VA Health Care System remains understaffed and “hundreds of records behind” in processing in-coming tests results from private doctors paid to examine veterans, according to a report issued by the VA Inspector General’s Office. The investigation last year found that 3,321 veterans may have been the victims of shoddy health care because of staffing shortages just within the urology department at the Phoenix facility. The hospital’s director was fired in November. Assistant Inspector General John Daigh, in Thursday’s interim report, said his office is working to assess how each veteran was impacted by these delays in care. He said inspectors have enough documentation to reach conclusions for about 2,500 veterans. But he said that in another 759 cases, where veterans were referred to private doctors for urology testing, no results could be found that would allow investigators to learn whether delays threatened the health of veterans. Daigh said his inspectors revisited the urology department the week of Jan. 12 and found substantial problems remaining. Since the hospital is still trying to fill vacant doctor positions in the department, many of the veterans are being referred to private physicians outside the VA, Daigh said.

Pentagon wrestles with how to shield current veterans from budget cuts (Christian Science Monitor)
A major review of military pay and benefits out Thursday could portend big changes to longstanding – and some say, fundamental – benefits for United States troops, including retirement pay. The Report of the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission is being closely watched by service members and budget crunchers, who wonder whether the Pentagon will be able to walk the tricky line of reining in skyrocketing personnel costs after more than a decade of war and continuing to recruit the troops for the future. The cost of such benefits is considerable. Personnel benefits make up one-quarter of the Pentagon budget, though the size of the overall force has been reduced by roughly half since 1990. That means that the Department of Defense spends nearly three times as much per service member on compensation as it did in 25 years ago. Yet even as Pentagon personnel expenses soar, there is a concerted effort not to meet budgetary goals by cutting services and benefits for veterans who have returned from Iraq or Afghanistan and might need long-term care. As a result, the commission isn’t allowed to recommend any mandatory changes that would apply to current troops or retirees – they are all grandfathered in. “That is the fundamental question that we’re posing, too – we’re demonstrating that personnel costs are going up over time and, at the same time, maybe that is the cost of this social contract, and that’s something we need to think about,” says Katherine Kidder, co-author of a report on military compensation from the Center for a New American Security that was released earlier this week. “I’m sure the committee has spent a lot of time thinking, ‘We don’t want to break that social contract,’ ” she adds.

Military compensation commission: Who’s who? (Military Times)
Congress created the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission in 2012 to conduct a sweeping review of military pay and benefits with an eye to ensuring sustainability of U.S. forces and preserving a robust quality of life for service members and their families. The commission members were chosen by Congress and President Obama for their expertise and experience in federal and military compensation and retirement, private-sector benefits, active-duty and reserve component experience or family member familiarity, Veterans Affairs expertise and actuarial science. They are: Alphonso Maldon Jr., Larry Pressler, Stephen Buyer, Dov Zakheim, MIchael Higgins, Peter Chiarelli, Edmund Giambastiani, Bob Kerrey, and Christopher Carney. Read more about each of them by clicking the headline link.

VA tells yet another living veteran that he’s dead (CBS-Chicago)
A U.S. Army veteran who worked on anti-terrorism cases and even went undercover for his country needed help. But when he went to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, he was rejected because he was supposedly dead. CBS 2 Investigator Dave Savini reports Karl Moess fears there will be further delays in his nearly decade-long fight for benefits. The VA sent him a letter saying he was dead and denying him added benefits he was trying to obtain. Moess says he was angry and confused because on the same day he received his so-called death notice, he also received a new VA card to get care at a VA hospital. “I think this is an example of the government not knowing what the right hand is doing,” he says. “This is totally ridiculous.” About eight years ago, Moess filed a VA compensation claim. It was denied, and he filed an appeal. The appeal was ongoing for about five years when the letter came last month saying he was dead. Now he is trying to prove he is alive. “My fear is that they’re going to cut all my benefits off,” says Moess, who worries the mix-up would leave him with no insurance or treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Michael Peck, superintendent of Lake County’s Veterans Assistance Commission, was not involved in Moess’ case, but he has seen similar problems. “Unfortunately, what happened to this veteran is not unusual,” said Moess who has helped other veterans declared dead too soon. “I’ve called and said to them, ‘Tell me what paperwork do I need to submit to you to prove this guy’s alive?’” He says this is part of a bigger problem with the VA appeals process, which includes delays so long that some veterans have died before getting a decision. He says the appeals process backlog of cases is “horrendous.”

VA admits to ‘unauthorized’ waiting list at Denver VA hospital (NBC-Denver)
Denver VA Hospital officials reversed course Thursday, admitting their employees broke the rules when they used an improper wait list in the sleep lab in 2012. This comes just one day after the VA made a blanket denial of the existence of secret waiting lists in Denver. KUSA spent months looking into a whistleblower’s allegations regarding the sleep lab, which performs diagnostic testing for disorders – including potentially deadly sleep apnea. “I think that putting my neck out for fellow veterans in this instance is the right thing to do,” said whistleblower Tommy Belinski.. Belinski worked for the VA from 2011 to 2014. For part of the time, his boss was the hospital’s chief administrator. “The health administration cannot make data-driven decisions that are needed to better service veterans without the proper documentation, without the proper data,” Belinski said. Belinski tells KUSA he was given a copy of a manual list containing 508 unscheduled sleep clinic patients, and he says he was instructed to transfer the names onto the VA’s official Electronic Wait List (EWL) in May 2012. Keeping a manual wait list would have been a violation of VA policy at that time, according to records 9Wants To Know obtained. “My bosses were concerned about that,” Belinski said. “They constantly sent out things saying, ‘Hey, make sure you don’t have any paper wait lists,’ and then there were ones that were found,” he said.

VA should be financially accountable for corruption (Sputnik News)
Republican Senators have introduced a bill which aims to make the federal department that provides healthcare and other services to US veterans and their families more transparent and financially accountable for unlawful actions, according to a statement by Senator Kelly Ayotte. “US Senators Jerry Moran, Kelly Ayotte, Marco Rubio and John McCain today introduced the Senate version of the Increasing VA Accountability to Veterans Act of 2015 … legislation to give the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs more authority to hold corrupt executives accountable for their actions,” Thursday statement read. The Senate bill follows after the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) came under intense scrutiny in 2014, when it was found that the department had extensive health care backlogs resulting in veterans waiting for months to go to appointments. The Increasing VA Accountability to Veterans Act of 2015 would give the secretary of the department the ability to have the authority to reduce pensions of top employees convicted of a crime, limit the time senior executives spend on paid administrative leave and clean up the VA’s performance appraisal system for senior executives. A week earlier, the companion version of the Senate bill was introduced in the US House by Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Republican Representative Jeff Miller of Florida. “To fix the VA and make sure it achieves its mission of providing high quality and timely health care to our veterans, we must eliminate the culture of incompetence, negligence and underperformance that has been tolerated and, in some cases, even covered up for too long,” Senator Marco Rubio of Florida said in the statement. “VA employees convicted of criminal conduct in the course of their work shouldn’t be rewarded with bonuses, paid leave and additional pension benefits,” Senator Ayotte said in the statement. “This bipartisan bill builds on important reforms I supported that were signed into law last year to help ensure that senior VA officials involved in wrongdoing are held fully accountable for their actions.”

Wisconsin senator tells VA to interview whistleblowers (Stars & Stripes)
U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin on Thursday asked that the lead investigator looking into allegations of opiates being overprescribed and retaliatory practices at the VA hospital in Tomah take into account whistleblowers’ testimony. The medical center came under scrutiny earlier this month when media and whistleblower accounts detailed the widespread overuse of narcotics. A 35-year-old Marine, Jason Simcakoski, died of an overdose in the hospital’s inpatient care unit in August. In a letter, Baldwin asked VA Undersecretary Carolyn Clancy, who will serve as the lead investigator in the monthlong probe, consider concerns not addressed in an earlier report. Baldwin said an investigation conducted by the VA’s Office of the Inspector General published in March was not thorough in its reporting of opiate-prescribing practices. “It is clear that prescription drug distribution and the overall management at Tomah warrant a full investigation,” Baldwin wrote. “Despite these alarming numbers, the OIG did not find evidence of wrongdoing.” A representative in Clancy’s office said Thursday that Clancy was on her way to Tomah and would make a statement about Baldwin’s recommendations Friday after touring the facility. Baldwin also suggested that Clancy implement a national review of VA hospitals’ prescription drug policies. She said the lack of information about prescription practices in the March investigation “seriously calls into question the Department of Veterans Affairs’ national standard of care.”

Can homelessness among veterans ever be conquered? (Stars & Stripes)
New Orleans announced in early January that it was the first major city in the country to meet a goal issued by the Obama administration in 2010: ending veteran homelessness. But despite dedicated efforts across the country to meet the goal by the end of 2015, and a renewed push last year after Michelle Obama’s announcement of the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, there has been no standard or official definition of what “eliminating veteran homelessness” really means. For Zero: 2016, a national campaign to end chronic and veteran homelessness by the end of 2016, “zero” means that at any point in time, the number of people experiencing homelessness won’t be greater than the community’s ability to place them in permanent housing. Beth Sandor, director of Zero: 2016, said her organization recognized early that it needed a clear definition of what it was working toward. New Orleans was one of more than 70 communities selected for the program, and in its news release about reaching the goal, defined ending veteran homelessness as “ensuring every homeless veteran who can be located is placed in permanent housing or in temporary housing with an identified permanent housing placement” within 30 days. That doesn’t mean that no veteran will ever again fall into homelessness in New Orleans, said Baylee Crone, executive director of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. But now, there is a system in place to find permanent housing for those veterans quickly, she said.

Should veterans with PTSD be exempt from the death penalty? (The Atlantic)
On January 12, 1998, Andrew Brannan was driving his truck at 98 miles an hour on a country road near his Dublin, Georgia home when he was pulled over by Deputy Kyle Dinkheller. Brannan, a white-haired, 66-year-old man, got out of his truck, shouted profanities, and danced around, yelling, “Here I am, here I am … [s]hoot me.” He then attacked the deputy and a gunfight ensued, in which Brannan shot Dinkheller nine times with a rifle. Video footage from the deputy’s dashboard camera inflamed public opinion. Dinkheller was 22 years old and married, with one child and another baby on the way. Brannan received a death sentence and, on January 13, became the first person executed in 2015. But Joseph Loveland, an Atlanta-based attorney who tried to commute Brannan’s sentence to life imprisonment without parole, says the jury and sentencing judge never heard the whole story. “Every doctor who had examined Andrew confirmed that he was suffering for years before the crime from significant PTSD that was directly related to his service in Vietnam, and also suffered from bipolar disorder,” Loveland said in an interview. “The two conditions interacted, leading to the crime he committed.” Before he made headlines as a convicted murderer, Brannan was a decorated combat veteran struggling to hold his life together. But some legal scholars and mental health experts suggest the criminal justice system should treat convicted veterans suffering from war trauma differently than other criminals. In a 2009 Fordham Law Review article, Anthony Giardino, an attorney and former Marine, argued that veterans suffering from service-related PTSD and traumatic brain injuries should receive a categorical exemption from the death penalty. “If the death penalty is truly only for the worst offenders, justice requires that combat veterans suffering at the time of their offenses from service-related PTSD or TBI [traumatic brain injuries] not be executed or sentenced to death,” he wrote. While PTSD cannot excuse criminal behavior, Giardino argues, it should reduce culpability. “PTSD can impair your ability to recognize that acting in a militaristic manner is not acceptable,” he told me in an interview. “[Veterans with PTSD] might use their training in an inappropriate manner” while among civilians. Giardino isn’t alone in making this argument. Mental health experts Hal S. Wortzel and David B. Arciniegas made a similar case for exempting veterans affected by war trauma from the death penalty. Military training and combat, combined with traumatic experiences, may have an impact on aggression and behavioral control, the authors said in a 2010 article.

Unions: Understaffing at Cincinnati VA hospital puts veterans at risk (Cincinnati Business Courier)
Workers at the Cincinnati VA Medical Center are being pushed to their limits because of understaffing, and that could jeopardize care for veterans treated at the hospital, according to officials with two local unions that represents many of the 2,060 employees. “Nearly every department needs more staff,” said Charles Smith, president of VA Local 2031 of the American Federation of Government Employees. “Nurses are grossly understaffed. Doctors are understaffed. Our laboratory is understaffed, our clerks, our housekeepers. We have staffing issues all over the facility, and it’s had a huge impact on how we take care of the veterans.” Sadie Hughes-Young, a registered nurse at the Cincinnati hospital who is VA director for National Nurses United, echoed those concerns. “Cincinnati VA nurses are urging management to make reforms that will ensure that our nation’s heroes, the patients we serve, get the quality care that they deserve,” Hughes-Young said. “As VA nurses, we are committed to improving the care at the VA Medical Center because we know that the unique health care needs of veterans are best met through the VA system.” Denise Kerr, spokeswoman for the hospital, said management respects the union employees and is in the process of hiring more staff.