Veterans news update for Jan. 9

Veterans news update for Jan. 9

Veterans news updateOpiates handed out like candy to ‘doped-up’ veterans at Wisconsin VA (Center for Investigative Reporting)
Doctors at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs medical center in Tomah, Wisconsin, hand out so many narcotic painkillers that some veterans have taken to calling the place “Candy Land.” They call the hospital’s chief of staff, psychiatrist Dr. David Houlihan, the “Candy Man.” Current and former hospital staff members describe patients who show up to appointments stoned on painkillers and muscle relaxants, doze off and drool during therapy sessions, and burn themselves with cigarettes. They told The Center for Investigative Reporting that Houlihan himself “doped up” or “zombified” their patients and that workers who raised questions have been punished. Data obtained by CIR shows the number of opiate prescriptions at the Tomah VA more than quintupled from 2004, the year before Houlihan became chief of staff of the hospital, to 2012, even as the number of veterans seeking care at the hospital declined. In August, a 35-year-old Marine Corps veteran died of an overdose in the inpatient psychiatric ward. “It’s a system that’s gone completely haywire,” said Ryan Honl, a Gulf War veteran and graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point who in October resigned from his position as a secretary in the hospital’s mental health clinic after two months, filing a federal whistleblower complaint on his way out.

Army post reviews security after veterans clinic shootings (Associated Press)
Four months after security was revamped at Fort Bliss, the sprawling West Texas Army post is ramping up protection anew following a shooting at a veterans’ clinic in which a former worker killed a psychologist then committed suicide. Fort Bliss increased random vehicle searches and checks of proper registration Wednesday, one day after the attack, post spokesman Lt. Col. Lee Peters said. Officials have not released a possible motive for the shooting or said how the gunman — an Army veteran and former clerk at the clinic — sneaked a .380-caliber handgun through security checkpoints. They said security measures at the clinic and on the rest of the post would be reviewed for possible changes. The clinic reopens Friday. Even with the new checks, several gates at Fort Bliss are open to civilians, who need just a driver’s license or other government identification to access the post.

VA Secretary visits El Paso clinic after shooting of doctor (The Washington Post)
With a promise to ramp up security, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald visited the El Paso VA clinic Thursday after an agency psychologist was fatally shot by an Iraq war veteran and former employee of the clinic. “The entire Veterans Affairs family is here to show their empathy for the employees here and the veterans here that we care so much about,” McDonald said. “I’m here to talk to employees today and to tell that that whatever support they need they will get.” Peter Dancy, acting director of the El Paso VA Health Care System, said the facility would increase security, including more thorough identification checks, when it reopens on Friday. VA psychologist Timothy Fjordbak, 63, was allegedly shot and killed by Jerry Serrato, 48, on the fourth floor of the El Paso clinic,  FBI special agent Doug Lindquist said. Serrato then “actually went to the third floor, and that’s where he took his own life,” Lindquist said. The VA said it is providing grief and other counseling services to staff, veterans, service members and their families throughout the day at El Paso Community College and on Friday, Saturday and Sunday inside the center.

Obama motorcade drives by scandal-plagued Phoenix VA hospital (The Hill)
President Obama’s motorcade on Thursday passed by — but did not stop at — the Veterans Affairs hospital at the center of the scandal over mismanaged care at the agency, despite calls for him to visit the facility during his Phoenix trip. Veterans groups and Republican lawmakers had called on Obama to visit the hospital, which is located just a mile from the high school where he was scheduled to speak on a new initiative lowering federal mortgage insurance premiums. Reports that veterans at the Phoenix facility waited an average of 115 days for medical care prompted a national outcry and investigations into practices at veterans hospitals. Then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki was forced to resign over the scandal, and Congress passed a $16.3 billion reform bill to overhaul the beleaguered agency. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday that a visit to the hospital was not on the president’s schedule, but noted that new Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald’s first trip after being confirmed was to visit the facility.

Phoenix NBC station: Obama snubs veterans (The Weekly Standard)
President Barack Obama’s brief trip to Phoenix Thursday included an off-schedule trip to a housing development and a policy speech at a local high school. But, as NBC affiliate KPNX noted in its report, the president’s motorcade drove past the campus of the Phoenix Veterans Affairs hospital, which became “ground zero” for a nationwide scandal after reports that at least 35 veterans died while waiting to receive care. “When he did come by the VA, he did a drive-by,” says KPNX reporter William Pitts said. “And a lot of critics are saying the changes at the VA—they’re a drive-by, too.”

Lawmakers’ priority: Fortify promises to veterans (Military Times)
New Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said the first priority of his committee will be making sure Congress’ promises to veterans from last year aren’t forgotten. “We need to make sure the Veterans Choice bill is implemented and it’s working, where it needs to be perfected, it’s perfected,” he told reporters Thursday. VA Secretary “Bob McDonald needs our support to see to it he can change the culture at the VA,” Isakson said. “That in itself is a huge challenge and responsibility.” Lawmakers returned to Washington, D.C., this week with a new House Veterans’ Affairs Committee ranking member (Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla.), new Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee leadership (Isakson and ranking member Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.), and a host of unfinished veterans issues from last session. Isakson said he has not outlined any specific legislative priorities or hearing schedules for his committee yet, and instead will use the next few weeks to work out those details with fellow panel members. But, in a statement after his leadership appointment, the 70-year-old Air National Guard veteran called this “a critical moment in history with the VA” and said his main charge as chairman would be “to bring value back to the VA and our veterans.”

Federal judge halts VA construction in L.A., saying agency abused its authority (Los Angeles Times)
A federal judge on Thursday ordered the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to stop building on its West Los Angeles campus, ruling that officials had acted “in excess of their authority” by authorizing construction of an amphitheater on the contested property. The ruling by U.S. District Judge S. James Otero extends an appeals court order last month halting the construction. The veterans agency had given the amphitheater a go-ahead while it appeals Otero’s 2013 ruling invalidating leases on the sprawling 387-acre campus for UCLA’s baseball stadium, a hotel laundry and a television studio storage space. Veterans suing over the leases are represented by the ACLU of Southern California and Public Counsel. Advocates have long argued that the campus, the site of the largest veterans medical facility in the country, should be used to house homeless veterans.  Susan E. Shyshka, a veterans affairs administrator, filed an affidavit saying a nonprofit group called the Veteran Parks Conservancy was developing the amphitheater for alternative therapies for veterans and their families, including tai chi and yoga.

VA wants personal information in exchange for gun locks (Fox News)
The Veterans Administration is offering free gun locks to former military members — but wants some key personal information in exchange. Veterans have received forms recently from the VA with an enticing offer of up to four gun locks. The only catch… they need to return a completed form listing their name, address and the number of guns in the home, according to the Washington Times. “Dear Veteran, a letter sent from the VA’s Philadelphia office reads, “As your partner in health care, we are committed to keeping you and your family safe … If you own a gun, we hope you will request and use a gun lock. As a Veteran, you already know about the importance of firearm safety.” The Washington Times spoke with one veteran who received the letter and called it “a gun registry in disguise.” “Young soldiers are already notoriously reluctant to admit any problems with post-traumatic stress disorder,” the veteran, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the paper. “Imagine the effect if the average 23-year-old private … back from Iraq, already reluctant to ask for help … is now hearing rumors that if he seeks help from the VA for sleeplessness, PTSD, nightmares, etc., Big Brother is going take his guns away? Now young veterans will really avoid asking for help.” According to reports, officials for the VA hospital in Philadelphia have been instructed by the administration not to keep on file any information about veterans who own guns.

VA sees guns as a health care issue (The Blaze)
The Department of Veterans Affairs has told local VA medical facilities to hand out free gun locks to veterans, in an apparent effort to help ensure the health and safety of these veterans. The effort is the latest example of the Democratic attempt to turn firearms into a health care issue. Just last month, the Democratic Senate approved President Barack Obama’s nominee to be the next surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, who once tweeted that “guns are a health care issue.” But the VA effort is prompting some to question why the VA is undertaking this project at all, at a time when it is still struggling to provide routine health care to thousands of veterans around the country. A VA spokesperseon told TheBlaze that local VA offices have been instructed to offer veterans free gun locks. “Suicide Prevention Coordinators at local VA medical facilities are provided gun locks through the National Suicide Prevention Program and Project ChildSafe,” the spokesperson said. According to a letter received by a veteran that was obtained by TheBlaze, the VA sees the use of gun locks as a health care issue, and wants veterans to use them if they own a gun. “As your partner in health care, we are committed to keeping you and your family safe,” the letter said. “Gun locks have been shown to greatly reduce death and injury caused by firearms in the home. We are therefore offering you the opportunity to obtain up to four free gun locks.”

PTSD and brain injury: Double trouble for veterans (Medscape)
Veterans with deployment-related mild traumatic brain injury (TBI) and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experience persistent mild cognitive impairment and psychological distress, new research shows. Crucially, veterans with mild TBI, which is often associated with a blast from an improvised explosive device in the field, alongside PTSD perform worse on cognitive measures than those with either condition alone or than healthy individuals. In addition, the combination of mild TBI and PTSD is associated with significantly more distress than PTSD alone, which is, in turn, linked to more distress than mild TBI alone. “The take-home message is that we need to validate to the veteran that the problems they are experiencing are real, but [also] to reassure them that their cognitive abilities are within normal limits and they can still be successful,” study author Walter High, MD, Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, University of Kentucky, Lexington Veterans Affairs Medical Center, said in a release. “There are strategies to rehabilitate and exercise their memory,” Dr High added.