Veterans news update for Feb. 26

Veterans news update for Feb. 26

Veterans news updateVeterans advocacy group: Fix VA health care now (Military Times)
A veterans advocacy group says a complete overhaul of the Veterans Affairs health system — to include partially privatizing services — is needed to improve care for current veterans and ensure future viability of services. In a report to be unveiled in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, a task force organized by Concerned Veterans For America has called for creating a nonprofit government corporation to manage VA health facilities and proposes changes to the Veterans Choice system to let veterans to decide when and where they seek care. The recommendations in “Fixing Veterans Health Care” would “advance long-term reforms of the current system, while addressing the immediate needs of veterans,” said the authors, including Tennessee Republican and former Senate Majority Leader Dr. Bill Frist and Jim Marshall, a Vietnam veteran and former Democratic congressman from Georgia. According to the task force, the current VA system is broken and not sustainable. “If proactive and fundamental reforms are not made soon, demographic realities will force further drastic and reactionary changes,” the authors wrote. The troubles brought about passage of the Veterans Access Choice and Accountability Act — a law that gave VA $15 billion to hire new physicians and offer veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility the option to get private care. But CVA executives say that law doesn’t go far enough to fix the VA’s chronic problems, prompting them to organize a bipartisan group to address the issue and propose solutions. “The veterans health system is still broken. The VA Choice program does not allow for true choice because VA still determines who can access the program … and in the future, VA is going to see massive underutilization. We need to solve these problems,” said Daniel Caldwell, CVA’s legislative and political director.

1,024 of 1,031 highest-paid federal employees are VA doctors (
Doctors working for the Department of Veterans Affairs are dominating the ranks of the highest paid federal employees, according to a new federal salary database. Of the top 1,031 highest salaries in federal service, 1,024 belong to “medical officers” employed by the Veterans Health Administration. Leading the way among those physicians is Dr. Thomas Burdon, a specialist in thoracic surgery based in Palo Alto, California, who makes $402,462 a year. The next highest paid is Dr. Thomas Cacciarelli in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who makes $873 less. Government Executive reported that more than 16,900 federal employees made more than $200,000 in base salary last year. The database does not include the salaries of Department of Defense (DOD) personnel, according to Government Executive. However, the three best-paid DOD personnel aren’t generals, admirals or anything like that. They’re football coaches. Army’s Jeff Monken tops the list with a guaranteed income of $1,680,000 in 2014, according to a survey by Newsday. He’s followed by Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo at $1,574,809 and Air Force’s Troy Calhoun at “only” $825,000.

The Veterans Independence Act: Giving veterans a way out of socialized medicine (Forbes)
Opinion: “Few Americans who read a newspaper didn’t hear about last year’s Veterans Health Administration scandal, in which VA officials manipulated patient waiting lists in order to deny care to ailing veterans. I observed at the time that the VA’s brand of government-run medicine was far worse than Obamacare. And I questioned why lawmakers hadn’t done more to reform veterans’ health care. Today, Concerned Veterans for America is publishing the most comprehensive effort in decades to reform the VA, and to ensure that veterans gain access to the same high-quality health care available to most Americans. Government programs are notoriously hard to reform. But the VA is in a class all its own. In 1994, President Clinton tapped Kenneth Kizer of the University of Southern California to lead the VHA. “There was universal consensus,” Kizer later told Phillip Longman, “that if there was one agency that was the most politically hidebound and sclerotic, it’s the VA.” … Our basic idea was the same as the one that millions of veterans have proposed: why not put vets in charge of the dollars the VA spends on them? It’s a simple idea in theory, but it’s harder than it looks. Lawmakers have tried several times in the past to reform the VA along these lines. They’ve run into three basic problems: (1) the veterans’ service organizations, like the VFW, have opposed reform; (2) the Congressional Budget Office has scored previous reform efforts as increasing the deficit; (3) the VHA’s officials have feared that if veterans obtain private health care, the VHA’s facilities will wither. We went about addressing each of these issues.”

Senators urge VA chief to fix Choice Card woes (The Hill)
A bipartisan coalition of 41 senators is pressing Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald to remedy the implementation of a program that allows veterans to seek private medical care. The effort, often called the “choice card,” allows veterans to seek medical care at non-VA providers, if they live more than 40 miles from an agency facility or if they cannot get a doctor’s appointment within 30 days. The program was a cornerstone of legislation Congress approved last summer to overhaul the VA — with lawmakers allocating $10 billion for the effort — after a months-long scandal over patient wait times that were linked to a series of deaths.  The VA is “construing the eligibility criteria as it relates to the 40-mile rule so narrowly that it is excluding too many who are far away from the care that they need,” the group — lead by Senate Armed Services Committee John McCain (R-Ariz.) — wrote Wednesday in a letter to McDonald. They charged that while the department has sent out 8.5 million cards, only 0.37 percent of veterans who received them have been authorized to seek private healthcare.

Pittsburgh VA was slow to fire ex-director Terry Wolf (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
The Department of Veterans Affairs had hoped to mollify members of Congress and the families of victims of the Legionnaires’ outbreak at the Veterans Affairs Pittsburgh Healthcare System when it fired former director Terry Wolf last year. It didn’t. In particular documents obtained by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette through the Freedom of Information Act, the VA had tried to reprimand Ms. Wolf and then demote and transfer her, which incensed family and officials alike. “What is this, the Catholic Church?” asked Maureen Ciarolla, the daughter of John Ciarolla, 83, of North Versailles, the first of six fatalities during the outbreak when he died in July 2011. “We just transfer people around and no one will discover the atrocities she and the others are responsible for? When do we start to take a stand and protect our veterans and not these people?” Judy Nicklas, daughter-in-law to William Nicklas, 87, of Hampton, who was the last victim of the outbreak when he died in November 2012, agreed. “It is not acceptable to simply move non-performing individuals from one site to another,” Ms. Nicklas said. “Based on the fact that six people died as a direct result of the lack of leadership and transparency, we feel that they should feel lucky to not be in prison.” U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, who has worked with the families since the outbreak was revealed in November 2012, said in a statement, in part: “I’m alarmed that the VA’s initial response was to transfer their problems instead of fixing them.” And even though Ms. Wolf was eventually fired, and four other officials at the Pittsburgh VA were disciplined — with at least one of them having her discipline overturned — Mr. Murphy said the punishment was too lenient.

Legion: Choice Card no substitute long-term for veterans hospitals (
The country’s largest veterans’ service organization told Congress on Wednesday that it supports giving veterans access to private sector care when necessary, but will not accept any move to privatize Veterans Affairs Department healthcare. “The American Legion applauded emergency legislation to allow veteran patients to use non-VA providers if they were waiting a month or longer to see a doctor or if they lived far from VA facilities,” Legion National Commander Michael Helm said. “But let me be clear …  We oppose privatization or vouchering out of VA care as a long-term solution.” A program established last year created a veterans Choice Card, enabling veterans facing long appointment wait times, or those who live far from a VA hospital or clinic to go to a private provider. The $15 billion Choice Act was a response to veterans’ frustration with getting timely care or having to go to VA facilities sometimes hundreds of miles away. Delays and distance already were issues when the wait-time scandal broke last year out of the VA Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona. Whistleblowers told CNN that many veterans waiting for an appointment were put on a secret or unauthorized wait lists and that more than 30 died. VA officials subsequently found similar issues at VA facilities across the country. Under the Choice Act, veterans waiting longer than 30 days for an appointment with the VA, or who live further away than 40 miles to a VA facility, can opt to see a provider in the private sector. Legion officials, however, are concerned that the program could be the start of an effort to privatize veterans’ healthcare.

Army veteran’s guilt over surviving Iraq is a wound that won’t heal (The Los Angeles Times)
It had been years since Sloan Sulham had heard from any of his men in Iraq. But the soft voice and Philippine accent on the phone were immediately recognizable: Spc. Reyes. “Arvin,” Reyes reminded his former platoon sergeant. Sulham wasn’t likely to forget Arvin Reyes. They had been together on a day that changed both their lives. In the early afternoon of June 28, 2007, they were riding in the same Humvee when insurgents in southern Baghdad ambushed their convoy. Five soldiers under Sulham’s command were killed. Now, nearly seven years later, Reyes had tracked Sulham down in Florida to make a confession: One of the soldiers, his friend Spc. Shin Woo Kim, hadn’t died at the hands of the enemy. Reyes said he had to tell the truth. He had accidentally shot Kim. Sulham was astounded. He knew more than anyone else alive that Reyes was innocent. He knew the Army had concluded Kim died from shrapnel from a grenade. He knew the autopsy report showed that Kim’s body had no bullet wounds. But most of all, he knew that Reyes didn’t even have a gun when Kim went down that day. None of that seemed to matter to Reyes. “Why didn’t you turn me in?” he asked Sulham. Reyes believed that military authorities were covering up to the truth to protect him. “They thought I was a good man,” Reyes, now 31, explained. Sulham understood the wrenching guilt that soldiers often feel when they live and others die. It was one of the reasons he left the Army after the attack. But a man clinging to responsibility for a killing he didn’t commit — it was as if he wanted to be punished for the accident of his own survival.

Jan Scruggs, major advocate for Vietnam Wall, to step down as leader (The Washington Post)
Jan C. Scruggs, the Vietnam veteran who 35 years ago led the crusade to build the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, said Wednesday that he is stepping down as president of the fund that built the national landmark. Scruggs, 64, who lives in Annapolis, said he is officially leaving June 30, but he turned over day-to-day operation of his Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund to new chief executive Jim Knotts last fall. Scruggs said he will continue to travel and raise money for the fund and the new $115 million Vietnam veterans education center, an underground museum planned for a site across the street from the Wall. “I’ll continue to sort of be the president emeritus of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund,” he said. “I’ll continue to work with them on a part-time basis.” “But basically, running the . . . fund full time is someone else’s domain,” he said. “And it’s good.”

‘American Sniper’ trial likely to increase stigma of PTSD (USA Today)
The killer of American Sniper author and veteran Chris Kylewas handed swift justice Tuesday when a jury found him guilty of capital murder. But damage to the reputation of veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder used in the defense of convicted shooter Eddie Ray Routh may be longer lasting. “The jury got it right — that helps to some degree to destigmatize PTSD,” said Harry Croft, a San Antonio-based psychiatrist who evaluates veterans with post-traumatic stress. “The bad news is: The headlines before the trial was that PTSD will be used as a defense. Unfortunately, that’s the message many people will remember.” The 12-member jury took just over two hours to convict Routh of capital murder for the Feb. 2, 2013, shooting deaths of Kyle and his friend, Chad Littlefield, at an upscale shooting range near Fort Worth. The proceedings received global attention as the Oscar-nominated American Sniper, the Clint Eastwood-directed film about Kyle’s service in Iraq as a celebrated Navy SEAL sniper based on his best-selling book, has grossed more than $400 million in ticket sales worldwide. It also brought to the global spotlight the issue of veterans dealing with PTSD — a major tenet of Routh’s defense. Routh served with the Marines, including an assignment cleaning up bodies in earthquake-scarred Haiti and a tour as a prison guard in Iraq. Throughout the nine-day trial, family members and friends testified they saw Routh morph from a charismatic, outgoing guy prior to his military service to a guy struggling with psychosis, who was in and out of mental hospitals, had violent outbursts toward his family, and abused drugs and alcohol.

‘Lone Survivor’ Navy SEAL warns Chris Kyle killer (CBS News)
Marcus Luttrell, the Navy SEAL who was the main subject of the film “Lone Survivor,” issued a warning to the man just convicted of killing famous SEAL sniper Chris Kyle. Eddie Ray Routh lost his attempt at pleading insanity in the killing of Kyle and his friend, Chad Littlefield. After an emotional two-week trial in which jurors heard testimony about defendant Routh’s erratic behavior, including statements about anarchy, the apocalypse and pig-human hybrids, they convicted Routh Tuesday night in the deaths of Kyle and Littlefield at a Texas shooting range two years ago. He will spend life in prison without parole, barring appeals. Luttrell, a Texan like Kyle, took to social media after the verdict and lashed out at Routh, apparently also not believing the former Marine, who served in Iraq and Haiti cleaning up bodies after the earthquake, was mentally unstable and suffering from severe PTSD, as his defense team claimed. On Facebook and Twitter, Luttrell said, “Justice served for Chris and the Littlefield family. To Eddie Ray Routh, you thought you had PTSD before .?? Wait till the boys in TDC [Texas Department of Criminal Justice] Find out you killed a TX hero.”

VA on former patient, ‘American Sniper’ killer: PTSD is not dangerous (The Daily Caller)
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) refused to discuss onetime patient Eddie Ray Routh, who was convicted Tuesday of murder for the shooting death of “American Sniper” Chris Kyle and Chad Littlefield. But the agency did state that the PSTD Routh claimed to have is usually not dangerous. Routh’s mother testified in court that her son was a multiple-time patient at the Dallas VA Medical Center, which released him shortly before the murders, and that she begged the VA to keep him longer. Routh said that he had post-traumatic stress disorder, but he never saw military combat. “We are limited on what we can say about Eddie Ray Routh,” VA spokeswoman Penny Kerby told The Daily Caller before sending TheDC a statement from the VA’s North Texas Healthcare System. “Although Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) may be associated with increased risk of aggression, research shows individuals with PTSD are not dangerous,” VA stated. “Most of the behaviors are mild and likely result from feelings of irritability and anger that are experienced by some individuals with PTSD. The majority of Veterans and non-Veterans with PTSD do not engage in violence.”

At VA hospitals, training and technology reduce nurses’ injuries (NPR)
Bernard Valencia’s room in the Jerry L. Pettis Memorial Medical Center in Loma Linda, Calif., illustrates how hospitals across the country could fight a nationwide epidemic. As soon as you enter the room, you can see one of the main strategies: A hook hangs from a metal track that runs across the ceiling. This isn’t some bizarre way of fighting hospital-acquired infections or preventing the staff from getting needle sticks. The contraption is a ceiling hoist designed to lift and move patients with a motor instead of muscle. As NPR has reported in our investigative series Injured Nurses, nursing employees suffer more debilitating back and other injuries than almost any other occupation — and they get those injuries mainly from doing the everyday tasks of lifting and moving patients. But the Loma Linda hospital is part of a nationwide health care system that is proving hospitals can dramatically reduce the rate of injuries caused by lifting — if administrators are willing to invest the time and money. The name of the system might surprise you. It’s the VA — the Department of Veterans Affairs. … The VA’s campaign to protect nursing staff started in the late 1990s when one of its hospital directors asked colleagues why so many of the hospital’s nursing employees were getting hurt. “Everybody knew” about the epidemic of back injuries, said Michael Hodgson, then a top researcher at the VA. “Nurses knew about it, physicians knew about it, hospitals’ administrators knew about it.” VA records showed that more than 2,400 of its nursing staff suffered debilitating injuries every year from lifting patients. The injuries “were interfering with their lives at work,” Hodgson said. “They were interfering with productivity. They were putting patients at risk because, you know, if somebody gets hurt at work and has to go home, you’re down a nurse on that shift.”

Enlisted leaders tell Congress budget uncertainties hurt morale (Stars & Stripes)
Top enlisted military leaders said Wednesday that servicemembers and their families are stressed and worried about looming changes to compensation, benefits and support services. That anxiety is threatening overall morale, and appears well-founded: Tight budgets for the coming year call for slashing such spending and will mean forcing out quality troops who in the past could have served a full 20-year career, the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force leaders testified to House lawmakers. The testimony is part of a budget drama playing out on Capitol Hill, in which Congress is scrambling to find a solution to budget caps it passed in prior sessions. A defense spending cap due to kick in this fall has triggered dire warnings from the Pentagon and many lawmakers, who say anemic funding is damaging the military’s ability to defend the country and fight wars. Soldiers “see the future. They see it on the news every day, and they see uncertainty and it bothers them,” Army Command Sgt. Maj. Daniel Dailey told a House Appropriations subcommittee. “What I really need is them focused on the mission and saving their fellow soldiers’ lives.” The services have said they are still reeling from an initial round of budget caps in 2013. After Congress struck an agreement to put off the caps for two years, the spending limits are set to resume and hold the Department of Defense base budget at $523 billion, allowing for a modest $1.7-billion increase.