Veterans news update for May 20

Veterans news update for May 20

Veterans news updateBoehner: “Arrogance” at VA leaves veterans “ignored” (The Hill)
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) took to the House floor on Wednesday to blast the lack of significant progress at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs in processing benefits claims. Boehner’s speech fell a week before the one-year anniversary of Eric Shinseki resigning as Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs, as well as the upcoming Memorial Day holiday. Boehner noted that wait times for veterans seeking health care remain about the same despite Congress passing legislation last year providing $16.3 billion to help cut down on the backlog. “This isn’t run-of-the-mill incompetence. It’s arrogance. And it’s arrogance that allows our veterans to be lied to, ignored, and frankly left to die,” Boehner said. The Speaker questioned why employees at VA facilities that tried to conceal wait times were mostly transferred, allowed to retire, or put on paid leave. “If only the Veterans Administration did half as good a job of taking care of the bureaucrats as they do our veterans, we’d be in a lot better shape,” Boehner said. The law approved by Congress last year allows veterans to seek private care outside VA medical facilities and provides funding for the VA to hire more doctors. Public outrage over extended wait times at VA hospitals gave momentum to the legislation last year and spurred Shinseki’s resignation. An inspector general report found that patients at a VA hospital in Phoenix waited an average of 115 days for an initial doctor’s appointment, despite official data that claimed they only waited 24 days.

Study: Veterans with PTSD at higher risk for sleep apnea (
Young veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, have a high probability of obstructive sleep disorder, according to a small study. Researchers found that 69 percent of veterans who were evaluated for self-reported PTSD symptoms were at high risk for sleep apnea. “The implication is that veterans who come to PTSD treatment, even younger veterans, should be screened for obstructive sleep apnea so that they have the opportunity to be diagnosed and treated,” said Sonya Norman, PhD, researcher at the San Diego VA, director of the PTSD Consultation Program at the National Center for PTSD, and an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, in a press release. “This is critical information because sleep apnea is a risk factor for a long list of health problems such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and psychological problems including depression, worsening PTSD and anxiety.” The study was conducted based on veterans also reporting snoring and fatigue, motivating researchers to launch the investigation. Among the 159 veterans included in the study, 69 percent were seen as being at high risk for sleep apnea. Younger veterans generally aren’t screened for sleep apnea, however researchers believe that aspects of PTSD, such as disturbed sleep and sleep deprivation, psychological and physical stressors of combat, hyperarousal due to those stressors, may increase the chances of sleep apnea occurring.

VA calls for 45 changes in St. Louis veterans health care (St. Louis Public Radio)
Missouri’s U.S. Senators, Republican Roy Blunt and Democrat Claire McCaskill, say they are concerned with the latest findings in a review of operations, at the VA’s St. Louis Health Care System. The review makes 45 recommendations for improvements ranging from sanitation to management inconsistencies. In a letter to the acting director of the facility, Patricia Ten Haaf, the senators ask to be kept informed of her plans to address the findings and “specific corrective actions. … Our veterans have earned and deserve the very best in treatment and services,” both write. The senators note in their letter that Ten Haaf, is the seventh acting medical director of the facility within the past two years. “The high turn-over rate in this position and others could very well be a compounding factor in the issues raised in the CAP (Combined Assessment Program) review.” The review covered facility operations for Fiscal 2014-15 through March 6 of this year and recommends improvements in areas including quality management, environment of care, medication management, and surgical complexity. General Environment of Care, for example, includes issues with expired medications, medications missing “beyond use date” labels and “pharmacy prepared medications without expiration dates.” It said, “Four patient care areas contained opened multi-dose vials with beyond-use dates greater than the 28 days required by local policy.”

Deal on paying for $1.7 billion Colorado VA hospital elusive (The Denver Post)
With funding about to run out, Congress and the administration failed again Tuesday to reach a deal on how to finish construction of a Veterans Affairs hospital in Aurora that has seen its price tag soar to $1.73 billion. The latest setback follows an offer by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to trim the hospital campus by two buildings, including a clinic for post-traumatic stress disorder. In a statement, U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, said House Speaker John Boehner had rejected the proposal and that Boehner wanted the cost reduced further; the VA has estimated it needs an additional $830 million to complete the facility. “I’ve been shuttling back and forth between (VA) Secretary (Robert) McDonald and the speaker’s office hoping that an agreement can be reached before the end of this week in order to avoid a complete shutdown at the hospital construction site,” Coffman said. One suggestion that has been floated by Congress is to strip down the Aurora campus to “just the hospital.” But administration officials have pushed back against that idea. In a letter sent Tuesday, McDonald wrote that such an approach would “fundamentally undermine VA’s ability to deliver care to Colorado veterans.” If Congress and the administration fail to reach a deal — and contractor Kiewit-Turner is forced to suspend work — then the price for the VA facility could climb.

House backs bill ensuring reprimands remain on VA employees’ records (
The House on Monday passed a bill that would require the Veterans Affairs Department to keep a copy of any admonishment or reprimand in employees’ personnel files as long as they work for the department. The Ensuring VA Employee Accountability Act, which lawmakers approved unanimously, would make those notices citing poor performance or misconduct a permanent part of an employee’s file. Under the current policy, an “admonishment” remains on an employee’s record for two years, while a “reprimand” stays in the file for three years, after which time they it is permanently removed. An admonishment is an informal warning issued to an employee either verbally or in writing; a reprimand is more serious, and is a written statement of formal censure for misconduct. The legislation does not create any new penalties for employees or affect the process for appealing disciplinary actions. “Part of the systemic problems with the Department of Veterans Affairs stem from the fact that current policy prevents the keeping of complete employee files and does not allow the at-fault employees to be tracked or held accountable,” said Rep. Ryan Costello, R-Pa., the bill’s sponsor. “It is critical to maintain a complete record of a poor performer in order to better understand an employee as long as they are with the department.” But the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents VA employees, strongly opposed the bill in a May 18 letter to House lawmakers, saying it would deprive every VA employee, including non-managerial employees, of the chance to clear his or her name after receiving an unjustified reprimand from a manager who is acting out of incompetence, bias, anti-veteran animus or whistleblower retaliation.” Costello defended the legislation on the House floor Monday, acknowledging “some concerns that this legislation could negatively impact flexibility in resolving routine personnel disputes, but there is nothing in this bill that imposes new employee penalties or would affect the existing process for a VA employee to appeal a disciplinary action.”

Wal-Mart announces expansion of veteran hiring (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
Nate Waits wakes up before 3 a.m. four days a week to get to his job at a Bentonville distribution center for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., where the former Marine is among more than 92,000 veterans the company has hired in the past two years. As the two-year anniversary approaches of the Veterans Welcome Home Commitment program the company launched on Memorial Day 2013, the retail giant announced Wednesday that it is expanding its original plan to hire 100,000 veterans by 2018 to hire a total of 250,000 recently discharged veterans by 2020. Chris Sultemeier, executive vice president for logistics at Wal-Mart, said the company has been pleased with the skills that the veterans bring to a range of positions including retail, distribution and management. He said about 8,000 of the original hires have already been promoted. “Veterans work. They’re disciplined; they’re teamwork focused. They have a hard work ethic. They’re typically committed and loyal,” said Sultemeier, who is an Army veteran. “What we are looking for in an associate and what the military teaches them… It just matches.” Waits, 25, says he doesn’t mind the early mornings or the structured day. He manages about 45 employees at the distribution center who load and unload trailers. If the company is successful, the 250,000 veterans would make up close to 20 percent of the retailer’s 1.3 million U.S. workers. Sultemeier said there are high concentrations of veteran hires near large military bases like Fort Hood in Texas or Fort Bragg in North Carolina. But the company also has helped qualified veterans, who have been honorably discharged since Memorial Day 2013, find work in areas where there are often fewer job options.

“They will pay off”: Employers, advocates help returning vets find jobs (Fox News)
For many veterans coming home after multiple tours over 14 years of war, getting a job in the civilian world has been their most personal battle yet, marked by disappointments and dead ends. But, thanks to a slowly improving job market and active efforts by veterans’ groups, officials and recruiters in private-sector companies, that dim outlook is beginning to brighten. Though still higher than the national average, the unemployment rate among recent veterans has steadily declined. Veterans’ advocates say, perhaps most importantly, the mindset in corporate America is starting to change. It boils down to this: Seeing that hiring a veteran is not just a good deed. It can be a smart hire. “I think there is a commitment by the corporate community and associations and groups like ours that are trying to make people understand … We make it a point that veterans should be viewed as an investment, not as a charity,” said Mark Szymanski, a spokesman with the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of American (IAVA).  This is only the start. Tens of thousands of returning veterans are still looking for work. And the mission of IAVA — founded in 2004 to help returning vets reintegrate into the workforce — and similar groups has become only more critical as the Iraq war ended (despite the subsequent return of U.S. forces to combat ISIS) and the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan drew to a close. The progress, though, can be charted. At its peak, joblessness for those serving since 9/11 (which labor statisticians refer to as Gulf War-era II vets) was nearly 12 percent in 2011. In January, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that number had fallen steadily to 7.2 percent in 2014. On a monthly basis, the latest BLS figures show that among all post-9/11 veterans, the number was 6.9 percent for April, up slightly from 6.5 percent in March.

Survey: 2015’s best and worst states for military retirees (WalletHub)
Retirement is typically viewed as the end of the line – a time for rest, relaxation and the pursuit of interests long ago put on the back burner. But the narrative is far different for military retirees. For starters, the average officer is only 47.1 years old – and enlisted personnel even younger at 43.2 – upon retirement from service. Most re-enter the job market. Military retirees, veterans in particular, must also deal with the trials of assimilation, which have proven especially difficult in the wake of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Rising numbers of young vets have encountered hardship and homelessness. Military retirement is a far more complicated issue than one might initially assume, given the extent to which state tax policies differ when it comes to military benefits, the relative friendliness of different job markets to veterans, and a variety of other important socioeconomic factors. With that in mind, WalletHub sought to help ease the burden on our nation’s military community by identifying the Best & Worst States for Military Retirees. Who’s number 1? Wyoming. Click the headline link to view the rest of the list.

VA launches Innovation Creation Series to improve lives of vets (
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recently announced the launch of its new Innovation Creation Series for Prosthetics and Assistive Technologies. Through the launch of this series, all designers, engineers and problem-solvers are invited to help accelerate the development of personalized technologies to improve care and quality of life for veterans, according to a press release from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). “VA has long been at the forefront of research and technology, discovering new ways to give our veterans the best care possible,” Robert A. McDonald, VA secretary, said in the release. “We are reaching out to technology leaders in the corporate world and to the public in order to find creative new solutions to help transform care and quality of life, not only for our veterans, but for the public at large.” The series will focus on a number of challenges, with goals to: develop novel upper- and lower-extremity devices at the end of prosthesis for daily use; create a medication pillbox that allows the flexibility to hold medications that need to be taken up to eight times a day, with a reminder system for each time medication needs to be taken; create a device that can dampen tremors when someone is performing fine motor tasks; design a device to remotely change the speed and grip strength of a prosthetic device for veterans with upper-extremity injuries; and create a way to reassign motions and buttons on gaming controllers to provide alternative access for veterans who are using them in therapy to improve eye hand coordination, fine motor control and/or range of motion. The VA Innovation Creation Series will accept proposed solutions through the end of June. The Series will culminate in a 2-day “Make-a–thon” event on July 28-29 at Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond, Va., where the designs submitted by the public online will be built and tested to showcase how they could meet the needs of veterans, according to the release.

VA’s Deputy Secretary scolds employees over Seattle VA ER incident (
Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Sloan Gibson, laid the smack down on all VA employees over failures to go the extra mile by using common sense to help a vet. Last week, the media hit VA hard over refusal to help a veteran with a broken foot. The operator at the Seattle VA told the veteran to call 911 to get help into the facility despite literally parking on the ambulance ramp outside the facility doors just a few feet away. The veteran, a 63-year old trucker with a broken foot, was demoralized when he called 911 to seek help from city firemen to help him move just a few feet into the facility. The veteran was in tears on the phone call, and VA has since recanted its hardball approach to the issue initially claiming they did the right thing. They did not. So Gibson took time to remind employees to be human.

South Carolina veterans sue over segregated war memorial (NBC News)
Five South Carolina veterans have sued the state over a war memorial in the town of Greenwood that segregates many of the honored dead by race. The memorial includes two plaques listing almost 200 names of Greenwood County service members killed in the First and Second World Wars. The names are identified only as “white” or “colored”— not even distinguished by age, rank or military branch. (Names added later for those killed in the Korean and Vietnam wars aren’t segregated by race.) The suit, filed Tuesday in Common Pleas Court in Greenwood, challenges a state law that has kept the town of 23,000 from replacing the plaques without a two-thirds vote in the state Legislature. Mayor Welborn Adams told NBC News in March that he’d raised $15,000 to replace the plaques with ones listing the names alphabetically, but he said his hands were tied by the 2000 law. It’s called the Heritage Act, and it was passed as part of a controversial deal to remove the Southern Cross, the Confederacy’s second national flag, from the dome of the Statehouse in Columbia. Two bills that would let Greenwood replace the plaques remain bottled up in committee. “The term ‘colored’ is offensive. It’s offensive to me, so I can only imagine how it feels to African-Americans,” Adams said at the time. “I don’t think Main Street is where you should be glorifying segregation.” According to the suit, three of the five plaintiffs are members of American Legion Post 20, which created and installed the original memorial in 1929. It says the full Legion post supports replacing the plaques.