Veterans news update for March 31

Veterans news update for March 31

Veterans news updateOIG report: Honolulu VA supervisor manipulated veterans’ data (Huffington Post)
A supervisor at the Veterans Administration office in Honolulu was manipulating data to make it look like the agency was processing veterans’ benefits claims faster it actually was, according to a new report by the VA Office of Inspector General. The data manipulation happened last year when there was heightened scrutiny nationwide over how long veterans were waiting to see doctors. The electronic records altered in Honolulu dealt with benefits claims, not medical appointments. But the finding underscores that there are ongoing problems within the system. The Honolulu supervisor was removing controls in the electronic record that are used to track and identify the progress of claims. “It made his performance measures for his team look better than they actually were,” said Brent Arronte, director of the San Diego Benefits Inspection Division of the VA Office of Inspector General. Those data manipulations resulted in delays for the delivery of benefits to veterans, including benefits like payments for dependents, Arronte said.

Report: VA failed to drug test majority of its hires in 2013 (The Washington Times)
The Department of Veterans Affairs failed to administer a drug test to about 70 percent of employees hired in 2013 who were supposed to be tested, according to an inspector general report released Monday. Of 22,600 employees hired into testing designated positions in fiscal 2013, about 15,800 never received a pre-employment drug test, the report found. The VA also failed to properly test its employees after they were hired. Of the more than 3,000 employees selected for random drug testing in fiscal 2013, only about 68 percent were actually tested. In addition, the VA erroneously designated more than 13,000 employees for testing who were not in positions that required random monthly tests. Only about a third of those employees who tested positive for drugs were referred to get help at the VA, the report said. “VA has little assurance that this program is performing as intended to identify and eliminate illegal drug use in its workforce,” the report said. “Since VA’s workforce is expected to grow significantly with the passage of the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014, VA needs to take actions to address weaknesses in its Drug-Free Workplace Program immediately.” Investigators recommended the VA increase its oversight of the drug testing program by ensuring full compliance with both random and pre-employment testing. The Drug Free Workplace Program was established in 1988 and requires the VA to pick 285 employees each month for random drug testing. The VA spent about $1.4 million in fiscal 2013 on its drug testing program, the report said.

Members of Congress grill VA officials over Tomah mishaps (Military Times)
Members of Congress consoled whistleblowers and family members of veterans who died at a medical center in Tomah that has come under fire for poor care, and they criticized government officials who tried to defend previous investigations of the facility. A pair of U.S. House and Senate committees heard testimony at the Cranberry Country Lodge in Tomah first from a panel of two whistleblowers and three family members of veterans who died as a result of inadequate care at the hospital run by the federal Department of Veterans Affairs. The committees also grilled VA officials there on how they plan to improve and prevent future deaths. The facility in west-central Wisconsin came under scrutiny in January following reports that physicians were prescribing more painkillers than most VA hospitals, and that employees who spoke out were subjected to intimidation. The hospital is the subject of investigations by the VA, the VA Office of the Inspector General and the Drug Enforcement Administration. Three deaths as a result of care at the facility also prompted state representatives to call for a federal probe. In tears, two family members testified about Jason Simcakoski, who they said died of an overdose in the hospital’s inpatient care unit last year. His father, Marvin Simcakoski, and his wife, Heather Simcakoski, said the 35-year-old Marine was never offered alternative treatments that did not include narcotics. “They didn’t just take away a person,” Heather Simcakoski said. “They took away a hero and a husband and a father. Sen. Ron Johnson said the testimony from the Simcakoski family and from Candace Delis, whose father died in January after experiencing slow and inadequate care at the facility, would fuel lawmakers to act. “Your story will be used as a catalyst to enact real reform so that these deaths never have to affect another veteran’s family,” Johnson said.

Group says breaking up the VA is best way to serve veterans (WBNS-Columbus)
One national Veterans Group is in Columbus with a big message: they say It’s time to break up the Veterans Administration. They believe it’s the only way to improve Veterans Health Care. The idea is similar to school vouchers. Parents get public money to pay for either public or private school. The idea would be the same for the VA: allowing patients to see either public or private doctors. Dozens of veterans gathered to at the Hyatt Regency in Downtown Columbus to hear ideas they believe will improve the level of Veterans health care in Ohio and nationwide. Nita Thomas isn’t a veteran — but her granddaughters’ fiancé is. “It just is frustrating that we have this young man, who did not suffer a small injury, he was blown out of a Humvee. So he has some issues, and they just kind of bounce him around.” The plan from advocacy group Concerned Veterans For America would break up the Veterans Administration. Vets could visit a private doctor and get the visit paid by a new “Veterans Health Insurance Program.” The “Veterans Accountable Care Organization” would run existing VA Clinics and Hospitals. “We polled the veterans. We asked them what do they want. 88 percent said they want to see choice,” said retired Army Special Operations veteran Jason Beardsley. “If you look at Amtrak, something like this, it’s partially government subsidized, but really, it operates on a non-profit function — same thing with the US Post Office.” The Columbus VA Clinic holds regular town halls with veterans hearing numerous complaints about delays in seeing doctors.  Veterans were given the ability to see doctors outside the VA system if their delays last longer than a month.  But enough veterans tell the CVA that system isn’t working, and they’re hoping for another answer: “If they have a heart issue and they want to use a little bit of premium support, they’ll be able to go to the number one heart hospital in the world, up in Cleveland, the Cleveland Clinic,” explained CVA Ohio Director Richard Youngblood.

Veteran’s death spurs investigation at VA in Hampton, Va. (
The young veteran had been a mental health patient at the Hampton VA Medical Center for four years, getting services at the Virginia Beach and North Carolina community outreach clinics. He had insomnia, depression and anxiety, was overweight and was on three medications. One night, unable to sleep, he sought help at the emergency room. He informed the doctors and nurses he’d attempted suicide two days earlier because his insomnia was so severe. Several days later, the veteran went to the mental health clinic where he was normally treated and reported his suicide attempt there as well. In an era when the suicide rate of veterans is high and growing, the Department of Veterans Affairs has implemented training to identify suicide risks. Yet none of the doctors or nurses who treated this patient flagged his file for suicide prevention, and no one followed up to make sure he was OK when, six weeks later, he canceled an appointment with his psychiatrist, an investigation has revealed. The veteran, whose name was not released, died of what was deemed an accidental overdose shortly after those incidents, the VA Office of the Inspector General discovered in its recent investigation of the case. Along with undiagnosed heart disease, the inspection also showed shortfalls in the medical center’s handling of veterans exhibiting risk factors for suicide. The report “reveals the upsetting reality that VA personnel did not do everything they could in this case to help a troubled veteran,” said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., who requested the investigation as the then-ranking member of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs. “The findings highlight the necessity for administrators and medical personnel to approach the difficult nature of suicide with compassion and fully train all personnel to follow procedures in these situations.”

Female veterans press VA hospitals to meet their needs (Minnesota Public Radio)
Trista Matascastillo remembers arriving at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center in 2010 for an exam and thinking the hospital didn’t quite get the needs of female veterans. He exam room, for instance, opened onto the patient waiting area, she said. She had to ask that the door be closed. It was a tiny detail, one Matascastillo said staff fixed quickly. But the 16-year veteran keeps the story close by now that she is part of an initiative to help the center improve care for women. “Our biological needs are different. Our health care needs are different. Our mental health care needs are different and so systems designed for men, we don’t fit into,” said Matascastillo, head of the Minneapolis VA Women’s Initiative. While improved, the system still falls short, she added. More than 200,000 women nationwide — 30,000 in Minnesota — have served since 2001; 20 percent of the nation’s military recruits are female, according to a recent report from the group Disabled American Veterans that highlights growing concern the VA hasn’t adjusted fast enough to the needs of females, who are the fastest growing group of veterans enrolling in VA health care. The report showed a lack of gynecologists on staff at many VA hospitals and not enough mental health professionals who can address military sexual trauma.

VA leader: Re-embracing the customer (
The man in charge of the nation’s embattled veterans agency is turning to executives at Starbucks, Disney and Ritz-Carlton for advice about customer service, and he is making a personal plea for doctors to consider working at VA hospitals serving nearly 10 million American veterans. Bob McDonald, appointed to lead the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs after two major scandals rocked the agency, was in San Diego over the weekend and told U-T San Diego that his customer service reforms should be felt by veterans soon. The former Proctor & Gamble chairman pointed to his creation of a “chief veteran experience officer” at a moment when employees may want to “turn inward” as the federal agency is weathering troubled times. “What a leader needs to do in a crisis is force the organization to turn outward and force them to re-embrace their customer,” McDonald said Sunday in an interview. “We’re trying to simplify everything and make sure our veterans feel like they get a warm embrace.” McDonald inherited a behemoth agency that attracted national criticism in 2013 for making veterans wait up to two years for a decision on disability benefits. Then, last year, news reports revealed that some VA hospitals were faking patient wait times to improve records and that some patients died waiting for care.

Editorial: Use VA bonuses to help fund Colorado hospital construction (The Denver Post)
Beyond the outrage over the $1.73 billion cost estimate for the new Veterans Affairs hospital in Aurora, there is the reality that it still must be built. So how to pay for it? It may be politically untenable to expect Congress to appropriate an extra $930 million needed to finish the facility, which officials don’t expect to open before 2017, and just add to the federal deficit. Credit Rep. Mike Coffman, the Aurora Republican, for his plan to both pay for the overage while holding the VA accountable. Coffman’s bill, called the VA Construction Accountability and Reform Act, seeks to increase the $800 million spending cap placed on the project to $1.73 billion. And he would pay for cost overruns with hundreds of millions of dollars intended for bonuses to VA employees. His bill would freeze them until the hospital is operational. “The VA has gone wild with bonuses,” Coffman said Monday at The Denver Post. “If you have a pulse and you are in management, you are going to get a bonus. It has become part of the compensation package.” … Using the annual $360 million Congress allocated for VA bonuses over 2 ½ years would almost perfectly pay for the overruns, Coffman said. Surely, some in the VA deserve bonuses, but having that money withheld temporarily is the price of working for a troubled agency. Coffman’s idea is gathering momentum. Colorado’s Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner introduced a companion bill and Democratic Rep. Ed Perlmutter of Golden announced his support. Coffman calls his idea “unique.” While it may not be an ideal solution, asking taxpayers to pay for the VA’s fiasco is simply not a palatable option.