House quickly passes Hire More Heroes Act, 412-0 (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
The new Republican Congress showed a glimpse of its early legislative strategy Tuesday, when the House passed a bill within hours of being sworn in. The House approved, 412-0, the Hire More Heroes Act. A similar measure was introduced in the Senate on Tuesday by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. The bill encourages small businesses to hire veterans covered by the Veterans Administration or military health insurance. It exempts those veterans from being counted against the 50-employee threshold that requires employers to provide health care coverage under the Affordable Care Act. Blunt’s 21 co-sponsors in the Senate are all Republicans, and his announcement that he was reintroducing the measure said the Hire More Heroes Act is “aimed at encouraging companies to hire more American veterans, while providing relief from the burdensome Obamacare employer mandate.”
Veterans support new push to reduce suicides (NBC-Connecticut)
Representatives from several veterans groups in Connecticut joined Sen. Richard Blumenthal Tuesday to give their support to legislation aimed at reducing suicide among returning members of the armed forces. Blumenthal sponsored the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, which passed in the U.S. House of Representatives last year but never cleared the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate. “Sen. Tom Coburn from Oklahoma disagreed with the bill,” Blumenthal explained. “But he’s gone now.” The senator said he wants Congress to make the measure a priority as Republicans take control. It would provide an extra $100 million in funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs to hire more psychiatrists and psychologists and to boost online services already available. “They take their own lives largely because of unmet needs for help,” Blumenthal said. Local veterans groups, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, AMVETS and Disabled American Veterans, have thrown their support behind the measure.
New Mexico VA director aims to rebuild trust of veterans (Associated Press)
The new director of the Veterans Affairs’ health care system in New Mexico embarked on a tour of the state Tuesday, starting with town halls in Artesia and Alamogordo. Andrew Welch has plans to visit several other communities over the next six weeks to meet with veterans and their families as part of an effort to restore trust after VA hospitals and clinics around the country were rocked last year by allegations of mismanagement, delays in care and secret waiting lists. Welch said the first steps to restoring trust will be ensuring access to timely health care for veterans and making the VA accountable for the services it provides. “The approach we’re using is to listen,” he said. “That’s the first way we build trust, to listen and act upon whatever the person is telling us. That’s the way every relationship works, whether it’s personal relationships, business relationships or, obviously, relationships most importantly with our veterans.” A wide-ranging national audit released last year showed more than 1,000 veterans had been waiting three months or more for initial medical appointments within the New Mexico system. Administrators blamed the backlog on a lack of primary care physicians.
Vets call for Obama to visit troubled Phoenix VA (Arizona Republic)
A national veterans advocacy group is challenging President Barack Obama to see patients and staffers at the Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center during his planned trip to Phoenix on Thursday. However, White House officials say an Obama hospital visit is unlikely. “I don’t believe at this point that that’s something he’s planning to do,” Press Secretary Josh Earnest said at a press briefing Tuesday. Concerned Veterans for America complained in a news release that Obama “has not visited a single VA hospital” since April, when reports of delayed care to Arizona veterans ignited a nationwide furor. “The Phoenix VA was ground zero in the secret wait-list scandal that eventually revealed massive fraud and the deaths of dozens — if not hundreds — of veterans due to delayed health care across the country,” said Pete Hegseth, CVA’s conservative chief executive. “If President Obama wants to get the ground truth — and send a signal of strong leadership — he would take the time to visit the Phoenix VA hospital.” Speaking Tuesday on Phoenix radio station KFYI, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also suggested Obama visit the Phoenix VA complex. “Why doesn’t he go to the VA hospital?” McCain said. “Why doesn’t he find out what’s going on at the place where this whole VA scandal began and spread all over the country? … It’s not that far away from Central High School. Go by the VA. Visit with some of our veterans who are there and a lot of the good people who work there. But I bet you he doesn’t.”
Report: Hampton VA has highest wait times in the nation (WAVY-Norfolk)
The Hampton Veterans Administration Medical Center has the highest average primary care wait times in the nation, according to a report from the Department of Veterans Affairs. The report shows patients at Hampton and its associated clinics in Hampton Roads wait an average of just over thirty days to see a primary care doctor. “Until we completely solve the problem and are able to provide convenient access to primary care services, we won’t be providing the kind of healthcare that we need to,” said Medical Center Director Michael Dunfee during a Tuesday afternoon conference call. Dunfee pointed to improving wait times for specialty care, currently at 13 days, and stable wait times for mental health care at 15 days. But Dunfee has said that primary care is a focus area and that a veteran’s experience at the Hampton VAMC begins and ends with primary care. By comparison, the national average for veterans to wait for a primary care appointment is seven days. Hampton’s wait time is more than four times longer. In Durham, the wait time is about 14 days; in Richmond, it’s about ten. Dunfee said it’s hard to compare facilities across markets: “There are different recruitment challenges, there are different space setups, there are different growth patterns, there are different types of services.”
Florida arrest of San Juan VA medical director becomes part of congressional inquiry (Tampa Tribune)
Last April, Pasco County Sheriff’s Office deputies spotted a man sitting in his car, pulled over on the side of the road. Deputies say his eyes were bloodshot and glassy, his speech was slurred and his breath had a strong odor of alcohol. The man twice refused a field sobriety test, according to an incident report, and deputies later found an Oxycodone pill in his pocket. He was arrested and charged with DUI and illegal possession of a narcotic. Though one of scores of such arrests deputies make every year, and while the charges were eventually reduced to the civil traffic citation of careless driving, the April 26, 2014 stop is now part of a Congressional inquiry into the operations of a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital that is part of the VA Sunshine Healthcare Network, headquartered in St. Petersburg. The network covers Florida, southern Georgia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The driver, DeWayne Stanley Hamlin, 49, has been the medical director of the San Juan VA Hospital in Puerto Rico since Dec. 14, 2012. He has been with the VA since 1990 and once served as associate director of the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa, according to the VA. The night of his arrest was one of more than 100 days in the past 18 months, according to VA records, that Hamlin has been out of the office, which has been plagued by allegations of mismanagement and retaliation. Last week, U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, sent a letter to VA Secretary Bob McDonald demanding answers into allegations that Hamlin retaliated against an employee who reported Hamlin’s arrest to the VA.
Gunman, 1 other person dead in shooting at El Paso veterans clinic (Army Times)
A gunman opened fire at a veterans’ medical clinic in West Texas on Tuesday, killing one other person, officials said. The gunman was also killed. Investigators, who took no questions from reporters during a Tuesday night news conference, did not say whether the gunman killed himself or was killed by someone else. A Pentagon official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that a doctor was shot by a gunman, who later died from a self-inflicted wound. Fort Bliss Maj. Gen. Stephen M. Twitty said the shooting happened at the El Paso Veterans Affairs Health Care System’s clinic, which is in a complex that includes the William Beaumont Army Medical Center. The entire complex was locked down Tuesday as authorities responded to the shooting. “The alleged shooter is dead, and we have one casualty. That casualty is deceased. All other VA patients and staff are safe,” said Twitty, commanding officer of nearby Fort Bliss. “Everything is under control and there is no immediate threat to Fort Bliss or the local community,” Twitty said. The VA clinic will be closed Wednesday, said its acting director, Peter Dancy. The FBI, which is leading the investigation, has hundreds of potential witnesses, many of whom were patients or would-be patients at the clinic, said Douglas Lindquist, special agent in charge of the FBI El Paso office.
The shadowy U.S. veteran who tried to overthrow a country (The Daily Beast)
A U.S. Army veteran and a Texas businessman appeared in federal court Monday charged with a most unusual crime: plotting to overthrow the West African government of Gambia. And there may have been more Americans—and possibly more American veterans—involved, based on statements given to an FBI agent by Papa Faal, the vet whose alleged role in the plot involved smuggling weapons into Gambia. “Most, if not all, members of the group had served in the U.S. or Gambian military,” Faal told FBI agent Nicholas Marshall, according to an affidavit. While Faal appeared in a Minnesota courtroom, his alleged co-conspirator, Gambian-American Cherno Njie, stood before a Baltimore judge. The two had been working together since August, but Faal may have only recently learned the name of Njie, the would-be ruler of Gambia. “The members of the group were known to each other by code names,” Marshall’s affidavit noted. Faal’s code name was “Fox.” The Pentagon said Faal served in the Air Force for seven years, during which time he became a U.S. citizen. He later spent three years in the Army, starting with training at Georgia’s Fort Benning and serving as a sergeant during an 11-month deployment to Afghanistan in 2011, Army officials confirmed. Faal told the FBI that his group was trying “restore democracy to The Gambia and improve the lives of its people.”
New Year’s Resolution for VA: Lose ‘ICARE’ pin, embrace real reform (Fox News)
Commentary: “Visit a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs facility and there’s a good chance you’ll see a VA employee sporting a shiny lapel pin that reads “ICARE.” That’s an acronym for “Integrity, Commitment, Advocacy, Respect and Excellence,” a list of words that represents the VA’s “core values.” As one of VA Secretary Bob McDonald’s first orders of business, the ICARE pins were intended to signal a renewed commitment to service and honesty at the troubled VA. During his confirmation in August, McDonald promised he would lead the push for “unprecedented and critical cultural change and accountability” at the VA. Instead, five months later, most of what veterans have to show for it are watered-down reforms and a new slogan. Or, as a few of our members put it: “We pass historic VA reforms through Congress, and all we got was a lousy ICARE lapel pin.” It’s not enough to hire a slick PR firm to devise a catchy acronym that says you “care”; what matters to veterans and their families is that you demonstrate your “care” through the results you deliver. That is why the ICARE lapel pins are such an affront to those of us who fought so hard for reform last year. So how can veterans get the results we want to see at the VA in the new year?”
Delay in Defense Secretary confirmation hearing could mean more focus on pay, benefits (Military Times)
A delay in Defense Secretary nominee Ash Carter’s Senate confirmation hearings could result in extra attention being focused on the future of military pay, benefits and retirement rules. Senate Armed Services Committee officials had hoped to tackle Carter’s nomination process as early as next week, in an effort to put the former Pentagon deputy secretary before the Senate for a full vote by the end of January. But on Tuesday, the first day of the new congressional session, incoming committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told reporters that Carter won’t be ready for hearings until the first week in February, due to recent back surgery. The 60-year-old Carter is expected to spend the next few weeks recovering and meeting informally with lawmakers. In addition, the hearing is now expected to come after release of the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission report on potential overhauls of Pentagon pay and benefits offerings. That report, originally due out last spring, is scheduled for release on Feb. 1.