Veterans news update for April 23

Veterans news update for April 23

Veterans news updateAt most, three people lost jobs with VA in scandal (The New York Times)
The nationwide scandal last spring over manipulated wait times at Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals led to the ouster of the secretary of veterans affairs and vows from the new leadership that people would be held accountable. Then in February, the new secretary, Robert A. McDonald, asserted in a nationally televised interview that the department had fired 60 people involved in manipulating wait times to make it appear that veterans were receiving care faster than they were. In fact, the department quickly clarified after that interview, only 14 people had been removed from their jobs, while about 60 others had received lesser punishments. Now, new internal documents show that the real number of people removed from their jobs is much smaller still: at most, three. The documents given this month to the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, which provided them to The New York Times, show that the department punished a total of eight of its 280,000 employees for involvement in the scandal. One was fired, one retired in lieu of termination, one’s termination is pending, and five were reprimanded or suspended for up to two months. The only person fired was the director of the Phoenix hospital, Sharon Helman, who technically was removed not for her role in the manipulation of waiting lists but for receiving “inappropriate gifts,” according to the department. In a statement released Wednesday night, the department did not dispute the numbers released by the committee, but said that more than 100 other employees were facing disciplinary action. But the documents drew expressions of outrage from congressional Republicans and prompted Representative Jeff Miller, Republican of Florida and chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, to say he will introduce legislation on Thursday to speed the firing process. “Rather than disciplining bad employees, V.A. often just transfers them to other V.A. facilities or puts them on paid leave for months on end,” Mr. Miller said in a statement. His measure, called the V.A. Accountability Act, would sharply cut the time allowed for employees to appeal terminations to less than 30 days. The existing rules allow employees facing termination to collect pay while they appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board for federal employees — a process that can last up to two years.

Did VA officials encourage employees to pay to talk to dead people? (
Data manipulation and mismanagement of the mail at the Veterans Affairs Department’s regional office in Philadelphia apparently isn’t bad enough. Managers at the facility also are allegedly encouraging employees to pay to talk to dead people. Lucy Filipov, assistant director of VA’s Philadelphia Regional Office, allegedly threw a party at her house that included Gary Hodge, head of the pension management center, his wife, and several employees. So far, okay. Except Hodge’s wife professed to be a medium who could help the living commune with the dead. And the invited guests (employees) allegedly were encouraged to pay her $30 each for that experience. Soliciting money from subordinates in the federal government is a no-no. That gem was among the many disturbing and hard-to-believe stories that emerged during a Wednesday congressional hearing on problems at Veterans Benefits Administration facilities in Philadelphia, Pa., and Oakland, Calif. But tales of the alleged “medium” and “fortune-telling” party were certainly the most entertaining. Filipov was at the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing on Wednesday, and Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., asked her directly about the supernatural soiree. She said she was told by an employee of the inspector general’s office that she could not discuss the matter as it is “part of an ongoing investigation.” Miller reminded her she was under oath, and that he planned to ask Linda Halliday, assistant IG for audits and evaluations at VA, if that were the case. Fortunately for Miller, Halliday was only a few feet away from Filipov. Halliday said she needed to look into this probe as she didn’t know about it, and wasn’t sure the IG conducted such administrative investigations. Doesn’t the VA IG have enough to do these days? Especially since the department hasn’t had a permanent inspector general in more than 400 days (Deputy IG Richard Griffin is acting IG). Miller is expecting a straight answer from Filipov when she’s cleared to talk. Right now, many VA employees would probably prefer chatting with the dead over being grilled by the living.

VA hospital used cheaper anti-psychotic drugs to save money, probe finds (USA Today)
A small veterans hospital in West Virginia placed patients “at medical risk” and violated policy by substituting cheaper drugs for prescribed anti-psychotic medication to save money, an internal agency investigation shows. The announcement comes four months after the Center for Investigative Reporting uncovered “candy man” overprescription of opiates at a VA hospital in Tomah, Wis. Allegations of using cheaper drugs at the 40-bed Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Beckley, W.Va., surfaced last year, triggering an internal investigation by the agency’s Office of the Medical Inspector. That probe found that the hospital pharmacy encouraged the use of alternative anti-psychotic drugs because they were cheaper, an action that “may have constituted a substantial and specific danger to public heath,” the medical inspector report said. Doctors followed that guidance despite knowing the alternative medications cause weight gain and sedation, the report said. The medical inspector recommended a clinical review to determine whether any veterans were harmed by the practice. “At a time when many veterans are grappling with mental health issues, this VA facility was cutting corners on needed drug therapy to save money,” said Carolyn Lerner, head of the Office of Special Counsel, which investigates whistle-blower complaints. “We only know this was happening because an employee had the courage to blow the whistle on this dangerous practice.”

Lawmakers want DoD, VA pharmacies to match meds (Military Times)
The House Armed Services Committee wants the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments’ pharmacies to offer the same medications, at least for some prescriptions. Legislation introduced this week calls for the formularies of both departments to match medications for pain management, sleep disorders, psychiatric conditions and other illnesses “determined appropriate” by the DoD and VA secretaries. Committee aides said lawmakers are looking to ensure continuity of care and treatment when troops move from active duty to veterans status. Concerns over the two departments’ discordant formularies have been raised by veterans and advocacy groups. Few stories demonstrate the importance of the issue for service members like the death of former Marine Clay Hunt, who became a veterans advocate after leaving military service in 2009 but died shortly after moving to Houston in 2011. According to his mother, Susan Selke, Hunt suffered from depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, but when he went to the VA medical center in his new location, he had trouble getting an appointment and could not get his brand-name prescription filled at the facility’s pharmacy. He was told he would have to wait for it to be mailed to him, since the pharmacy stocked only generics. Hunt shot himself March 31, 2011. “If you know about antidepressant, anti-anxieties medications, you can’t … stop them cold. You can’t wait for it to come in the mail and then expect that it’s going to work quickly,” Selke told House lawmakers last year. The House proposal follows a recommendation from the Military Modernization and Retirement Compensation Commission that DoD and VA align their formularies.

Philadelphia, Oakland VA whistleblowers say they were ‘demoralized’ (The Washington Post)
Veterans Affairs whistleblowers from two VA regional offices — Philadelphia and Oakland — told a U.S. House committee hearing that management at their benefits claims office “created a hostile work environment” that has left employees “very demoralized,” and they endured psychological abuse after they reported failures to process thousands of claims. The VA says that the situation is improving. But those at the Philadelphia and Oakland regional offices testifying Wednesday in front of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs said the problems are ongoing and the culture to silence whistleblowers has not changed. “Without removing the officials making the bad decisions, this issue will continue to be a revolving door of taxpayer waste,” said Kristen Ruell, an authorization quality review specialist at the Philadelphia VA regional office. The hearing came after a scathing VA Office of Inspector General report last week detailed problems in Philadelphia, which included everything from claims being unanswered to dangerous working conditions. The report detailed mishandled mail, manipulated dates to make old claims look new and $2.2 million in duplicate benefit payments. More than 31,000 veterans’ inquiries encountered delays — an average of 312 days. Rustyann Brown, a whistleblower from the Oakland VA Regional Office in California, testified that claims from aging and terminally ill veterans were ignored. She said that many veterans died by the time employees addressed their claims. She said sensitive cases of military sexual trauma were not treated in accordance with rules. “I would spend time in the restroom crying or hiding in a stairwell so I could be alone and not have anyone see the physical reaction I would have to these claims,” she said, her voice quivering. “After months of being referred to as ‘snitch’ or ‘narc’ by other employees and being isolated with my department, I put in for early retirement,” Brown said. Diana Blender, a 73-year-old employee at the Philadelphia office, said she was mistreated by co-workers when she started to report mail manipulation. “Sadly for me, when I unearthed the true happenings of this department and their gross, unjust manipulations of others, I was sent on a journey of daily abuse,” she told the committee.

VA workers blame pressure for slow response times (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
A performance standards meant to speed up claims processing may actually have delayed benefits for veterans, including some who died waiting for answers. That’s what employees of benefits claims processing offices in Philadelphia and Oakland, Calif., told members of Congress during a hearing Tuesday. Claims processors were afraid they would be fired if they didn’t work quickly enough to earn enough “points” on an employee performance metric. That led them to cherry-pick easy cases, bury difficult ones and change dates on claims to make it look like they were being handled faster, employees testified. “If you tried to do the right thing and slow down to do it right for the veteran, you were setting yourself up for trouble,” testified Rustyann Brown, who recently retired from the Oakland office. Kristen Ruell, an eight-year employee of the Philadelphia office, said the performance standards are unreasonable and that they encourage employees to “do things to save their job” even if their actions harm veterans’ ability to receive benefits. “It’s not fair to place an employee in that situation. It is even less fair to the veteran whose claim may be affected,” she said.

House chairman blasts VA relocation payments as a ‘scheme’ (The Washington Times)
The chairman of a House committee called Tuesday for the Department of Veterans Affairs to end its “outrageous scheme” for relocating highly paid executives after learning of the agency’s itemized breakdown of its $288,000 “relocation” payment for the new director of the VA’s beleaguered Philadelphia office. Rep. Jeff Miller, Florida Republican and chairman of the Committee on Veterans Affairs, said the government’s “appraised value offer program” to relocate certain bureaucrats who are transferring jobs is “a scheme in which everyone but the taxpayer wins.” Mr. Miller was responding to a letter from Allison Hickey, the VA’s undersecretary for benefits, itemizing the huge payment for Diana Rubens to transfer from the Washington office to Philadelphia last year. The expenses included more than $80,000 paid to Ms. Rubens and $211,000 to a federal contractor that was given the job of selling her home in Alexandria. “For VA to pay such an outrageous amount in relocation expenses at a time when the department is continually telling Congress and taxpayers it needs more money raises questions about VA’s commitment to fiscal responsibility, transparency and true reform,” Mr. Miller said in a statement. “VA’s top leaders were ushered into their positions based on the logic that their business sense would bring private-sector efficiency and accountability to VA’s reform efforts. But the Appraised Value Offer program doesn’t make any business sense and is the opposite of efficient.” The VA said it paid Ms. Rubens “subsistence and temporary expenses” of $15,812; real-estate expenses of $29,966; a “relocation income tax allowance” of $15,291; $11,678 to ship her household goods and personal effects; and $11,768 to store her household items for 30 days. The agency paid a vendor $211,750 for “relocation services” involved in the sale of her home, which eventually was sold for less than the vendor paid Ms. Rubens; and paid $12,705 for a “VA Financial Services Center service charge.” Ms. Hickey said the VA was required to pay the vendor a 28 percent fee because Ms. Rubens‘ house in Alexandria did not sell within 60 days.

Support our troops? Dealing with PTSD requires commitment (The Los Angeles Times)
Opinion: “Suicides by active-duty troops and veterans are at levels that would have been unthinkable a generation ago. Each day, on average, a current service member dies by suicide, and each hour a veteran does the same. Ending military and veteran suicides requires radical changes in the policies, procedures, attitudes and culture in two of our biggest bureaucracies: the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs. Fifteen years ago, the suicide rate among patients in a large HMO in Detroit was seven times the national average. Its leaders decided to try to end suicides — not just reduce them but end them. In four years, the incidence of suicide at the HMO was reduced 75%; with more tinkering, the rate went down to zero, and has stayed there, at last count, for 2 1/2 years. The difference was an all-out commitment to the cause. Every time a patient sought care, regardless of the reason, he or she was assessed for suicide risk. Every employee who came in contact with patients was rigorously trained in suicide prevention. Specific interventions were established for each of three risk levels. The HMO also implemented measures to provide timely care by enabling patients to get immediate help through email with physicians, to make same-day medical appointments and to get prescriptions filled the same day too. A similar commitment by the military could achieve dramatic results, at least among active-duty troops. These troops are in the system now, their activities are being monitored regularly, so there are plenty of opportunities for assessment and treatment. If the military followed the Detroit model, all troops would be evaluated for post-traumatic stress and suicide risk when they return home, not just those who ask for help. Evaluations would happen more than once; they would be in person and one-on-one, not with written questionnaires. In addition, families would be interviewed, separately and confidentially. And treatment and claims would be expedited. Veterans shouldn’t have to wait a year or more to receive healthcare or have their claims processed.”

VA chief accused of ‘fuzzy math’ in budget fight (Atlanta Journal Constitution)
When Veterans Secretary Robert McDonald went before a Senate spending panel this week, he leveled a full scale attack against a 2016 budget plan being developed by Republicans in the House, charging that it would cut over a billion dollars in funding for the VA and deny health care to thousands of veterans. But the actual budget numbers involved don’t back up his charge – instead of a budget cut, the House GOP plan would increase the VA budget in 2016. “Not surprisingly, the VA is yet again employing fuzzy math and misrepresenting the truth,” said a statement from Concerned Veterans for America. When you compare the numbers offered up by the VA Secretary and by Republicans in the House, the budget picture is clear – this GOP plan is not an actual budget cut when compared to current funding. Instead, it merely has less money in it than what was proposed by President Obama. In that comparison, the GOP plan would spend a bit less than the President’s proposal – $1.2 billion according to Republicans, $1.4 billion according to the VA. Republicans in the House say their plan would increase overall spending for the VA by $4.6 billion. Some might not describe that as a “budget cut.”

White House: House VA funding bill hurts veterans (Federal Times)
The Veterans Affairs funding bill under consideration in the House would under-fund the agency by more than $500 million – which could fund care for tens of thousands of veterans, according to a letter from Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan. The 2016 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs appropriations bill, passed by the House Appropriations Committee April 22, would also under-fund the construction of VA hospitals and military facilities. The cuts stem from the automatic budget caps known as sequestration, which amounts to large cuts to both civilian and military programs. Donovan wrote in the letter that while the legislation includes some additional funding in the form of a separate account not subject to the caps, sequestration would still damage agency programs and undermine long-term programs. “Sequestration was never intended to take effect: rather, it was supposed to threaten such drastic cuts to both defense and non-defense funding that policymakers would be motivated to come to the table and reduce the deficit through smart, balanced reforms,” Donovan wrote. “That is why the President has been clear that he is not willing to lock in sequestration going forward, nor will he accept fixes to defense without also fixing non-defense.” The legislation provides $76.6 billion in discretionary funding – about $4.6 billion above fiscal 2015 levels – but below the funding requested in President Obama’s budget.

Paralyzed Veterans express concern over House cuts to VA budget (BusinessWire)
Paralyzed Veterans of America is expressing its concern over the House Appropriations committee’s approval of an appropriations bill that will significantly reduce the President’s budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). “The biggest problems with the bill are funding that still does not match the Administration’s recommended level for medical care for FY 2016, cuts across the board to all VA accounts that are cloaked in the administrative provisions of the bill and that are not clearly defined, and a significant reduction to Major Construction, nearly slashing it in half,” said Homer Townsend, executive director of Paralyzed Veterans of America. “It is as if our legislators have already forgotten what happens when VA is under resourced. Managing to a budget instead of to demand got us here in the first place and our veterans deserve better. The time for rhetoric is over.” In February, Paralyzed Veterans along with three of the nation’s leading veterans service organizations—AMVETS (American Veterans), DAV (Disabled American Veterans), and the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars)— recommended a budget of $63.2 billion in total medical care for FY 2016. The recommendations were part of the veterans groups’ annual report, The Independent Budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA): Budget Recommendations for FY 2016 and FY 2017, which outlines projected funding requirements for the programs administered by the VA. For construction programs, the veterans groups recommended $2.8 billion for all construction programs, approximately $1.6 billion more than the FY 2015 appropriated level, and $619 million for medical and prosthetic research, approximately $30 million more than the FY 2015 appropriated level. The House is expected to take up this bill soon. In the meantime, the Senate Appropriations committee has just begun its work on the companion bill.

Amendment adds $15 million for veterans health research to appropriations bill (McClatchyDC)
The House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday unanimously approved an amendment by U.S. Rep. David Price, a Democrat from Chapel Hill, N.C., that adds $15 million for Veterans Affairs research on traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, prosthetics and other veterans’ health needs.
“This additional funding will help ensure that current veterans have access to the highest quality of care and could allow for medical innovation that will benefit future generations of veterans and civilians,” Price said in a statement. His amendment was attached to the fiscal year 2016 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs funding bill. The committee passed the measure on Wednesday on a voice vote on Wednesday with support from Republicans and Democrats. It will go to the full House of Representatives for a vote there later. The funding bill provides $76.6 billion in discretionary funding, an increase of $4.6 billion above the current fiscal year’s level. The VA portion is a 5.6 percent increase over the previous year. It includes increases for health care, benefit claims processing, the Board of Veterans Appeals, medical and prosthetic research and information technology, the Appropriations Committee reported in a press release. The military construction money includes spending on military housing and health facilities.

Texas Senate panel OKs education benefit cuts for vets’ children (Military Times)
Texas veterans and their children would see their higher education benefits sliced significantly under a plan heading to the Senate floor. Tuition exemption costs under the so-called Hazlewood Exemption have skyrocketed from $24.7 million in fiscal year 2010 to $169 million in fiscal year 2014. Texas’ higher education institutions shoulder the bulk of those costs. A plan by Republican Sen. Brian Birdwell, the Senate’s most senior military veteran, to address the financial shortfalls passed out of committee Wednesday, but not without criticism. The bill would require beneficiaries to live in Texas for eight years and would cut free tuition down from 150 hours to 120 hours. It also limits the number of hours a veteran may pass on to a child to 60. The benefits would all expire 15 years after the veteran left military service. “I’m concerned honestly that our veterans and their families may end up feeling betrayed by our actions if we pass this,” said San Antonio Democratic Sen. Jose Menendez, who cast the sole “nay” in the 5-1 vote Wednesday. Birdwell, who served more than 20 years in the Army, told Menendez he was “bristled” by the thought of betraying veterans. “No one ever wants to bring something like this forward,” Birdwell said. “This was my idea of what I thought was the right thing to do.” Texas has the second-highest veteran population in the country, at 1.7 million.

High Court decision may make it easier for vets to sue government for negligence (The Statesman Journal)
The Supreme Court on Wednesday made it easier for people to sue the federal government for negligence, in a decision that could affect military veterans with claims of medical malpractice. The justices, voting 5-4, ruled in two cases the deadlines for filing such lawsuits can be extended if plaintiffs tried their best to comply or simply failed to learn about important information before a deadline. Justice Elena Kagan wrote the majority opinion that combined the cases and upheld rulings by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that said the deadlines were somewhat flexible under the federal law that deals with lawsuits against the government. The Obama administration argued that Congress intended the deadlines to be firm and that the government should not leave itself open to old claims indefinitely. But Kagan said Congress did not clearly indicate it wanted those deadlines to be iron-clad when it passed the Federal Tort Claims Act. “The time limits in the FTCA are just time limits, nothing more,” Kagan wrote. Judges have discretion to extend the deadlines, she said. The cases split the court along ideological lines, with Justice Anthony Kennedy joining his four more liberal colleagues in the majority. In a dissent supporting the Obama administration, Justice Samuel Alito said, “The statutory text, its historical roots, and more than a century of precedents show that this absolute bar is not subject to equitable tolling,” a term for a judge’s discretion in these cases. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas agreed with Alito.