Veterans news update for March 9

Veterans news update for March 9

Veterans news updateVA hasn’t released findings for 140 veterans health care investigations (USA Today)
The Department of Veterans Affairs’ chief watchdog has not publicly released the findings of 140 health care investigations since 2006, potentially leaving dangerous problems to fester without proper oversight, a USA TODAY analysis of VA documents found. It is impossible to know how many of the investigations uncovered serious problems without seeing the reports, but all concerned VA medical care provided to veterans or complaints of clinical misconduct. The VA inspector general declined to provide the reports, say what’s in them or why the contents were kept from the public. “We have not analyzed these reports and therefore cannot offer a specific description of the kinds of reasons,” spokeswoman Catherine Gromek said. She advised requesting the reports under the Freedom of Information Act. USA TODAY submitted a request in January for 23 reports. Joanne Moffett, a special assistant to the inspector general, said Friday officials are “working diligently” to fulfill the request. Moffett said in general, reports may not be released if allegations are unsubstantiated and disclosing them could damage someone’s reputation, when there is a pending lawsuit or when subjects of investigations are no longer working at the VA. Officials from the inspector general’s office did review 26 reports withheld from the public since January 2014 and found less than half — 46% — involved unsubstantiated allegations. They said in 42% of the cases, inspectors determined VA officials had already addressed their concerns so a public report was unnecessary. One was the subject of a pending lawsuit.

8 members of Congress demand investigation into Phoenix VA (ABC-Phoenix)
Eight members of Congress are now demanding an investigation into the Phoenix VA hospital. In a letter to the VA Secretary, Arizona congress members express their concerns based on our exclusive investigations.  In the past few months, issues have been uncovered with how the VA handles suicide prevention and continued problems with whistleblower retaliation. Now another VA employee is speaking out. She says suicidal vets under the care of “sitters” in the emergency room could be in danger. ABC15 has confirmed house keepers and food workers are sometimes left in charge of suicidal veterans at the Phoenix VA hospital, when veterans go to the emergency room for help. This new whistleblower’s allegations back up similar concerns from Phoenix VA employee Brandon Coleman and an anonymous employee who have also come forward to ABC15. The Phoenix VA says if a suicidal veteran needs help anyone can step in — including housekeepers. A VA official says they’re not expected to be psychiatrists and they can call a supervisor if they need help. But these so-called “sitters” were not trained for suicide prevention, and they’re not medical professionals.

VA manager’s email mocks veteran suicides (The Indianapolis Star)
A manager at the Roudebush Veteran Affairs Medical Center in Indianapolis appears to mock the mental health problems of returning combat veterans in an email to her employees. The email contains photographs of a toy Christmas elf posing as a patient in what appears to be the hospital’s transitional clinic for returning veterans. In one photograph, the elf pleads for Xanax. In another, he hangs himself with an electrical cord. The woman who sent the email is Robin Paul, a licensed social worker who manages the hospital’s Seamless Transition Integrated Care Clinic. The clinic provides returning veterans with transition assistance, including mental health and readjustment services. When initially asked about the email, Paul responded, “Oh my goodness.” She then referred a reporter to the hospital’s public affairs department, which emailed The Star a statement on her behalf. “I would like to sincerely apologize for the email message and I take full responsibility for this poor judgment,” Paul said. “I have put my heart and soul into my work with Veterans for many years. I hold all Veterans and military personnel in the highest regard and am deeply remorseful for any hurt this may have caused.” Julie Webb, a Roudebush spokeswoman, said administrators were made aware of the email “a couple of months ago.” “The email is totally inappropriate and does not convey our commitment to veterans,” she said. “We apologize to our veterans and take suicide and mental health treatment seriously, striving to provide the highest quality.”

VA to release opiate safety management tool ahead of investigation (Minneapolis Star-Tribune)
The Department of Veterans Affairs plans to roll out a tool to reduce opiate overprescribing ahead of the completion of a probe into its hospital in Tomah. Carolyn Clancy, interim secretary for health for the Department of Veterans Affairs, announced Monday that the VA will launch a computer tool that would allow doctors to better monitor their patients’ opiate prescriptions. The VA is investigating reports of overprescribing and retaliatory behavior at Tomah. The hospital came under scrutiny in January amid reports of overprescribing practices that led to the overdose death of a 35-year-old Marine in the hospital’s inpatient care unit.

Labor Department’s top veterans official stepping down (Military Times)
The head of veterans employment services at the U.S. Department of Labor will step down at the end of May, giving the White House less than three months to find his replacement. Keith Kelly, who served as assistant secretary of the Veterans’ Employment and Training Service for the last two years, made the announcement late Friday, just hours after another round of good news with the veterans unemployment rate. “When I leave VETS, I will be 69½, and that is enough,” he said in a statement. “I am leaving a good organization with every confidence it will keep moving forward. I am going back home to Montana to see how a saddle feels again.” The service works as the lead for federal employment efforts for veterans, overseeing job training, transition assistance and employment rights issues. Kelly has also been influential in the administration’s larger effort to end veterans homelessness by the start of 2016, overseeing training and assistance programs to help those financially insecure veterans find jobs. Kelly, who earned the Combat Infantryman’s Badge and Bronze Star with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division during the Vietnam War, had previously served as chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee of the National Association of State Workforce Agencies.

Veterans haunted by their decisions in war (The Washington Post)
Opinion: “Even on the short overnight ops, sometimes we talked about things we knew we’d carry home. On a cold night in March 2010, Jeff brought up the kid he’d shot a month earlier, when the battle for the Afghan city of Marja was hot and there was no shortage of 15-year-olds picking up Kalashnikovs off the ground. Jeff had killed one of them with four shots from a heavy-caliber semi-auto that made a soft thud when the bolt released. The kid had a rifle, and even kids with rifles can kill Marines, Jeff had figured. A few weeks later, we were on the side of the road watching for Taliban fighters digging bombs into the ground, and Jeff was telling me about it. He described the way the kid fell and how he wasn’t sure he’d done the right thing. That was five years ago. Jeff doesn’t bring up that story anymore. I know he thinks about it, though, because a couple of years back he put a Remington 700 short action in his mouth and didn’t pull the trigger. Rather than remaining in the flooded poppy fields of Afghanistan, the story of the kid Jeff shot stuck with him. It grew and matured just as Jeff had, until one day Jeff sat on his bed with a loaded rifle across his lap, staring at a part of his life he could no longer understand.”

Advocates: Veterans issues have been tabled in Indiana legislature (Marine Corps Times)
Advocates for Indiana’s military veterans say their priorities are being largely ignored in the General Assembly, where dozens of proposals have been sidelined, including one that would create a $2 million program to treat those with traumatic brain injuries. But lawmakers say veterans groups may have hurt their own causes by introducing 48 bills, at least a dozen of which required state funding. All but 10 died, and of those, two address the same issue — financial aid and tuition for National Guard members. “It’s just ridiculous,” said Retired Brig. Gen. Jim Bauerle, who volunteers with the Veterans Coalition of Indiana. “We told (lawmakers) that we don’t expect everything, but we do expect something.” Lawmakers said the idea of asking for “everything” and expecting a portion to succeed is part of the problem. More than 1,200 bills were filed this year — 669 in the House and 589 in the Senate. With only eight weeks until the halfway deadline, legislators cut hundreds of measures pertaining to a variety of issues, not just veteran affairs. “We simply can’t hear them all,” said Veterans Affairs and Public Safety Committee Chairman Randy Frye, R-Greensburg. He said it’s better to concentrate top issues into four or five proposals, rather than file dozens of bills. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, said he killed more than 30 bills in the first half of the session that all requested state funding. The veterans group “had a pretty big wish list” that ought to have been pared down, he said, but they’re not the only offenders. “Everybody has realized that we have some money now, so the number of requests that we have is just pretty amazing,” Kenley said.

Richmond veterans hospital suspends some elective surgeries (Richmond.c0m)
McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Richmond, Va., has temporarily stopped doing elective surgeries that would require the patient to stay in the surgical intensive care unit after the operation. Those patients needing surgeries that cannot be delayed are being sent to VCU Medical Center for care. As of earlier this week, 14 patients had been referred to VCU, a spokesman for the VA hospital said. The sprawling VA hospital treats thousands of patients a year, and doctors there do thousands of surgeries annually. “Recently, the medical center temporarily suspended elective surgical procedures which require an intensive care unit (ICU) bed, post-operatively,” McGuire spokeswoman Darlene Edwards wrote in an email. “With the severe flu season, our community partners and our medical center has experienced a high census in these units, resulting in less availability of ICU beds. This is a temporary situation that will be re-evaluated in a few weeks,” Edwards wrote.

Post-9/11 veteran unemployment dips (Military Times)
The unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans dropped to 6.7 percent in February, government data show, mirroring a drop in the nation’s unemployment rate. The country added 295,000 jobs overall, as unemployment fell from 5.7 percent in January to 5.5 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For the newest generation of veterans, the unemployment rate was down more than 1 point from January’s 7.9 percent mark. Large month-to-month changes are common in this measure, which has a small sample size that is prone to fluctuation. Statisticians advise focusing on longer-term trends, such as annual unemployment rates. Those are clearly pointing in the right direction for post-9/11 veterans: The 2014 annual unemployment rate was 7.2 percent, nearly 2 points lower than the 2013 rate and nearly 5 points lower than the rate in 2011.

More than 200 veterans in Louisiana still waiting for medical claims to be processed (KATC-Acadiana)
More than 200 veterans in Louisiana have outstanding medical bills because a federal Department of Veterans Affairs division in Mississippi has not processed their claims. The problem stems from medical bills accumulated at non-VA facilities that veterans can use for emergency treatment and when given special permission. But the South Central VA Health Care Network division in Jackson, Mississippi, that is responsible for paying off the bills for Louisiana veterans has not been keeping up with the claims. “VISN 16 (south Central VA Health Care Network) is one of the worst in the country,” David LaCarte, Louisiana secretary of Veterans Affairs, said, of the division that handles claims from Louisiana and Oklahoma and parts of five other states. LaCarte said he has made a request for a Congressional hearing on the issue. That hearing is expected to happen sometime this spring. Meanwhile, many veterans in Acadiana, including Al Theriot, are feeling the strain of unpaid bills. Theriot is sitting on almost $30,000 of unpaid medical bills, many of which are from an incident that happened more than a year ago when Theriot was at his house and had trouble breathing. “I virtually passed out at my home and they had to take me by an ambulance to take me to the hospital,” Theriot said. “I was there for about a week.” Theriot said the VA has paid off about $5,000, but each month the hospital where he received treatment contacts him to remind him that the remainder of his bill is still due.

Time running out for Desert Storm veterans bonus in Pennsylvania (WHTM-Harrisburg)
Pennsylvania veterans have just six months left to apply for a cash bonus program to honor their service in Operations Desert Shield or Desert Storm. Veterans have until Aug. 31 to apply for the special one-time payment. Nearly 11,000 Persian Gulf veterans have applied for the bonus since the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs began accepting applications in 2008. The bonus pays $75 per month for qualifying, active-duty service members, up to a $525 maximum, to veterans who served in the Persian Gulf Theater of Operations from August 2, 1990 to August 31, 1991. For personnel whose death was related to illness or injury received in the line of duty in Operations Desert Shield or Desert Storm, there is an additional $5,000 available to the surviving family. Service members who were declared prisoners of war may also be eligible for an additional $5,000. The department encourages any veteran who was previously denied for the bonus to reapply.