Veterans news update for April 14

Veterans news update for April 14

Veterans news updateVA official retaliate against whistleblowers by illegally accessing their medical records (The Blaze)
An official at the U.S. Office of Special Counsel said Monday that Department of Veterans Affairs officials are known to be retaliating against VA whistleblowers by illegally going through their medical records, in an apparent attempt to harass and discredit these whistleblowers. This surprising testimony from Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner was delivered at a House Veterans Affairs subcommittee hearing, which was called to discuss the problems whistleblowers face when they try to expose the ongoing failure of the VA to provide medical care to veterans. In Lerner’s prepared testimony, she explained that many VA officials who try to reveal these problems are veterans themselves who are also seeking care at the VA. She said in some cases, VA officials try to retaliate by examining the medical records of these officials, and said this still happens — she called it an “ongoing concern.” “In several cases, the medical records of whistleblowers have been accessed and information in those records has apparently been used to attempt to discredit the whistleblowers,” she said. “We will aggressively pursue relief for whistleblowers in these and other cases where the facts and circumstances support corrective action,” she said. One example of a veteran who believes his medical records were inappropriately accessed is Brandon Coleman, a Marine Corps veteran who sustained injuries to his right foot while he served. Coleman works at the VA system in Phoenix, and told TheBlaze he became a whistleblower after it became clear that someone illegally went into his medical records. He said after he started publicizing the failures of his own office to properly treat veterans with suicidal tendencies, his own mental health was questioned by his superiors. As of this year, the VA has threatened to reduce his disability rating.

VA says it has money to complete troubled Colorado hospital (The Denver Post)
Nearly a month after the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs shocked Congress — and Colorado — with the admission that it needs an extra $830 million to finish construction of a new hospital in Aurora, the Obama administration says it has a plan to cover the cost. The proposal would not require new spending and instead would shuffle money inside the VA budget, an approach that increases the likelihood of attracting congressional support — a major potential hurdle. But because the plan would tap new money meant for needed reforms systemwide, the move is hardly free of controversy. Under the proposal, the VA would reroute money to the Aurora project from a special fund created to make the VA more efficient. The $5 billion coffer was established last year as part of a reform bill passed by Congress to address systemic problems within the agency that contributed to deadly consequences at VA operations in the Phoenix area. According to an administration official and confirmed by the staff of U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, VA officials want to use money from this one-time $5 billion fund to pay for the Aurora hospital, which now is expected to cost $1.73 billion — more than five times its initial $328 million estimate.

VA building projects riddled with mistakes and cost overruns (The Washington Post)
There are hospital doors at the half-built ­Veterans Affairs medical center outside Denver that were supposed to cost $100 each but ended up ­running $1,400. There’s a $100-million-and-still-rising price tag for an atrium and concourse with curving blond-wood walls and towering glass windows. And entire rooms that had to be refashioned because requests for medical equipment changed at the last minute and in other cases the equipment didn’t fit. No one had bothered to measure. Not even completed yet, this $1.7 billion facility is already among the most expensive hospitals in the world, and it’s just one of several VA hospital projects that are greatly over budget and behind schedule, according to the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. “Everything that could have gone wrong did. It’s just an astounding price tag,” said David Wise, who wrote in a GAO report about the Aurora project and VA construction problems in Orlando, Las Vegas and New Orleans. The GAO report, written by Wise in 2013, highlighted the failure of VA in Orlando to hire specialists in medical-equipment construction who could have ensured that the rooms would accommodate MRI machines and other crucial equipment. Multiple revisions to lists of medical equipment meant plans kept changing, to the tune of $14 million, according to the GAO report. “Think of it like this — you’re building a kitchen,” Wise said. “But you don’t check how big your stove or refrigerator is. You measure too late. And nothing fits, so you have to hack up a whole another piece of wall. That’s very expensive and time-consuming.” The combination of extravagant planning divorced from financial reality and bungled ­execution has bedeviled several recent VA projects, the GAO found.

Phoenix VA: One year later (
A year ago this week Doctor Katherine Mitchell publicly blew the whistle on her Phoenix VA bosses. “The past year has been a roller coaster,” Mitchell said. “I’m still waiting for retaliation.” Mitchell has already been punished for accusing managers of hiding long waits for care and allowing dangerous under staffing. “They need to get the corrupt managers out of the VA,” she said. The department of the Veteran Affairs gave her a new job and a cash settlement, but she still doesn’t feel safe. “The VA has an incredibly long memory is notorious for retaliating against people,” Mitchell said. The Phoenix VA’s larger problem right no is caring for hundreds of thousands of Arizona veterans. Data provided by the hospital show 94 percent of veterans are getting appointments within 30 days of their preferred date. There were 476,000 appointments through the end of last year which was up 19 percent from a year ago. Last year, 30,000 veterans were getting non-VA care and that’s up 80 percent. Plus, there are 305 new employees with a goal of 800. “Patients are getting in where it used to be the wait time as over a year. (Now) they’re waiting 30 to 60 days,” Mitchell said. But Mitchell says there’s a problem with those numbers. “The VA had so much corruption in the reporting of their numbers that there’s no way to ascertain improvement,” she said.

W.Va. veterans clinic closes again due to air quality issues (The Charleston Gazette)
A veterans clinic in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, was closed again Monday after air quality tests found elevated levels of formaldehyde in the air. Medical services offered to veterans through the Greenbrier County Community-Based Outpatient Clinic in Maxwelton were relocated to the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Beckley on Monday for “an undetermined timeframe,” said Karin L. McGraw, director of the Beckley center. Counting this latest closure, the clinic has been closed three times since June 2014 because of complaints about air quality. “The decision to relocate the services from the Greenbrier County CBOC was based upon results of air quality testing by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health,” Debbie Voloski, spokeswoman for the Beckley VA center, said in a news release. “A number of employees were continuing to report issues with air quality. “Air levels of formaldehyde measured by the NIOSH on March 26, 2015, were above their Recommended Exposure Limit of 0.016 parts per million within parts of the clinic,” Voloski said. The VA closed the Maxwelton clinic on June 6, 2014, after employees complained they felt ill and were suffering from dizziness and headaches. The clinic reopened in September, but then closed again in October after employees reported similar problems. Voloski said the clinic reopened on Feb. 24 of this year, and began seeing patients again on Feb. 27.

Veteran says he was repeatedly put on hold by VA’s suicide hotline (WFTS-Tampa)
He put himself in danger to protect our country, but when he needed help to save his own life all he got was a recorded message. Ted Koran was thinking about committing suicide Saturday night. He reached out to the VA and the Veterans Suicide Hotline for help, but said he couldn’t get any until after he was repeatedly put on hold for up to 10 minutes at time.When the Veterans Crisis Hotline was first set up by the VA in 2007, it averaged 60 calls a day on four manned phone lines. Now, 52 operators at a time field about a thousand calls a day, and that’s not always even enough to keep some veterans on the verge of suicide from being placed on hold. Late Saturday night, Tom Koran had an emotional breakdown. Koran’s wife Karen died of cancer six months ago and he was so depressed he considered ending it all. “I went to the only place that I knew and that I had available to me, the VA,” Koran said.Koran said he was placed on hold for 10 minutes. “I had to sit there patiently, in emotional distress, in tears, wanting to give up, desperately needing someone to talk to,” Koran said. Koran said he hung up and redialed the number two more times. Koran said when he actually reached a counselor, she did very little to comfort him.  A Scripps national investigation recently uncovered that calls to the veterans hotline often overloaded the system and had to be rerouted to other call centers, while vets’ calls were placed on hold. One veteran recorded being on hold 36 minutes.

Minn. veteran receives other vets’ personal information (KSTP-Minneapolis)
A Minnesota veteran who has been fighting for disability benefits for months finally got important paperwork in the mail on Monday—but most of it belonged to someone else. Katherine Kind, who served in the U.S. Navy more than 25 years ago, said she doesn’t know exactly what happened. But whatever happened, it ended with one veteran receiving the personal information of two other veterans. Despite being out of the service for more than a quarter of a century, Kind said she feels like she’s been fighting for disability benefits from the Veterans Administration even longer. “Lots of appointments, exams—I’m at the Minneapolis VA probably three times a week,” Kind said. Kind said she suffers from PTSD and severe anxiety, among other ailments. On Monday, long-awaited paperwork related to her claim arrived. “Then I opened it up and started reading further, and found out that I had a lot of other people’s information,” Kind said. The mailing included names, addresses, and VA file numbers for two other Minnesota veterans—and even one Social Security Number. In addition the lone document that was intended for her states that it came with several attachments, but they’re nowhere to be found. “My information is out there somewhere with someone,” Kind said, “Because my letter says that enclosed should be all this other stuff, and it’s not enclosed.”

U.S. veterans return to Mideast to fight ISIS in unfinished war (Fox News)
A decade after his first Iraq tour, former U.S. Marine Jamie Lane has returned to the battlefields of the Middle East to fight a still unvanquished enemy and wrestle with the demons of his past. The 29-year old from Mt. Pleasant, Michigan served as a machine gunner from 2004 to 2008, mainly in the western Anbar province, where he saw fierce fighting against al-Qaida in Iraq. Now, as a private citizen suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, he is back in the region to battle its successor, the Islamic State group. “In order to aid my recovery from PTSD, I have taken it upon myself to fight on my terms, against an enemy I know is evil,” said Lane, who joined Kurdish militiamen in Syria. “It is redemption, in a sense.” He is one of a small but growing number of Iraq war veterans who are making their way back to the Middle East, not as uniformed soldiers, but as individuals waging their own personal battles. Many describe feeling a sense of unfinished business as they watched the Islamic State group rampage across the country last summer, seizing territory they had fought and bled for during the U.S.-led intervention. Some express remorse for taking part in that war, while others say they are driven by the same sense of moral obligation that brought them here in the first place, joining their fate to that of a deeply troubled country.