Veterans news update for Feb. 12

Veterans news update for Feb. 12

Veterans news updateVA secretary asks only member of Congress to serve in both Iraq wars: What have you done? (Fox News)
Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald on Wednesday asked a Republican lawmaker who served in both Iraq wars, “What have you done?” as the two men sparred over huge cost overruns at a troubled Denver VA hospital. McDonald was defending the VA’s budget at a hearing when he and Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman tussled over construction delays and cost increases at the long-delayed hospital project. After a few minutes of arguing, McDonald snapped at Coffman: “I’ve run a large company, sir. What have you done?” Coffman, an Army and Marine Corps veteran, did not respond at the hearing. But the four-term lawmaker said in a statement later that he could tell McDonald a few things he hasn’t done. “I have never run a federal agency that tolerates corruption the way the VA has. I’ve never built a hospital that’s years behind schedule and hundreds of millions over budget. And I’ve never been a shill for inept bureaucrats who allowed American heroes to die on a medical waiting list,” he said. The last comment was a reference to a wait-time scandal that cost former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki his job. McDonald, a former Procter & Gamble CEO, took over as VA secretary in July. He has vowed to improve VA’s delivery of services such as health care and disability benefits and make it a “model” for other government agencies.

Veterans group asks VA secretary to apologize to Rep. Mike Coffman (The Washington Times)
Some veterans advocates are calling VA Secretary Bob McDonald to apologize to Rep. Michael Coffman, Colorado Republican, after a heated exchange in Wednesday’s House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing. Pete Hegseth, CEO of Concerned Veterans for America, said Mr. McDonald’s tone in responding to Mr. Coffman’s questions in the hearing was representative of a larger problem within the agency. “The disrespectful comments made today by Secretary McDonald are unfortunately emblematic of the attitudes of many top-level VA executives: The VA bureaucracy cannot be questioned, and the VA system itself comes before the veteran it is intended to serve,” Mr. Hegseth said in a statement. Mr. Coffman questioned the secretary about an over-budget construction project in Denver, but went on to say that he thought Mr. McDonald would not be successful at changing the culture of the scandal-plagued VA where investigators found corruption, data manipulation and overall poor care for veterans last year. Mr. McDonald responded that the construction problems in Denver were more Mr. Coffman’s responsibility than his own and offered to give the congressman his cell phone to speak to veterans about how much care has improved since he took over in August.

VA secretary: 24,000 veterans have used Choice Card (The Washington Times)
The chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Wednesday flatly rejected President Obama’s plans to cut the new VA Choice Card, saying instead that he wants to expand the program to give veterans a better chance at care in private clinics. Rep. Jeff Miller, Florida Republican, said if there’s extra money in the program it should be used to make sure other veterans can sign up, not given back to the Obama administration, which had asked for “flexibility” to reallocate billions of dollars for its own priorities. “If there’s going to be any reallocation, it’s going to be to further improve and strengthen the program itself and not address other unspecified needs,” Mr. Miller told VA Secretary Robert McDonald. The $10 billion Choice Card program, created after the VA’s waiting list scandal left many veterans struggling for care, gives veterans who have been waiting more than 30 days for appointments or who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility the chance to see a private doctor. It was part of Congress’s new law to fix the VA last summer, after the waiting list scandal broke. Mr. Obama signed that law, but in his budget earlier this month he said the Choice Cards aren’t being used as much as he’d expected, and he asked Congress to let him take the money and use it on other patients’ needs. About 24,000 veterans have made appointments for private care since the Choice Card program was enacted last summer and the department has fielded about 500,000 calls from veterans and providers with questions about the program, Mr. McDonald said.

VA director’s whistleblower threat outrages congressman (KUSA-Denver)
A Colorado congressman is calling for a broader investigation into wrongdoing at the Denver Veterans Affairs Hospital after the hospital director made “veiled threats” to potential whistleblowers. “Once you talk to the media, you are on your own. The VA does not support you.” Director Lynette Roff said in an employee meeting on Jan. 30. “Once you are in hot water, nobody will help you.” KUSA obtained a recording of the meeting, in which Roff also discussed a secret patient waiting list exposed in an earlier KUSA report.  “Director Roff’s threats are exactly what is wrong with the leadership at the VA,” said Rep. Mike Coffman, (R-Aurora), an Army and Marine Corps combat veteran. “We owe a great deal of gratitude to the whistleblowers across the VA. Without them, many of the worst cases of corruption and mismanagement would never have been uncovered had they not had the courage to step forward.” Coffman says he is now asking for an expanded independent federal investigation of the VA’s Eastern Colorado Health Care System. He wants that probe to include a look at any efforts to stifle whistleblowers.

VA will again track wait times for patients, but only use data internally (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)
The Department of Veterans Affairs stopped publicly reporting wait times of new patients at its hospitals because it wanted to present a single measure of how quickly veterans secured appointments, an agency official said. “We wanted to have one simple way of looking at wait times in a publicly reported measure that would combine all of the patients together, that would reflect the patients’ experience,” said Michael L. Davies, executive director of the VA’s Access Clinic Administration Program. The VA began releasing the wait time data last year because of reports that veterans in several parts of the country were dying while waiting months to get an appointment with a doctor. Initially, the reports separately gave the wait times for new patients and existing patients. After a change to the definition of wait times, the agency in December switched to reporting only their combined wait times. The earlier reports showed that new patients often waited 30 days or longer for an appointment. The American Legion supported the change in the definition, but not the change in the reporting method. “The American Legion believes transparency is key to restoring veterans’ trust in the VA health care system and that new patient wait times should be reported publicly,” said Roscoe Butler, the legion’s deputy director of health. Davies said the VA health care systems will track new patient wait times and use that information internally. The systems’ managers have a “rich set” of statistics to use in evaluating their performance, he said.

Government watchdog says VA at high risk for fraud, waste (The Wall Street Journal)
The Department of Veterans Affairs health care system has been declared a “high-risk” operational area of the federal government in a report issued Wednesday by a leading government watchdog. The Government Accountability Office this year added the VA’s health care system to a list of 32 total federal programs especially vulnerable to “fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement.” The VA hasn’t fully addressed more than 100 of the accountability office’s recommendations, some stretching back more than a decade including those that have reportedly harmed veterans, according to the report. The report highlights five main areas in which the VA needs work, including inadequate training of staff and “unclear resource needs and allocation priorities.” “We at VA will continue to identify and rectify issues within our Department,” said James Hutton, a VA spokesman. “We respect GAO’s work and we take their recommendations regarding VA programs or policy very seriously.” Although aspects of the VA have long been criticized by the GAO, the sprawling department has avoided the high-risk list for years, finally being placed on it after a year of upheaval at the department and because of a recent injection of more than $15 billion in emergency funding.

Philly VA employees ask for golf shirts in suggestion box for improving vet care (The Washington Times)
Asked to submit suggestions for how to improve services for veterans, employees at the Philadelphia VA Regional Office instead asked management for “very stylish” golf shirts. In fact, as of late last month, just two comments had been submitted to the new suggestion box, according to Philadelphia VA Regional Office Director Diana Rubens: one requested the golf shirts, and another critiqued the suggestion box itself, saying it was a waste of time because the VA never listened to suggestions anyway. Ms. Rubens instituted the suggestion boxes last month after some employees complained that an incentive program to process claims quickly could lead to incorrect decisions and rushed work in an effort to collect bonuses — similar to waitlist manipulation discovered at the Phoenix VA last year that erupted into a nationwide scandal. In canceling the incentive program, Ms. Rubens said she wasn’t sure what else to do to speed up claims processing other than bonuses, so she said she was creating the suggestion box to solicit ideas on how to motivate employees to process 36,000 claims a year — a goal the office is already falling behind. But in a new email to employees Jan. 26, she said there had been just the two responses, including the request for Veterans Service Center shirts. “There is a team out there wanting to know how they get the very stylish VSC golf shirts. I believe we are making that available through the [VA Center Employee’s Association], stand-by for future updates,” Ms. Rubens wrote in the email, obtained by The Washington Times.

For veterans, having a home is not enough (Los Angeles Times)
Commentary: Proposed legislation recently introduced in the Senate arrived with a name that is seemingly hard to argue against: the Homeless Veterans Welcome Home Act. It is a well-intentioned bill meant to provide support for veterans transitioning into permanent housing and to help them acquire furniture and other household items. Unfortunately, this bill is essentially window dressing that would simply leave many deserving veterans out in the cold. On its face, the plan sounds great. It would establish a three-year pilot program to award grants to eligible organizations that would provide assistance to homeless veterans who qualify for housing approved by the Department of Veterans Affairs. A total of $5 million for three years would be appropriated for the program. Organizations would receive a maximum grant of $500,000 and eligible veterans as much as $2,500. The problem with this proposal is one we see all too often at Soldier On, the nonprofit I lead that works with thousands of homeless veterans across the country and government entities to develop effective legislation and programs to help veterans. The proposed Welcome Home Act tries to quantify and qualify the issue by requiring the VA to prioritize communities with the greatest need of homeless services and to seek fair geographic distribution when awarding grants. The result would be a narrowing of the potential pool of veterans who can be assisted.

Obama to sign suicide prevention bill today (Associated Press)
President Barack Obama is joining with lawmakers and government leaders to cast a spotlight on the issue of suicide among veterans. Obama on Thursday will sign the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act into law. First lady Michelle Obama, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald and veterans are expected to attend the White House ceremony. The measure is named for a Marine who struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hunt killed himself in 2011 in Texas. The bill creates a pilot program to help veterans transition out of active duty, and it creates a website to provide veterans with information about available mental health services. The bill also requires the VA’s suicide prevention programs to be evaluated annually by a third party.

Judge dismisses suit in veteran parade collision with train (Associated Press)
A Texas judge has dismissed a lawsuit stemming from a 2012 collision between a freight train and a veterans’ parade float that killed four veterans. The lawsuit was filed against Union Pacific Railroad by 17 people who were injured or lost relatives in the Midland accident. Court records show a judge sided with UP in a summary judgment late Tuesday. A plaintiff’s attorney says he’ll appeal. The trial abruptly stopped last month when UP’s attorneys objected to testimony about video from the train. The plaintiffs were trying to prove the train’s crew was negligent, their lone remaining claim that the judge later tossed after UP noted federal investigators blamed the city and parade organizers for the crash. UP reached a confidential settlement with 26 other people last month.

VA error delays veteran’s funeral, angers family (Tampa Tribune)
When the family of Korean War veteran Willie Mitchell Jr, went to bury the Palmetto man, who died Jan. 25 at age 81, their sorrow was compounded by shocking news. Mitchell could not be laid to rest at Sarasota National Cemetery as planned, because when the family tried to schedule a burial they were told he died more than six years ago. The error, it turned out, was the result of a Department of Veterans Affairs employee at the Boston regional office inputting the wrong Social Security number, giving a man who died in 2008 the same number as Mitchell, according to Michael Nacincik, spokesman for the VA’s National Cemetery Administration, which oversees burials at national cemeteries. Mitchell, who served in the Army, is now scheduled to be buried at 10:30 a.m. Friday at the Sarasota cemetery, but his family is upset over the ordeal. “We are angry that we have to go through this all over again,” Brian Mitchell, of Tampa, said about having to rearrange his father’s funeral. The family is also upset that it took a call from a reporter to get a straight answer. “No one contacted us to tell us what happened,” Brian Mitchell said.

Bill aims to improve fertility services for injured troops (Military Times)
Legislation has been reintroduced in Congress to expand fertility services for severely injured troops and female veterans, to include advanced reproductive health treatments and adoption services for those who can’t have children biologically. Hoping the third time’s a charm, sponsor Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., reintroduced the Women Veterans and Other Health Care Improvement Act of 2015 on Wednesday, after unveiling similar bills in 2012 and 2013. Citing the case of retired Army Staff Sgt. Matt Keil, who was paralyzed by a sniper’s bullet in 2007 and needed advanced services to have children with his wife, Tracy, Murray said the Defense and Veterans Affairs department policies are outdated and often require troops pay out of pocket to start a family. The policies, Murray said, “make it harder, not easier, for seriously injured veterans to have children.” “When severely injured service men and women and veterans seek reproductive health services … their military and VA health insurance simply doesn’t cover the often-expensive procedures,” Murray said. Her bill would expand fertility services offered to injured troops, including those with fertility issues related to traumatic brain injury, by the Defense Department and through Tricare and would lift the ban on in vitro fertilization at VA medical centers.

Jury told of troubled ex-Marine who killed ‘American Sniper’ Chris Kyle, friend (The New York Times)
As Chris Kyle and his friend Chad Littlefield drove to a remote shooting range not far from this rural town outside Dallas on a February afternoon two years ago, a man they had only recently met sat in the back seat of Mr. Kyle’s truck. The man was Eddie Ray Routh. As lawyers described on the opening day of his trial here Wednesday, Mr. Routh served in Iraq as a Marine but returned to North Texas deeply troubled. Doctors said he had schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder. A few days before the trip to the shooting range, he held his girlfriend hostage with a knife, then proposed to her after his release from a hospital. The night before the range visit, he told her to whisper because people were listening. The next morning, before heading to the gun range, Mr. Routh smoked marijuana laced with what appeared to be formaldehyde and drank whiskey. It is not certain what the three men talked about as they headed to the Rough Creek Lodge, where Mr. Kyle, the former marksman for the Navy SEALs whose life is the basis of the blockbuster movie “American Sniper,” often took troubled veterans. But as he drove, Mr. Kyle sent a text to Mr. Littlefield, who sat in the passenger seat beside him. “This dude is straight-up nuts,” Mr. Kyle wrote. Mr. Littlefield texted back, “I’m right behind you, watch my six,” using the military jargon for “watch my back.” Not long after those texts, prosecutors say that Mr. Routh used two handguns — including a 9-millimeter pistol engraved with a Navy logo that appeared to belong to Mr. Kyle — to kill his two companions at the range, shooting them a total of at least 13 times.

Congresswoman to colleagues: ‘Man up’ and overhaul military benefits (
A U.S. congresswoman implored her colleagues to “man up” and accept the recommendations from a blue-ribbon panel to overhaul military benefits. Rep. Jackie Speier, a Democrat from California and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, praised the recent work of the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission. The panel called for offering troops 401(k)-like retirement plans and military families a choice of commercial health insurance plans in lieu of Tricare, among other proposals. “We’ve just now have got to inject a little guts into all of us to do the right thing,” she said Wednesday during a hearing of the committee’s military personnel subcommittee, which received testimony from commission members. The hearing was the latest in what will be a series of debates on Capitol Hill over the future of military compensation. Members of the congressionally mandated panel have said their 15 recommendations were designed to give troops, military families and retirees more benefits choices while saving the Pentagon an estimated $12 billion a year in personnel costs by 2040.