Veterans news update for March 17

Veterans news update for March 17

Veterans news updateCongress grills VA watchdog on secret reports (Green Bay Press Gazette)
The chief watchdog at the Veterans Affairs Department has no standard for deciding when to release the findings of investigations to the public or not, the VA inspector general’s chief counsel told a congressional hearing Monday. As a result, counsel Maureen Regan said she couldn’t say how many reports aren’t released each year, but instead administratively closed like the report last year raising concerns about opiates at the Tomah VA Medical Center. “I have no idea,” Regan told the House Veterans Affairs Committee. In addition, Regan said the Tomah report had “no findings,” even though it found opiate prescriptions at the facility were “unusually high,” and contained a list of recommendations for improvement. Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Mich., then asked if it was standard procedure to keep reports from the public when they contained recommendations. “I don’t know what the standard procedure is,” she replied. It was a somewhat contentious exchange during a more than two-hour hearing about transparency at the VA and its inspector general, which has been under heightened scrutiny in recent weeks, both over the Tomah report and others. USA TODAY reported last week that the inspector has withheld the findings of 140 health care investigations since 2006. Monday’s hearing was the first of several congressional hearings expected to examine officials’ responses to the VA scandal in Tomah, including a field hearing March 30 at the Cranberry Country Lodge just a few miles from the troubled VA Medical Center.

House vets chairman: VA impeding Congressional oversight (Stars & Stripes)
The chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee on Monday accused the inspector general and other officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs of withholding reports from his panel, despite pledges to be transparent. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said the VA’s actions were impeding the ability of Congress to oversee a department rocked by a scandal over long wait times for veterans seeking medical care and falsified records covering up delays. At a hearing Monday night, Miller said more than 100 requests for information from the VA remain outstanding, including 63 that are months past due. VA officials have challenged the need for some of the information he has requested, Miller said, and withheld others based on “unfounded fears” that the information might be publicly released. Miller said he won’t tolerate anyone interfering with a congressional investigation. “Let there be no mistake or misunderstanding: When this committee requests documents, I expect production to be timely, complete and accurate,” Miller said. While he is willing to work with VA Secretary Robert McDonald and other officials to implement needed reforms, Miller said he is not willing to let McDonald or anyone else “dictate how the committee conducts oversight or performs investigations.” Leigh Bradley, the VA’s general counsel, said the agency is committed to accommodating congressional requests “as fully and quickly” as possible.

Tricare Choice: What’s in it for you? (Military Times)
Washington policymakers will soon begin consideration of the biggest overhaul of the military health care system since Tricare replaced CHAMPUS in the early 1990s — changes that would shift millions of beneficiaries to commercial, private-sector health plans. The Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission, which proposed the radical changes in its recently issued final report, says the move would save the Pentagon billions of dollars while greatly enhancing health services for nearly 9.2 million active-duty family members, retirees and their dependents. The Pentagon has not yet weighed in on the plan. In their fiscal 2016 budget request, defense officials have floated other proposals that would increase health care costs for retirees and their family members while providing incentives for beneficiaries to get care at military hospitals and clinics. But Congress, which ultimately would decide how Tricare reform proceeds, is looking closely at the commission’s recommendations, with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle generally agreeing that something must change to rein in the Defense Department’s $49 billion annual health budget and provide more choice for military families. “This idea of opening it up to provide more options is … very interesting and necessary, especially in some places,” said Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, speaking for her island constituents. “Our access really is an issue.” “We’ve got to do something with the current system because it’s just unsustainable,” said Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C. “We’ve been wrestling this alligator for five years. I just sort of lose faith that we can take the current construct, the single-payer system … [and] make it as efficient as the competitive model.”

Obama: A ‘few bad apples’ not emblematic of VA workforce (
The Veterans Affairs Department will soon receive advice and performance monitoring from private-sector and other experts, the agency has announced. The MyVA Advisory Committee will “engage in periodic reviews” to ensure the department follows through on the major reforms put forward by Secretary Bob McDonald last year, VA said. MyVA aims to reorient the disparate agency into five central regions and to make its services more customer friendly. The advisory committee is composed of medical and veterans-issues experts from the private, non-profit and government sectors and is tasked with certifying the VA is on track with its goals and promises. VA announced the advisory committee as President Obama visited the agency’s medical facility in Phoenix, Ariz. — ground zero of the patient waitlist manipulation scandal. Obama touted the new committee and McDonald, saying they were part of a “new team” that would improve scheduling issues and access to care. The president acknowledged there have been “a few bad apples” at VA and “mistakes have been made,” but said that should not “detract from the outstanding work from a lot of people inside this organization.” Obama noted while progress has been made, “what we know is there is still more work to do.” The advisory committee includes 14 individuals, ranging from Teresa Carlson, who runs Amazon Web Services’ Worldwide Public Sector, to former Surgeon General and Senate candidate Richard Carmona to Delos “Toby” Cosgrove, CEO and president of the Cleveland Clinic. They will offer VA advice on how to carry out both short and long-term plans, recommend the funding necessary to deliver on those plans and suggest any new reforms necessary to improve services and operations at the agency.

Senators: ‘Red tape’ blocking care for veterans (The Hill)
Sens. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) introduced legislation Monday that aims to expand care for veterans by rolling back federal regulations. The bill would allow the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to contract with more private businesses to provide extended care, and would allow for more treatment options, including hospice and home healthcare. “Our veterans should not be forced to choose between being near their loved ones and accessing the care they need,” Hoeven said in a statement. “Our legislation will make more options available to our former service members who need long-term care services.” Hoeven and Manchin said federal requirements have kept many long-term care providers from working with veterans. Under current regulations, they said, less than 20 percent of nursing homes in North Dakota and 20 percent in West Virginia contract with the VA.  Manchin said the legislation would eliminate “red tape” that prevents veterans from getting care. “Our veterans and their families have already sacrificed so much for this country. They should not have to worry about being denied care solely because of burdensome federal VA contracting requirements,” Manchin said in a statement. “I am pleased to introduce legislation … that gets rid of this red tape in order to make sure our veterans can access the services they need.”

House veterans committee to call for probe of VA’s female care (Minneapolis Star Tribune)
A bipartisan congressional group, including Minnesota Rep. Tim Walz, is calling for an investigation into how the Department of Veterans Affairs reaches out to female veterans. Eleven members of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs sent a letter to the VA’s deputy inspector general last week requesting the probe to better identify the needs of female veterans, including issues of privacy and the VA’s ability to provide gender-specific care for female vets, including basic gynecological services. The letter comes at a time when female vets represent 10 percent of the population served by the VA and the figure is expected to grow significantly. Close to 200,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. A recent report from Disabled American Veterans found that 20 percent of this country’s military recruits are female, along with 14.5 percent of active duty and 18 percent of reserve components. The congressional group members said they are concerned by recent reports that have highlighted chronic problems that they say compromise health care for women vets, including a lack of health care providers, problems with coordination of care, and inappropriate treatment. “It is imperative that the VA modernize its services to adapt to the unique needs of our nations’s female heroes,” said Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., in a statement accompanying the letter. VA Secretary Bob McDonald told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee in February that he was committed to recruiting more gynecologists and expanding VA women’s clinics nationwide.

Opinion: No room for sense of entitlement among vets, military families (The Washington Post)
“My wife and I own a couple of smoothie/food shops. As small-business entrepreneurs, we take a lot of pride in providing 55 jobs while making payroll every week, all self-financed as saved- and scrimped-for investment capital. As owners, we choose to offer a 10 percent discount to first-responders and active-duty/reserve military and guardsmen. Which is where I get to my rub. Recently, I had a military spouse grow irate with my cashier because we didn’t offer a discount to military family members. Unfortunately, this is not the first time this has happened. I guess I could stop offering any discount at all to the military, but would rather not. In this particular case, my cashier was on the receiving end of a very long tirade about how obviously unappreciative ownership must be of the sacrifices of the military family. The woman ended by stating “it would be in the owner’s best interest” to offer discounts to families as well. I wish I was there to find out exactly what she meant beyond her vague threat. Her response, I believe, had nothing to do with my veteran-owned business being unappreciative of military families (we know firsthand about the hardships endured on the home front), and everything to do with the growing sense in our active and retired military community that as a group its members should be catered to because of their service. This is terribly misplaced and hurts civil-military relations, as well as sullies our service to this great nation.”

Texas family sues VA over veteran’s suicide (Austin American-Statesman)
The family of a Bell County, Texas veteran has filed a federal lawsuit claiming the Department of Veterans Affairs failed to properly treat Kevin Lee Hartbarger before the former Army staff sergeant killed himself in August 2012. According the March 12 lawsuit, Hartberger committed suicide hours after he sought help at the Olin E. Teague Veterans Medical Center in Temple, where he had expressed suicidal thoughts and communicated “significant risk factors for suicide.” But the complaint alleges staffers at the hospital failed to “timely diagnose suicidal behavior and obtain involuntary hold to allow for treatment” through a court order. Hartbarger was being treated for depression, anxiety, substance abuse and post traumatic stress disorder, the lawsuit says. Hartbarger’s family declined to comment through their attorney, Reed Teckenbrock of Austin. Hartbarger’s widow and two surviving daughters are seeking a total of $10 million in the suit. VA officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The agency has struggled to reduce suicides among veterans, with a recent study showing about 22 veterans kill themselves everyday. That VA study did not include information from Texas, but a 2012 American-Statesman investigation found that the percentage of suicides among Texas veterans receiving VA benefits is nearly five times higher than the overall population.

Police fatally shoot veteran after VA hotline alerts them to suicide threat (Gaston, N.C. Gazette)
A 52-year-old man died Monday, shot by Gaston County, N.C., police officers after he opened fire on them, police say. William Dean Poole, a U.S. Navy veteran, was fatally shot around 5:30 p.m. Monday. Four Gaston County Police officers returned fire in the shooting, according to police. Police say a representative from the National Veterans Hotline called police to Poole’s house at 130 Wedowee Lane, south of Gastonia, after he threatened to commit suicide. Police say he told a hotline operator he planned to kill himself and not to send anyone to his home “because it would not end well.” The veteran had reportedly been carrying a .357 Magnum handgun the two previous nights, investigators said. According to police, officers arrived at Poole’s home to find him sitting on a riding lawnmower in the yard. Police say officers identified themselves and began to approach Poole before he pulled out agun and shot multiple times. Officers returned fire, shooting and killing Poole, police said.

White House blog quickly deletes post with name for VA not used since 1989 (Daily Caller)
The Department of Veterans Affairs hasn’t been known as the Veterans Administration since 1989, but that didn’t stop the White House Blog from misusing the decades-old label twice— and then quickly deleting it. The White House blog listed the following quote on Monday morning: “On Friday, President Obama traveled to Phoenix, AZ to visit the Phoenix VA medical facility and to participate in a roundtable discussion with the Veterans Administration Secretary Bob McDonald, Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson, and veterans to hear about the progress we’ve made to improve the VA’s ability to serve our veterans.” The White House blog has since deleted the flub mentioning “Veterans Administration.” The VA’s own website confirms that after President Ronald Reagan boosted the department’s rank to an executive-level agency in October 1988, the changes, which came into play March 15, 1989, switched the name from Veterans Administration to the Department of Veterans Affairs. A total of 26 years have elapsed since the Reagan administration first made the change.

Post-9/11 GI Bill private school payments increase in August (
The maximum academic year cap for Post-9/11 GI Bill tuition payment at private and foreign schools will increase to $21,084.89 on August 1, 2015. The current maximum academic year cap for private and foreign schools is $20,235.02. An academic year is defined by the VA as August 1 – July 31. Students attending a private or foreign school who have tuition and fees higher than the academic year cap must make up any tuition reimbursement shortfall through personal funds or financial aid. For public schools, the Post-9/11 GI Bill can cover up to 100% of the in-state tuition and fee charges. In accordance with The Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014 public schools must charge all eligible Veterans who have been out of the military for less than 3 years, and their dependents who are using transferred benefits the resident, in-state tuition rate. If schools do not comply with this law by July 1, 2015 they will lose their GI Bill certification, and Veterans attending them risk losing GI Bill benefits. According to the latest information released by the VA, only Georgia and Texas are presently in compliance with that law, although many states are working on legislation to comply. Schools can choose to participate in the Yellow Ribbon program which can waive a portion of the difference in the tuition GI Bill recipients are charged and the amount covered by the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Prospective students should verify a school’s participation in the Yellow Ribbon program prior to enrolling.