Veterans news update for April 30

Veterans news update for April 30

Veterans news updateGOP lawmaker rips Obama’s threat to veto veterans’ funding (The Blaze)
Rep. Martha Roby (R-Ala.) accused the White House Wednesday of pretending the GOP’s bill to fund the Department of Veterans Affairs makes cuts to the VA, in an effort to blame Republicans for the ongoing failure of the VA to serve veterans. The spending bill for fiscal year 2015 would increase total VA funding by $3.6 billion compared to current funding, but the White House released a statement complaining about cuts. Those cuts, however, can only be seen as cuts when compared to the funding the White House requested. For example, the White House said it objects to the bill because of a $582 million “reduction” to the VA’s construction budget. But in reality, the proposed budget maintains the current level of funding. That didn’t stop Democrats from claiming this as a “cut.” But in a floor speech, Roby slammed that skewed logic as an attempt to pretend it’s the GOP’s fault that the VA has failed so many veterans. “Only in Washington, D.C., will a $3.6 billion increase on behalf of our veterans be called a cut,” she said. “It’s being called a cut because it’s the only way to shift the blame away from this administration’s failure to our veterans back to the Republican-led House,” she said. “It’s clearly politics that is driving us, and I am asking … that the president seriously rethink his position.” “The administration needs to take responsibility, and they are trying once again to point fingers at leadership in this House, that is doing all that we can to ensure that our veterans get timely care, the best care that we can provide them,” she added. “This is cynical and it’s shameful, and I believe … that the American people can see straight through it.” Roby also called Obama out for toying with a bill to fund services to veterans who have served the country.

Doctor offers free treatment, says VA turned it down (NBC-Tulsa)
Dr. Cole Wheeler wants to give back to his fellow veterans by volunteering a skill he knows best: acupuncture. He says it’s a great way to treat pain and veteran Joseph Kraft agrees. “It helps reduce pain that you’re feeling,” said Kraft. Plus, Wheeler says it cuts back on pain medication. “There is a direct connection between prescription abuse and suicide rate,” said Wheeler. So Wheeler contacted the Muskogee VA to offer treatments for free. “I volunteered at the VA to give them six months, five days a week,” said Wheeler. But he says the offer didn’t get far. “They simply ignored the request, like it never happened,” said Wheeler. With no explanation as to why, Wheeler contacted Senator Jim Inhofe’s office. Inhfofe’s office received a letter saying the Muskogee VA already provides acupuncture and if the service expands, Dr Wheeler will be considered. But Wheeler isn’t buying it. “If somebody showed up, a licensed physician such as myself and voluntarily did this, it might make them look really bad,” said Wheeler. Veteran Kraft also expressed his confusion on the turn away.  “Any man that would volunteer his time and his facility to go to help veterans or anybody, somebody needs to recognized and use what knowledge he has,” said Kraft.

Army vet called ‘murderer’ for serving in Afghanistan (Army Times)
A veteran of the war in Afghanistan has been told he should suffer for his service. Retired Army Capt. Matt Zeller says he fought for Americans to freely express themselves, but what he saw on his windshield crossed the line. Zeller was out grocery shopping in Virginia Sunday when he returned to find the following note on his car:

“You should be ashamed of yourself. You are a murdered if you ‘served’ in Afghanistan. I hope you watch your child starve and die in front of you, as you have done to the people of Afghanistan.”

“I have a young daughter. I have no problem if you disagree with the war or my service, that’s your right. I went to war to defend that. But leave my child out of this,” Zeller recently told Fox and Friends. Adding insult to injury, Zeller has been helping interpreters who worked with the U.S. military come to America so that they aren’t killed by the Taliban through his organization ‘No One Left Behind.’ “I’m only sitting here talking to you because my translator from the war saved my life,” Zeller said. “He shot and killed two Taliban fighters who were about to kill me. I spent five years fighting for this guy to get his visa to get his family over here.” Zeller and his translator, Janis Shinwari, reunited in 2013 and have worked together to resettle over 400 Iraqis and Afghans who aided the U.S. war effort. Zeller said he doesn’t know who left the note, but has a message for the offensive author. “If the person’s listening I want to simply ask this: You made me angry, fine. I’m gonna take that anger and do something positive with it … I’m gonna channel it and use it and motivate it to work that much harder to help these Iraqis and Afghans, who I consider and others who served to be veterans, to get resettled here.”

VA hospital threatens whistleblowers with $20,000 fines (The Washington Examiner)
Officials managing the Department of Veteran’s Affairs Caribbean Healthcare System this month began threatening employees who leak information to outsiders with a $20,000 fine while also pressuring the Office of the Inspector General to identify workers who previously leaked documents showing evidence of widespread wrongdoing in the facility. Announcements of the threatened fine say nothing about the right of federal workers who become aware of workplace wrongdoing to report it to superiors, to the inspector general of their department or agency, or to Congress. “As discussed in this morning’s service chiefs meeting with the director, this is the statement that should be included on all pertinent documents,” an April 22 email to the facility’s managers said. “These documents or records, or information contained herein, which resulted from [program name], are confidential and privileged under the provisions of 38 USC 5705 and its implementing regulations. This material cannot be disclosed to anyone without authorization so provided for by that law…Note: This statute provides for fines up to $20,000 for unauthorized disclosures.” The Washington Examiner had reported days before that a patient in the facility had died after a consulting doctor performed an unnecessary procedure without authorization from the primary physician. The consulting doctor also allowed his wife, a medical trainee who he was supervising, to participate in the procedure to get experience in it. Previously, the Examiner reported that the hospital’s director, DeWayne Hamlin, had been arrested in Florida with painkillers and tried to have a low-level employee fired after that employee notified supervisors in Washington of the arrest. When an investigator said her review found that the whistleblower did nothing wrong, Hamlin ordered that the investigator be fired.

House GOP postpones vote on VA spending bill (Roll Call)
House Republicans have been boasting about their early start to appropriations season, but consideration of the very first spending bill — considered the least controversial of all 12 annual measures — hit a snag Wednesday night. GOP leaders had intended to hold evening votes on a slew of amendments and on final passage of the fiscal 2016 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs appropriations bill, but ultimately opted to postpone that vote series at the very last minute. Some sources suggested it was a matter of fatigue, with House lawmakers still on tap to start slogging through amendment debate on the second appropriations bill in the queue, one to fund energy and water-related programs. Others pointed to the late-night markup of the National Defense Authorization Act that was still going on inside the House Armed Services Committee, with members of that panel possibly missing the chance to weigh in on important provisions. But several senior House aides, including those who work in leadership offices, confirmed to CQ Roll Call that part of the reason for stalling MilCon-VA votes had to do with GOP leaders’ anxiety that members on both sides of the aisle were prepared to adopt an amendment that would strip from the underlying bill the ability to spend money from the Overseas Contingency Operations account. House Republican leaders included that $532 million account to make the spending bill, which is limited due to sequester-level spending caps, more attractive to defense hawks who insist the Pentagon needs more cash to fight terror. But Budget ranking member Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., teamed up on three related amendments to eliminate the ability to use the money. “It spends $532 million in the OCO budget for matters that the Department of Defense admits are not war-related,” said Mulvaney, a two-term budget hawk who said last month he’d rather raise taxes than add to the deficit.

A $15 billion cure can’t fix health care at the VA (Bloomberg)
Leaders of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs asked Congress for more than $15 billion to end long wait times for medical care for tens of thousands of vets. They got the money, but little has changed. The agency has been slow to spend the funds, and instead of speedier care for the former soldiers the holdups have persisted. The centerpiece of the legislation Congress passed last year — a $10 billion program to allow veterans to seek care outside the VA system — has been so underused that the agency wants to divert some of the money to other purposes. That request is a “non-starter,” said Representative Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. “I’m disappointed that VA has left the vast majority of this money, which department officials said was urgently needed, unspent,” said Miller, a Florida Republican. “We’re not seeing accountability proportionate to the enormous misconduct and breach of trust that occurred.”

Newly released VA reports include cases of harm, death (Gannett Media)
Almost 140 previously unreleased investigative reports by the inspector general at the Veterans Affairs Department offer a litany of instances of dysfunction or mistreatment of veterans at VA facilities across the country and show that in many cases, the department’s chief watchdog trusted the VA to correct problems on its own rather than make findings public. The cases range from missed diagnoses to failures during surgery — one veteran’s face was set on fire during an operation in Lebanon, Pa. — and from misuse of funds to personnel issues — an intensive care unit at the Tucson VA was beset by a “cauldron of interpersonal tensions and management difficulties,” the inspector general found. They also included reports involving concerns about providers prescribing potentially questionable amounts or combinations of narcotics to veterans in Tampa, Fla., Valdosta, Ga., and Lexington, Ky. Five months after the inspector general reached similar findings about providers in Tomah, but did not release a public report last year, a 35-year-old Marine Corps veteran died from mixed drug toxicity as an inpatient at the facility. The range of outcomes in the newly released reports indicate the inspector general may have lacked a uniform standard for deciding when to issue public findings. Roughly 50 reports dismissed allegations of wrongdoing, but more of them — 59 — contained substantiated claims. Joanne Moffett, a spokeswoman for Richard Griffin, the interim VA inspector general, maintained Wednesday that there was a standard — public reports were not released when a potential lawsuit was pending, when complaints were unfounded or when inspection officials decided VA officials had or would take care of the problems.

House votes to end VA’s massive relocation payments to employees (The Blaze)
The House voted Wednesday to stop the Department of Veterans Affairs from paying out huge subsidies to top officials when they relocate to start a new job at the agency. The VA’s Appraised Value Offer program was exposed when the VA spent more than $300,000 to help Diana Rubens move to Philadelphia to run the VA in that city. The AVO program apparently allowed Rubens to sell her Virginia home for $80,000 more than it sold for just months later, and paid Rubens about $83,000 directly for various moving-related costs. It also paid $211,000 to a property manager, a move that House aides believe allowed that manager to buy the home from Rubens at an inflated price. But the House voted Wednesday night to end the VA’s use of the program altogether. Members are considering legislation to fund the VA in fiscal year 2016, and took up an amendment from Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas) to terminate the AVO program. It passed unanimously in a voice vote, reflecting the ongoing frustration that Congress has with a VA that is still struggling to ensure veterans get timely access to health care. “Under the Appraised Value Offer program, the VA spent nearly $300,000 in taxpayer money to move a VA employee 140 miles – from Washington DC to Philadelphia,” Babin said. “That’s $300,000 that could have been used to care for numerous deserving veterans who have served this nation in uniform, but instead was wasted on relocating a single VA government bureaucrat.”

VA report says no good alternatives for completion of Colorado hospital (The Denver Post)
A new Department of Veterans Affairs report concludes that every alternative to finishing its half-built Aurora hospital would be unpalatable. The cost-benefit analysis, dated April 21, looked at five alternatives to continuing construction: living with the status quo, renovating the existing medical center in Denver, leasing a newly built medical center, contracting out veterans’ medical care and buying an existing facility. It calls finishing the hospital the preferred option, one that would prove most cost-effective over the long term and provide the best care. “This option is the one most likely to positively affect patient satisfaction and care,” the report says. “By constructing a new tertiary care medical facility, VA will enhance the quality of care provided to veterans and reduce patient wait times.” Construction of the new VA medical center began in December 2011 with a $604 million budget. Its completion has been jeopardized by a new price estimate given to Congress last month: $1.73 billion. In turn, the VA was asked to explore alternatives to completing a project already a billion dollars over budget. The VA report, obtained by The Denver Post, relies on predictions of future numbers of veterans and their needs to make its recommendation. Jones Lang LaSalle, a large commercial real estate firm with federal clients, assisted in its preparation. While the Denver-area veteran population is expected to decline by 25 percent in the next 20 years, according to the report, the number of veterans enrolled in the VA health-care system here is expected to grow by 13 percent. And while the need for inpatient hospital beds also is expected to decline, the report forecasts a growing need for long-term care and spinal-cord injury beds, outpatient clinics and mental-health visits. “The new facility,” the report says, “will help VA meet increased demand, as well as co-locate the medical center with the medical affiliate” — the University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora.

Congress should end medical marijuana gag order on VA doctors (The Huffington Post)
Commentary: “As soon as this afternoon, the U.S. House of Representatives will be voting on the FY2016 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations bill, which sets the budget for the Veterans Administration (V.A.). Representatives Blumenauer (D-OR), Heck (R-NV), Gibbard (D-HI), Reed (R-NY), Lee (D-CA), Rohrabacher (R-CA), and Titus (D-NV) will be re-introducing the Veterans Equal Access Amendment (VEAA), which would lift the gag. Under V.H.A. Directive 2011-004, V.A. physicians are explicitly forbidden from being able to fill out recommendation forms or even offer their medical opinion about whether a veteran patient might benefit from participating in a state medical marijuana program. This means that veterans who are dependent on the V.A. for their health care are denied equal access to state medical marijuana programs.  This means that veterans must go out of pocket and establish a patient-doctor relationship with a new physician, something that can cost hundreds of dollars or more. This is especially disturbing because veterans who are the most financially challenged are the ones who are most likely to rely on the V.A. for their health care needs. The VEAA would forbid the V.A. from using any funds to punish physicians who write state-legal medical marijuana recommendations. In doing so, the VEAA would allow veterans to have safe and legal access to medical marijuana in states that allow its therapeutic use under the recommendation of a physician.”

Retirement reform faces challenge from veteran lawmakers (Military Times)
House lawmakers pushing for military retirement reform on Wednesday had to fight off opposition from veteran colleagues who warned against moving too fast and upsetting current service members. The proposal, which would trim payouts for troops who stay 20 years but give all service members federal contributions to a 401(k)-style investment plan, follows an outline of major changes developed by the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission. But several members of the House Armed Services Committee, during debate on the annual defense authorization bill, said panel leaders haven’t gotten enough feedback from troops and their families on the plan. Iraq War veteran Rep. Chris Gibson, R-N.Y., pushed instead for a year-long review of the reform plan, requiring input from current service members and information from Pentagon officials on potential policy changes. He argued the move would not delay the targeted October 2017 implementation date for a new retirement system, but would give lawmakers more time to work out potential concerns. “We’re in no rush to do this,” he said. “We’re better off listening first.” But committee leaders who have pushed for the plan said any change will mean a loss of momentum and additional years before a new plan can be put in place. They also noted that the changes will be mandatory only for new enlistees, while current troops will be able to opt in if the new plan makes financial sense for them. House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, bristled at Gibson’s characterization of the plan as a “cut” to retirement, noting that the combination of the new investments and the 20 percent reduction in payouts to 20-year retirees would net troops more money under some estimates.

31 vets had potentially defective stents implanted at Pittsburgh VA (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)
Thirty-one veterans had potentially defective aortic stents implanted at Veterans Affairs Pittsburgh Healthcare System hospitals, and two subsequently developed leaks from 1999 to 2003, according to one of nearly 140 newly released VA Office of Inspector General reports. The Inspector General closed its investigation into the incident after determining the defects did not affect any of the veterans treated in Pittsburgh, the report said. The company that made the stents — Guidant Corp. subsidiary Endovascular Technologies — stopped making the devices in October 2003, pleaded guilty to 10 federal charges and agreed to pay the FDA $92.4 million to settle other civil and criminal charges, the report said. An internal review by the VA Pittsburgh in 2005 found neither of the leaks was connected with the stents’ delivery systems, which were the cause of the defect, the Inspector General’s report said. The VA decided not to notify patients about the potential defects in the stents, the report said. VA Pittsburgh spokesman Donald Manuszewski said he was looking into the matter Wednesday evening and he expects to provide more information when it is available. The Inspector General reports offer numerous instances of mistreatment of veterans or problems at VA facilities nationwide. The reports show the watchdog often trusted the VA to correct problems without making findings public. Medical findings ranged from missed diagnoses to failures during surgery, including a veteran whose face was set on fire in an operation in Lebanon, Lebanon County. They also included reports involving concerns about providers prescribing potentially questionable amounts or combinations of narcotics to veterans in Tampa, Valdosta, Ga., and Lexington, Ky. Five months after the Inspector General reached similar findings about VA providers in Tomah, Wis., but did not make them public, a 35-year-old Marine Corps veteran died from mixed drug toxicity.

Lawmaker introduces amendment to improve oversight at VA call centers (ABC15-Phoenix)
Arizona Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema introduced an amendment Wednesday aimed at improving oversight at the Veteran’s Administration (VA) call centers after an ABC15 Investigation found serious issues. The Sinema amendment is attached to the VA Appropriations bill and would require the VA to provide a report that shows how many veterans or their family members who call any VA hotline actually get through to a representative – and how many calls are blocked, or dropped. The ABC15 Investigators interviewed several former employees of the Phoenix VA Call Center who said they were fired for spending too much on the time with veterans and their families. The VA policy does not allow call center employees at the Benefits Hotline to spend more than an average of about 10 minutes on the phone with those who call in. Then, the ABC15 Investigators uncovered the majority of veterans and families who call the Benefits hotline never even get through to a representative. We obtained VA documents that show that in 2014, 55 percent of calls never got through to a representative. And, so far in 2015, that number is even higher, at 59 percent. Representative Sinema cited those statistics on the House floor Wednesday. “The Sinema amendment,” she said, “will improve oversight and accountability at the VA and a step towards restoring the trust that we so dearly owe to our veterans.” Sinema said this will improve oversight and accountability at the VA and help rebuild veteran’s trust in the VA. The bill is expected to be voted on Thursday.

Corinthian students face hard choices (Military Times)
Students lined up for hours under a blistering sun Tuesday outside now-closed Corinthian Colleges, hoping to get their transcripts and frustrated with their options: If they find another school willing to accept their credits, they won’t qualify to have their existing loans discharged. Several for-profit schools were ready to recruit students at Corinthian subsidiary Everest College in the city of Industry, about 20 miles east of Los Angeles. After students got their transcripts, they were greeted by UEI College representatives, who had a booth decorated with star-shaped balloons and handed out tote bags with the school’s logo. “They did catch us at a vulnerable time,” said Ashley Sanchez, 19, a student in the medical assistant program. “Hopefully they do give us the right information.” Corinthian Colleges schools enrolled 5,873 Post-9/11 GI Bill students in fiscal 2013, totaling $61 million, according to federal data. Last July, Student Veterans of America came out with a “Not Recommended List” to make veterans aware of the education institutions with unclear futures. Schools on this list were owned by Corinthian Colleges. Students at Everest said they were weighing difficult choices. Some were just weeks from graduating. If they transfer to another school, they likely will have to do additional coursework. If they enroll and complete a similar program, they will not qualify for tuition reimbursement or federal loan relief. That would leave many saddled with debt. If they choose to have their loans discharged, then they must start over, but could enroll in a school with lower tuition and potentially better job prospects.

A father’s story of a veteran’s suicide (KERA News)
Twenty two veterans take their own lives each day. That’s according to a study conducted by the Office of Veterans Affairs. Over the weekend, a small group of veterans hoped to shine a spotlight on the problem with a walk around the National Mall in Washington called Walk for the Voiceless. Chuck Cone flew in from Nebraska to take part in the walk. It’s been a little over a year since his son, Tyler – a Marine – committed suicide after four combat tours. Two in Iraq, two in Afghanistan. “They say he suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I don’t call it that. I call it ‘moral injury.’ It’s a similar affliction, but it’s closely related – maybe they’re the exact same? I don’t know for sure,” Cone said. “But he knew right from wrong, and he was ordered to do some things that he knew were wrong, but he followed orders like he was supposed to, and he never could recover from some of the atrocities that he committed over there.” Cone says between tours, Tyler came home to Nebraska and drank for 30 straight days. Dad understood why after some of Tyler’s fellow Marines gave him just the G-rated version of what they saw during their tours. “He tried to get help, and if you tell your superiors that you need help, then you’re considered damaged goods,” he said. “It’s a career ruiner, and you’re looked down on as an outcast.” Cone says it’s the military’s responsibility to change that perception among service members. “The best counselors they have are their combat buddies who have been there,” he said. “And that’s what we’re trying to not reach anybody besides just their combat buddies and say, ‘You guys are the ones who can save these guys. No one else can seem to do it very well.’”