Veterans news update for March 20

Veterans news update for March 20


Veterans news updateFederal watchdog: DoD slow in addressing sexual assault of men (Stars & Stripes)
Although the Department of Defense has taken numerous steps to address sexual assaults of service members in general, it still doesn’t have a clear plan for responding specifically to attacks on men, the Government Accountability Office said in a report released Thursday. “DOD has taken steps to provide and improve the availability of medical and mental health care for all sexual assault victims, but DOD’s Health Affairs office has not systematically identified whether male victims have any gender-specific needs,” the report concluded. Although the problem of sexual assault of female servicemembers has been in the spotlight for several years, sexual assault of their male counterparts has received less publicity — even though the incidents are quite common. About 3,200 male servicemembers reported sexual assault during fiscal years 2008 through 2014, the GAO said. But that’s regarded as a highly underreported number. A Rand Corp. survey last year estimated 9,000 to 13,000 active-duty men were sexually assaulted during the year prior to the survey. About 2,500 to 5,500 of those were described as “penetrative” sexual assaults. The GAO estimated that, at most, 13 percent of males reported assaults, compared with at least 40 percent of female servicemembers. “DOD has reported data on the gender of military sexual assault victims since 2008, but it has not used all these data to inform program decision making or established a plan to do so,” the report said. “Thus, without a plan for how it will use data in making decisions about program development, DOD risks leaving important issues, such as those related to male victims, unaddressed.”

Is enough being done to prepare veterans for civilian jobs? (U.S. News & World Report)
Holly Mosack intended to go into the Army Reserve once she graduated from Northwestern University in 1997. A Reserve Officers’ Training Corps scholarship helped pay Mosack’s way through college, but a three-week stint at the U.S. Army Airborne School between her junior and senior years changed her course. “While it was only three weeks, that’s just where I fell in love with the Army and the people,” says Mosack, who after her senior year was commissioned as an officer in the Army. “Just being around the soldiers is what I love.” Fast-forward to 2004. Mosack had just concluded a seven-year military career and was in the process of what many veterans describe as the daunting transition into the civilian labor force. “That transition was very difficult. My life was the military. The people I knew were the military,” Mosack says. “While I knew I had some credentials – I went to Northwestern, a great school – I didn’t have the confidence. What can I do in this civilian world? I got this degree in journalism several years ago. I don’t think I want to go into that. What am I going to do?” Many veterans ask that very same question upon entering the civilian world. The Labor Department on Wednesday estimated 21.2 million veterans were living in the U.S. at the end of 2014, making up about 9 percent of the civilian noninstitutional population – those who are not on active military duty or in mental health facilities or jails – at least 18 years of age. And while the military has some programs in place to help with reacclimation, the career counselors and guidance afforded to the average college student as they shape the rest of their lives far exceeds the help many veterans of the same age receive, especially if their military skill sets don’t translate well into the civilian labor force. Many veterans need to fend for themselves to get a job while adjusting to life back home.

Oldest American woman veteran dies at 108 (USA Today)
The country’s oldest woman veteran has died at home in Texas at the age of 108. Lucy Coffey, an Indiana native who served throughout the Pacific, was found dead in her bed Thursday morning after being ill for about a week and suffering a chronic cough, Quita Marquez, a friend and Bexar County, Texas, veterans service officer, told ABC News. The Bexar County Veterans Service Office announced Coffey’s death on Thursday. “She was an incredible lady who will be missed dearly,” the organization said in a statement. “Her contributions to our country and community will not be forgotten.” “She was truly a pioneer, and full of life and spunk,” Marquez told the San Antonio Express-News. Coffey visited the White House last year, meeting President Obama and Vice President Biden. Coffey was one of 400,000 American women who served during World War II, according to the White House. She was 37 and working at a Dallas grocery store when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and quit to enlist in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps. She rose to the rank of sergeant, earning two bronze stars during her service and the Philippine Liberation Ribbon during the Battle of Luzon.

Phoenix VA whistleblower sees possible return to work (
A whistleblower on paid administrative leave from the veterans’ medical center in Phoenix, Arizona, said he may return to work if officials agree to restart the substance abuse treatment program he established three years ago to help veterans. The 52-week program, which works with veterans on probation to help keep them out of jail, was merged into an existing program at the Phoenix hospital after Brandon Coleman was put on leave following his filing a federal whistleblower complaint in December. The Department of Veterans Affairs claims the administrative action was prompted by Coleman threatening another employee — an allegation Coleman denies and which appears to have lost traction since Coleman met face-to-face with VA Secretary Bob McDonald on March 12. Coleman said the VA’s Equal Employiment Opportunity Office in Phoenix informed him the allegation is being dropped. “I told them I’d love to see that in writing please,” he told on Thursday, but so far that has not happened. The EEO office would not confirm Coleman’s claim.

Watchdog stands behind his decision not to release VA report (Green Bay Press Gazette)
The interim inspector general at the Veterans Affairs Department said Thursday he stands by his staff’s initial decision not to release a report on “unusually high” opiate prescription rates at a VA facility in Tomah, where a veteran died from an overdose last August. “At the time the decision was made, it was the right decision,” said Richard Griffin, whose office completed the report in March 2014. Griffin, who was on Capitol Hill to testify at a House Appropriations Committee hearing, recently began releasing reports on 140 investigations, including the one in Tomah. He said it was appropriate to initially withhold findings from those investigations and described at least some of them as a “dry well.” “Anybody that reads these as they come out… will see that, if you were in our position, you’d make the same decision,” he said during the hearing. But six of the 17 previously unreleased reports his office released this week contain substantiated allegations, including two involving veterans who were harmed or died.

Probe finds problems at Nashville veterans hospital (The Tennessean)
A federal watchdog agency found problems with record-keeping and suicide prevention training at Nashville’s veterans hospital last year after investigating a claim that a suicidal veteran had been denied care, according to an internal report released this week. The agency, which handles health care inspections for the Veterans Affairs inspector general’s office, began investigating after the veteran said he had sought treatment at the Tennessee Valley Healthcare System in Nashville but was instead referred to a community hospital. He was admitted to the community hospital for five days, according to the two-page report by the Office of Healthcare Inspections. The office determined the veteran’s claim “appeared very credible” but couldn’t substantiate it because the Nashville VA facility had no record of his visit. VA officials urged the Nashville hospital to address problems with record-keeping and evaluating potentially suicidal patients who show up in its emergency room, according to the recently released report, dated January 2014. It is one of 140 investigative reports by the VA inspector general’s office that were not publicly released until USA TODAY inquired about them two weeks ago.

Troubled Iowa vet sought help from VA before freezing to death (CNN)
“I need help.” On February 15, Iraq War veteran Richard Miles entered a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Des Moines, Iowa, and told the staff: “I need help,” according to hospital records obtained by CNN. He had told friends he was going to check himself in. He was diagnosed with “worsened PTSD,” anxiety and insomnia, but Miles was not admitted to the hospital. Five days later the 40-year-old father was found dead in the woods, having taken a toxic amount of sleeping pills, according to a toxicology report obtained by CNN. He died from exposure to the elements. Now those who loved him want to know why the VA hospital did not admit him when he showed up that night. “That was his cry for help and it was not taken seriously or received the way it should have been received,” said Katie Hopper, his ex-girlfriend and mother to their daughter Emmalynn. Miles was one of the premiere presenters at the Science Center of Iowa, a beloved employee popular with the staff and guests. On February 15, Miles left several of his belongings with Hopper and went to the hospital. It was a familiar place to the veteran whose medical records show a long history of suicidal acts and thoughts. He’d been hospitalized at the Iowa VA hospital four times for PTSD between 2008 and 2009, after he “made 2 attempts to hang himself,” according to records. At one point he had brought a gun into a different hospital ward planning to kill himself. Records show friends called the VA to look for him and later filed a missing persons report with local law enforcement. Files from that day show Miles told the hospital attendant he needed help. When the attending doctor asked him whether he was a danger to himself, Miles responded, “No, I won’t harm myself, but I do need some medicine so I can just rest,” according to the notes. The toxicology report shows Miles had ingested a toxic but not fatal number number of lorazepam sleeping pills, which he had been prescribed just a few days before at the VA, and froze to death. His was found with no jacket, no shoes, and most infuriatingly, no clear reason why his life had to end like this. “The VA failed him. They failed him,” said Hopper.

True choice empowers veterans to make their own decisions on health care (The Hill)
Opinion: “In recent hearings discussing the Department of Veterans Affairs budget for fiscal year 2016, VA Secretary Robert McDonald asked for the authority to repurpose the money that is allocated to the Veterans Choice Program. His main argument – that the program has been underutilized.   This is likely true, but only because the program offers no true choice to veterans. The way the program is currently structured leaves veterans helplessly dependent on the VA to authorize their ability to exercise choice. It simply doesn’t work as intended – and veterans suffer as a result. It’s time to change that. The Veterans Independence Act, developed by Concerned Veterans for America’s Fixing Veterans Health Care Taskforce, flips that concept on its head and puts veterans in charge of making their own health care choices. When we were gathering the initial data to lay the groundwork for our taskforce, we saw something undeniable: The VA bureaucracy decides which health care services veterans should have access to. From then on, we structured the Veterans Independence Act to put the veteran, not the bureaucrat, at the center of their health care decisions. This is why in the Veterans Independence Act we proposed a system of premium support through which eligible veterans would be able to purchase any private health care insurance plan available in their state, including one provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs. This very simple concept completely changes the incentive structure and the decision-making process with veterans’ health care. It empowers the veteran and means that they would not have to wait for a VA bureaucrat to authorize their choice. In this system, the veteran is the most important person in the process of deciding their own health care.”

Colorado VA hospital fiasco: VA didn’t listen to contractors (The Denver Post)
A Veterans Affairs official told members of Congress overseeing construction of the hospital in Aurora, now estimated to cost $1.73 billion, that the department ignored the warnings of its contractors and listened instead to its designers. “The VA owns this. We own this fiasco,” said Dennis Milsten, VA director of the Office of Construction and Facilities. But others were involved, he said, in creating runaway costs at a construction project begun more than a decade ago. The designer was supposed to deliver a design that could be built for $600 million, Milsten said. “We relied on that,” he said. “We moved forward. … When we got advice from our construction contractors that the design wasn’t buildable for that amount, we chose, unfortunately, to listen to our designer.” The joint venture making up the design team includes big names, locally and nationally: Skidmore Owings & Merrill, S.A. Miro, Cator Ruma and H+L Architects. The joint venture spokesman, Andy Boian of Dovetail Solutions, said the VA’s suggestion that the design team led them into the budget debacle is false. The design team, general contractor Kiewit-Turner and the VA’s construction manager, Jacobs Engineering Group, all agreed to a cost estimate of $600 million to $700 million for the 182-bed hospital, Boian said. “Nothing changed on the design side,” Boian said. “The VA didn’t understand the process.”

VA’s uncertain future in building hospitals (KUSA-Denver)
Several members of Congress agreed at a hearing on Capitol Hill that the Department of Veterans Affairs should be stripped of its power to construct hospitals, as the VA tries explain how building the new Aurora facility became a financial fiasco. “Mismanagement, cost overruns and delays are the norm of VA’s construction program,” Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colorado) said at a House Veterans Affairs Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing Thursday. Coffman, who is the subcommittee chairman, was first to suggest the Army Corps of Engineers should take over construction management of all veterans’ medical facilities. The VA “has not ruled out the possibility of turning construction management functions to the [U.S. Army] Corps of Engineers,” testified Dennis Milsten, the Associate Executive Director of the Office of Operations, for the VA’s Office of Construction and Facilities Management. “You’re no longer going to get to decide whether you build hospitals or not,” Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minnesota) told Milsten. “That’s where this is headed.” Earlier this week, the VA said the final price for the Aurora VA medical center could soar to $1.73 billion. Congress had imposed spending cap for the project is $880 million. Rep. Coffman has drafted a bill to raise the spending cap. “I know what hospitals cost in New Hampshire and it’s not a billion dollars,” said the subcommittee’s ranking member, Rep. Ann McLane Kuster (D-New Hampshire). “I feel we can do better by our veterans without building the Taj Mahal.”

VA secretary to Cincinnati: End homelessness (
U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald seemed pleased with Cincinnati’s progress in getting veterans off the street and into housing. But, he added Thursday that he’s anxious for the process to speed up for the sake of the whole community and that will take jobs for veterans. The former Procter & Gamble CEO toured two local veterans’ programs in Greater Cincinnati with Mayor John Cranley, Cincinnati Housing and Urban Development, VA members and other community activists. Conversations at the Cincinnati Veterans Affairs Medical Center concerned how to shorten the time between when housing for a homeless veteran is identified and when they actually move into that housing. McDonald said the longer this process takes, the less likely it is the veteran will receive that housing. Cranley is a part of the national Mayor’s Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, an initiative to eliminate veteran homelessness in the United States by the end of 2015. “It was very helpful, because each one of us has a different piece,” McDonald said. “We had a lot of people there from the community, so it was very helpful to have that discussion.” There are various reasons why veterans might become homeless, McDonald said, including not having a job after leaving military service, mental health issues, substance abuse, as well as the fact that many veterans are aging. McDonald said the VA works to help veterans on all fronts, with jobs training as well as treating them for substance abuse and mental health issues. “If we get them jobs, they won’t become homeless,” he said.

VA disputes lawmaker’s claim of nation state attack (Federal News Radio)
The Veterans Affairs Department is refuting claims by Rep. Jackie Walorski (R- Ind.) that it sustained another nation state attack in September 2014. VA Chief Information Officer Steph Warren said House Veterans Affairs Committee lawmakers informed his office of a potential breach and the agency immediately took steps to review and analyze the information. “I’m a little perplexed, because I have been going back and forth with the committee, and specifically with one of the staffers where the comment was made they were aware of and we’ve been pursuing information about it. The reason we are pursuing information about it and the reason we are pursuing information about it is because if we have a weakness that we need to fix, I want to fix it. I want to take on where we have gaps in what we do,” Warren said, during a briefing with reporters after Walorski made the claim during a committee hearing Thursday. “As of right now, again with the conversations not just conversations within the organization, we’ve had conversations with the National Security Council, we’ve head conversations with the Homeland Security Department, we’ve had conversations with the FBI and the counter intelligence and cyber crimes area, and we’ve asked specifically, are you aware of and they’ve all come back and said, ‘No,’ Warren said. “So we will continue to work with individuals on the committee to run down the details. I’ll be blunt right now, we haven’t seen anything and we haven’t got anybody who can say, ‘This is what happened. This is where the vector was, and these are the activities that took place.’ We are drawing a blank. We keep pursuing getting the details, because we really want to know, because if we’ve got an area where there is a weakness, we want to find it, we want to fill it and we want to make sure we continue to do the stewardship and guardianship. As of right now, we are coming up dry when we ask for who says and the specifics and the details. And those are not only at the unclassified level, but at the classified level. We’ve rung every door bell that we can find and we keep getting the answer back, ‘W have no idea what you are talking about, and we have nothing nor have we briefed anything that you were involved in that nature.” But Warren’s claim that VA has no evidence about another nation state attack is in direct opposition to statements made by Walorski at a hearing on legislation the committee is considering and other experts familiar with the classified report issued to VA.

Virginia Beach man pleads guilty to submitting false claims to VA (WAVY-Norfolk)
A Virginia Beach man has pleaded guilty to submitting 90 forms in support of claims for service-related to disability compensation in the names of 21 veterans. According to court documents, 58-year-old Michael Blanchard forged the signatures of veterans, falsely listed serious mental and physical maladies they did not have and falsely stated each veteran lived at his address. Officials say, some of the victims had never met Blanchard. The VA caught the fraud before any disability compensation benefits were paid out. If convicted, Blanchard faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison.