Veterans news update for Feb. 16

Veterans news update for Feb. 16

Veterans news updateCIA said to have bought and destroyed Iraqi chemical weapons (The New York Times)
The Central Intelligence Agency, working with American troops during the occupation of Iraq, repeatedly purchased nerve-agent rockets from a secretive Iraqi seller, part of a previously undisclosed effort to ensure that old chemical weapons remaining in Iraq did not fall into the hands of terrorists or militant groups, according to current and former American officials. The extraordinary arms purchase plan, known as Operation Avarice, began in 2005 and continued into 2006, and the American military deemed it a nonproliferation success. It led to the United States’ acquiring and destroying at least 400 Borak rockets, one of the internationally condemned chemical weapons that Saddam Hussein’s Baathist government manufactured in the 1980s but that were not accounted for by United Nations inspections mandated after the 1991 Persian Gulf war. The effort was run out of the C.I.A. station in Baghdad in collaboration with the Army’s 203rd Military Intelligence Battalion and teams of chemical-defense and explosive ordnance disposal troops, officials and veterans of the units said. Many rockets were in poor condition and some were empty or held a nonlethal liquid, the officials said. But others contained the nerve agent sarin, which analysis showed to be purer than the intelligence community had expected given the age of the stock.

VA ‘I CARE’ slogan seen as a mockery of reform by veterans, employees (The Washington Times)
The embattled Veterans Affairs Department, now ranked by a government watchdog as among the most troubled federal agencies, is reminding employees in a memo why they should care about their work. The document circulating among employees is titled the “I CARE Quick Reference” sheet, and it spells out the desired core values of the VA: integrity, commitment, advocacy, respect and excellence. The memo says the VA is “a model of unrivaled excellence due to employees who are empowered, trusted by their leaders, and respected for their competence and dedication.” But after a year in which VA officials were accused of keeping secret waiting lists and concealing delayed care for veterans, some agency employees and veterans are questioning the “I CARE” program as a cosmetic effort that will do little to improve services. “Management has made a mockery of it,” said one VA employee, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation. The head of a veterans group said veterans and active-duty service members are still waiting for “real, meaningful change” in the VA’s quality and promptness of health care services. “Adopting a catchy acronym and circulating a checklist is not enough,” said Pete Hegseth, CEO of Concerned Veterans for America. “It’s easy to put on an ‘I CARE’ pin, but it doesn’t matter unless you actually demonstrate that care through your actions and the results you deliver. That’s what veterans, military members and their families are looking for: real results, not a slogan.”

Months after scandal, VA secretary vows agency is making progress (The Washington Post)
Seven months after taking the helm of the embattled Department of Veterans Affairs, Robert McDonald insisted during his first Sunday show interview that he has already brought new accountability measures to a scandalized department. “We’re making fundamental changes in the department… 900 hundred people have been fired since I became secretary,” McDonald told Meet the Press’s Chuck Todd on Sunday morning. “We’ve got 60 people who we’ve fired who have manipulated wait times, we’ve got about 100 senior leaders who are under investigation now… so we’re holding people accountable.” The appearance came just a week after McDonald got into a heated exchange with Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), who during a Congressional hearing implied that McDonald was glossing over the systemic issues within the department. But, despite some criticism, McDonald has insisted that his leadership has already begun to make a difference. “Wait times are down 18 percent nationally… we’re making progress,” McDonald said on Meet the Press. “We’re not where we need to be yet, I’m not saying that. What I’m saying is we’re making progress, we’re moving in the right direction.”

900 employees fired under new VA leadership (The Washington Times)
VA Secretary Robert McDonald said Sunday that 900 employees at the scandal-plagued agency have lost their jobs under his leadership since July. “We’ve held accountable about 900 employees who are no longer with us since I became secretary,” Mr. McDonald said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Of those, 60 were employees who manipulated wait-time data as part of last year’s scandal when a whistleblower alleged that veterans were dying while waiting for care. Mr. McDonald said 100 senior leaders are currently under investigation. The rate of firings, however, is lower than that under Mr. McDonald’s predecessor, retired Army Gen. Eric Shinseki, according to a staff member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Data from the Office of Personnel Management shows that 4,300 VA employees were let go under Mr. Shinseki’s two-year term. That would be an average rate of more than 1,000 employees let go over six months — more than the 900 fired since Mr. McDonald took over in July.

Documents cast doubt that 60 VA employees have been fired for manipulating wait times (Washington Free Beacon)
Documents obtained by the Washington Free Beacon cast doubt on claims made Sunday by the secretary for veterans affairs that 60 people who manipulated wait time data have been fired by the agency over the last half-year. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald said on Sunday that the agency is improving and working toward holding officials accountable, firing 900 employees in the past six months. “We’re making fundamental changes in the department. In terms of leadership, we’ve held accountable about 900 employees who are no longer with us, that were with us before,” McDonald said on NBC’s Meet the Press. “900 people have been fired, since I became secretary. We’ve got 60 people that we fired who have manipulated wait times. We’ve got about 100 senior leaders who are under investigation now … so we’re holding people accountable.” The appearance was McDonald’s first on a Sunday program since taking over the embattled agency in July 2014. McDonald replaced former-Secretary Eric Shinseki, who resigned after it was revealed that 40 veterans died while waiting to receive care at the Phoenix VA facility. However, new documents obtained and viewed by the Washington Free Beacon raise questions about the information McDonald provided to NBC, specifically the claim that 60 employees were fired because they manipulated wait times. According to these documents, as of Feb. 5, 2015, only 11 employees tied to wait time manipulations have been fired.

Snafu forces VA to reset probe of top Phoenix managers (
The Department of Veterans Affairs, which for months delayed an investigation of Phoenix VA hospital officials to ensure the probe was carried out properly, has seen its inquiry disrupted because national leaders appointed a key investigator who had a conflict of interest. The Arizona Republic has confirmed that a snafu forced the VA to suspend its so-called Administrative Investigation Board, convened to review multiple misconduct allegations involving executives in the Phoenix VA Health Care System. The Veterans Health Administration declined to explain what went wrong or who was to blame. In an e-mail, agency spokeswoman Jennifer Jacobsen said the inquiry “continues and has not been terminated … (but) we cannot comment on the ongoing investigation at this time.” Revelations last year about misconduct and delayed care in the Phoenix VA Health Care System led to nationwide investigations, congressional hearings and reforms. Flawed psychiatric services have been a key issue in the crisis. According to documents obtained by The Republic, the VA Office of Accountability Review convened a panel in early January to investigate administrators at the Phoenix medical center. Records show three outside investigators were assigned to review the executives’ “knowledge, involvement and culpability” in patient-scheduling fraud and retaliation against whistle-blowers.

Promised land: VA deal to house homeless Los Angeles veterans (NBC News)
An army of volunteers fans across greater Los Angeles to count the homeless — and more than 1 in 10 is a veteran. Los Angeles has long had the largest population of homeless veterans in the country, even though many get a cool reception. It wasn’t always that way. In 1888, 300 acres of land were given to the federal government “to be permanently maintained as a National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers.” A VA facility was established, but much of what the site, which eventually became 387 acres, was leased to outside interests having nothing to do with veterans. The land ultimately became some of the priciest and most coveted in California, with neighborhoods like Brentwood and Westwood closing in. Vets like James Carr, homeless for more than a year, sees a raw deal. “They don’t care about any of this. They want to take this property and turn it into what they want,” he said. In 2011, the veterans and their attorney, Ron Olson, filed a class action lawsuit to force the federal government to honor the original deed. “You’ve got politicians going around the country saying it’s not right for these young men and women to go abroad and fight for their country and then have to come home and fight for a roof over their head. And yet these same politicians don’t make something happen — that’s hypocrisy,” Olson said.

VA sets deadline for veteran housing plan for West L.A. campus (KPCC-Public Radio)
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs announced on Friday it will find housing for 650 veterans, the first details of a plan to expand services at the agency’s West Los Angeles campus.  The agency said it will start hosting town hall meetings in L.A. for service providers and government agencies and identify legislation needed to revamp the West L.A. campus — as well as find housing for 650 vets — all within the next 100 days. “This plan demonstrates what can be accomplished for our Nation’s veterans when we come together as a community – everyone working together toward the higher goal,” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert A. McDonald said in a statement.  “This is an important first step toward ending Veteran homelessness in Greater L.A. and a model of what we will do across the country.” The plan is the first step by the V.A. after settling a lawsuit accusing the agency of mismanaging federal land. Officials are pledging to provide housing and services on the campus itself and expand veterans’ access to housing and resources in other parts of Los Angeles.

Suicide rate higher among West Virginia veterans (
Tara Abdalla loved ballet, drawing, writing poems and serving her country. Richard Abdalla, Tara’s father, said she was friendly and outgoing. She didn’t show any outward signs of suffering in her phone conversations with him, while she was stationed at Hill Air Force Base, in Utah. But on June 3, 2006, 23-year-old Tara took her own life. As of the end of September, about 9 percent of West Virginians were military veterans, according to U.S. Census data. But veterans made up about 23 percent of state suicides from 2000-2013, according to the Department of Health and Human Resources’ Health Statistics Center. Looking back now, Abdalla says he sees that several of Tara’s experiences contributed to her emotional struggle. Tara was not allowed to deploy because of her last name, even though the family is not Muslim. He said there were incidents of American soldiers attacking other American soldiers who had Arabic last names. “The whole reason she joined was to go over there,” Abdalla said. “She was really upset that she couldn’t go. She understood why, but she didn’t like it.” She was also dealing with thyroid problems, which ultimately resulted in her being released from the Air Force. She stayed in Utah, to try to work things out with a boyfriend with whom she was having problems. She became pregnant, then had a miscarriage. She also found out that her grandmother, with whom she was very close, had Alzheimer’s disease. “It’s never just one problem,” Abdalla said. “It’s several problems.”

Nationwide campaign urges doctors to ask if patients are veterans (
The American Medical Association has urged health care providers to ask patients if they have served in the military and to include that experience in their records. The inclusion of military service experience — including assignments and duties — into the AMA’s official guidelines was adopted at the request of the American Psychoanalytic Association, made up of about 3,300 members, including psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, educators and researchers. “Military history will usually not be volunteered by patients if not specifically asked for,” Dr. Prudence Gourguechon, a psychoanalyst and former APA president, said in a statement. “However, serving in the military poses several additional challenges and stressors that can impact the overall health and mental well-being of military personnel and their families. This makes asking key questions about military experience vital to better serving their health needs.” But Gourguechon also would like doctors to put “an expanded version” of the military service question to all patients, so that it the information can be factored when providing care to sons, daughters, spouses or survivors of veterans. “When a patient comes for medical care or behavioral health care, it is important to ask everyone, including children, if they or a loved one has served in the military,” she said. “A child of a deployed parent, for example, may exhibit behavioral problems that can’t be understood without knowledge of his parent’s military service.”

VA complex construction in Pennsylvania hits another snag (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)
The Department of Veterans Affairs has until Feb. 25 to respond to a developer’s protest that stalled work on a VA outpatient heath care complex in Butler County, according to an attorney with the Government Accountability Office. This is the second time the VA has delayed the project. The VA dropped the first contractor because of concerns it had misrepresented itself. The VA rebid the project, which one of the failed bidders is now protesting. “I’m just speechless,” said Butler County Veterans Affairs Director John Cyprian. “It’s like, what else can go wrong?” Oxford Development filed a protest Jan. 26, according to the GAO’s online docket, after Cambridge Health Care Solutions PA won the contract to build the 168,000-square-foot facility in Center. The price of the contract has not been disclosed. Government officials would not say what claims Oxford made, though senior GAO attorney Eric Ransom said it is an “allegation of some kind of irregularity on the bidding for this job.” He said the VA must file a response with his office by Feb. 25.