Veterans news update for May 14

Veterans news update for May 14

Veterans news updateVA improperly spent $6 billion annually, says senior official (The Washington Post)
The Department of Veterans Affairs has been spending at least $6 billion a year in violation of federal contracting rules to pay for medical care and supplies, wasting taxpayer money and putting veterans at risk, according to an internal memo written by the agency’s senior official for procurement. In a 35-page document addressed to VA Secretary Robert McDonald, the official accuses other agency leaders of “gross mismanagement” and making a “mockery” of federal acquisition laws that require competitive bidding and proper contracts. Jan R. Frye, deputy assistant secretary for acquisition and logistics, describes a culture of “lawlessness and chaos” at the Veterans Health Administration, the massive health-care system for 8.7 million veterans. “Doors are swung wide open for fraud, waste and abuse,” he writes in the March memo, which was obtained by The Washington Post. He adds, “I can state without reservation that VA has and continues to waste millions of dollars by paying excessive prices for goods and services due to breaches of Federal laws.” Frye describes in detail a series of practices that he says run afoul of federal rules, including the widespread use of purchase cards, which are usually meant as a convenience for minor purchases of up to $3,000, to buy billions of dollars worth of medical supplies without contracts. In one example, he says that up to $1.2 billion in prosthetics were bought using purchase cards without contracts during an 18-month period that ended last year. He also explains how VA has failed to engage in competitive bidding or sign contracts with outside hospital and health-care providers that offer medical care for veterans that the agency cannot provide, such as specialized tests and surgeries and other procedures. Frye says VA has paid at least $5 billion in such fees, in violation of federal rules that the agency’s own general counsel has said since 2009 must be followed. Frye alleges further violations in the agency’s purchase of billions of dollars worth of prosthetics and in the acquisition of a wide range of daily medical and surgical supplies. He says many products are bought without the competitive bidding and contracts essential to ensure quality care, effective use of tight dollars and proper government oversight.

VA says it’s trying to fire people, but it’s just so hard (
Lawmakers grilled representatives from the Veterans Affairs Department and its health care partners on the underuse of the new law allowing certain veterans to receive private treatment on the government’s dime, while still managing to toss in some complaints on the department’s lack of firing.  The House Veterans Affairs Committee held the hearing on Wednesday ostensibly to assess the “progress of the choice program” created by the 2014 Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, but wound up diving into an array of perceived management deficiencies at VA. Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson spoke of the need to hold employees accountable and to institute a “cultural change” at the department, but lawmakers were unimpressed with the developments at VA since they passed sweeping reform legislation last year. Asked whether it was too difficult for VA to fire employees involved in the wait list manipulation scandal that led to the passage of the choice law, Gibson conceded that compared to his private sector experience, “it’s hard to hire and it’s hard to fire” in federal government. “I think that’s the case across federal government,” Gibson said, adding he will use every tool at his disposal to hold employees accountable. The 2014 law included a provision to make it easier for the department to fire senior executives, though — much to the chagrin of committee chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and others — officials have used the new authority sparingly. Gibson said the slow progress was attributable to the standards created by the federal employee appeals system. He stressed, however, that dozens of cases involving malfeasant employees are still under review and VA will work until it gets to “every single one of them.” Asked about accusations of retaliation against whistleblowers, Gibson said “bullying, intimidation and retaliation are absolutely unacceptable.” “We will not change the culture of the VA unless we hold people accountable,” Gibson said. “That’s why this gets as much of my attention as it does.”

VA gets praise for Choice program changes (Stars & Stripes)
Advocates applauded the progress the Department of Veterans Affairs has made in a much-maligned program to offer private health care to eligible veterans, but said too many are being excluded or are simply unaware of the option. At a hearing of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs on Wednesday, officials with some of the largest veterans service organizations sounded off on the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, which is supposed to give veterans living more than 40 miles from a VA facility the option of seeking private care under their VA insurance. The law was passed in response to a VA scandal that began one year ago, with revelations of secret wait lists and patients languishing for months and years before receiving treatment. Implementation of the new rules hit a snag when some patients who lived 40 road miles from a VA facility were denied eligibility because they were closer “as the crow flies,” while others simply weren’t aware they were eligible. House Committee on Veterans Affairs Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., a harsh critic of VA, said he applauds the department for the choice program and efforts to reform it. “That said, the implementation and administration of the Choice program has been far from perfect, and many veterans are still waiting too long and traveling too far to receive the health care they need,” he said. All of the advocates at the hearing agreed the program is still too complicated, with veterans facing different rules depending on their situation and health conditions, and confusion about who is eligible. “There should be one program for outside VA care and it should be simplified,” Joseph Violante, national legislative director for Disabled Veterans of America, said.

Homeless veteran count rises 6 percent in Los Angeles (The Los Angeles Times)
The population of homeless veterans in Los Angeles rose 6% in the last two years, according to figures released Wednesday, casting doubt on whether Mayor Eric Garcetti can meet his pledge to get every service member off the streets by year’s end. “We’re behind,” said Vince Kane, special assistant to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert A. McDonald. “In L.A., we got off to a slow start.” In January, 18 months into his first term, Garcetti said he was more than halfway to his goal.  But the new numbers show how difficult reaching it will be. The county has long had the largest concentration of homeless veterans in the country — 4,343 in the latest count. Two-thirds of them, or 2,733, live in the city. Garcetti said in a written statement that Los Angeles had housed thousands of veterans this year, and he remains confident he can achieve his goal by 2016. Figures released Monday by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority showed homelessness overall had risen 12% in both the city and county since 2013. The figures provide a snapshot, based in large part on a three-day street count in January. But it is not a static population — thousands of people, including veterans, fall in and out of homelessness throughout the year. Officials said they failed to take into account how fast new veterans were landing on the streets. “In 2013, three veterans were becoming homeless each day,” said Christine Margiotta, head of Home for Good, a public-private homeless services partnership. “Now, as we look at these figures, we recognize 10 become homeless each day.”

Female veterans face woefully inadequate care (San Diego Union-Tribune)
In 2004, then captain – now congresswoman – Tammy Duckworth was piloting a Blackhawk helicopter in Iraq when it was shot down. She survived but lost both of her legs. When she awoke, in only a hospital gown, she was supplied with a “comfort kit,” some basics that are given to wounded troops. Included in the kit, besides slippers that she could no longer use, were a pair of men’s jockey shorts. Comfort kits simply weren’t made for women. Just for men. It is a story that perfectly illustrates the multitude of issues facing our women who serve. Female veterans suffer post-traumatic stress disorder at twice the rate as male soldiers, and endure higher rates of joblessness and homelessness. And, because women tend to be caregivers themselves, they tend to postpone their own care in deference to the care they provide husbands, children and parents. Further complicating the female soldier’s return from combat to civilian life is that an estimated one in five have suffered sexual trauma. In September, DAV (Disabled American Veterans) published a study that revealed “America’s nearly 300,000 women Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are put at risk by a system designed for and dominated by male veterans.” But the problems go deeper than the men’s comfort kits with which Duckworth was presented. According to DAV, one-third of the VA medical centers don’t have a gynecologist on staff and 90 percent of Community Based Outpatient Clinics lack a designated women’s health provider. Thirty-one percent of VA centers cannot provide adequate services for military sexual trauma, yet one in five women veterans seen at VA screen positive for some form of such trauma. The VA and the Department of Defense have difficulty providing gender-specific peer support, group therapy and specialized inpatient mental health care designed to meet the needs of women. Further, women who have lost limbs are less likely to have a prosthetic that fits properly. As such, while there are far fewer women veteran amputees, they use health care more often than their male counterparts. Several of these women are also now becoming mothers, further complicating their prosthetic and general care needs.

DAV releases framework to reform health care for veterans (
Disabled American Veterans has proposed a new four-part framework for reforming the Veterans Affairs health care system. Joseph Violante, National Legislative Director for Disabled American Veterans (DAV) presented the framework as he testified for the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. “The past year has largely focused on short-term solutions for VA to meet the immediate needs of veterans. But as we analyze and evaluate how these strategies have worked, we owe it to veterans to also develop a long-term plan to strengthen the VA moving forward,” Violante stated in a press release. “The framework we are proposing addresses critical areas to rebuild, restructure, realign and reform the VA health care system to meet the needs of America’s veterans well into the future.” The DAV framework emphasizes rebuilding and sustaining VA’s capacity to provide timely, high-quality care, beginning with a long-term strategy to recruit, hire and maintain sufficient clinical staff at all VA treatment facilities. It includes restructuring the non-VA care program into a single integrated, extended care network, requiring VA to first complete research and analysis related to the choice program and allowing the Commission on Care to complete its work, with Congress providing a single, separate and guaranteed funding mechanism for the VA Extended Care program. It also includes realigning and expanding VA health care services to meet the diverse needs of future generations of veterans, beginning with the creation of VA urgent care services; and reforming VA’s management of the health care system by increasing efficiency, transparency and accountability in order to become a veteran-centric organization.

Former Pittsburgh VA official’s ouster sought (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)
The Department of Veterans Affairs says a former top-ranking official in Pittsburgh “has been advised to cease” his work under a national contract with the department. Lawmakers and veterans’ families voiced outrage last week when the Tribune-Review reported Michael E. Moreland, who oversaw the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System during a fatal Legionnaires’ outbreak, returned to the hospital system under a contract with Houston-based Shipcom Wireless. “Mr. Moreland has been advised to cease representing Shipcom as to the supply-chain management contract the company has with VA,” agency spokesman James Hutton said in a statement Wednesday. Moreland, visited at home by a Trib reporter, had no comment. On Friday, he told the Trib that he is “a private citizen working for a private company. That’s it.” The department did not specify who asked Moreland to step aside, the reason for the request or whether Moreland would comply. Hutton said federal law prohibits Moreland from representing any non-federal party before the VA for two years after his November 2013 retirement. Shipcom did not return messages Wednesday. Moreland, 59, of Cranberry was director of the VA Pittsburgh before he was promoted to oversee 10 medical centers in six states as director of the VA’s North Shore-based regional headquarters. He visited the VA campus in Oakland on May 1 under Shipcom’s four-year deal to improve supply deliveries at the 152 hospitals in the VA system, VA Pittsburgh spokesman Donald Manuszewski has said. The contract awarded in 2013 could bring Shipcom as much as $275 million.

Vets, families voice concerns over Lejeune water contamination (Wilmington Star-News)
People want answers. About 100 military retirees, veterans and family members attended a meeting Tuesday to get information on the effects of exposure to contaminated drinking water at Camp Lejeune, which occurred from the 1950s to 1987. It is estimated that nearly one million people were exposed, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). Representatives from ATSDR discussed the outcomes of four studies conducted, which examine the impact of exposure, and what those results mean for victims. An official from the Veterans Administration outlined for the audience what conditions need to be met to qualify for the registry: you must have lived at Camp Lejeune for at least 30 days between August 1953 through 1987, you must be be a dependent of a service member who was stationed at Camp Lejeune during that time period and you must have one of the 15 named conditions on the VA’s website — and how to file claims online. Representatives from ATSDR and the Veterans Administration fielded questions from the audience who shared stories of infant deaths, cancers and leukemia. Neil Wilson, who lived at Camp Lejeune as a child, said he attended the meeting to get information for his family, who has a range of health conditions. His mother gave birth to seven of his nine siblings while stationed at the base. He learned of the exposure’s connection to his family after his brother was diagnosed with a heart problem. “I have family members dying before me. They want answers,” Wilson said. “I’ve been following this for a number of years and I came today to get them answers, but I’m not too hopeful. I have to be a spokesperson for my family.” Christian Scheel, ATSDR’s Acting Associate Director for Communications, said the meeting serves to help those affected get the information they need in a more direct manner. “One of the purposes of this meeting is to give the community an opportunity to ask questions. (The studies) are fairly technical documents; it’s an opportunity to make this information more available and accessible,” Scheel said. “What we hope people will be able to do is … make decisions about their health. If they’ve been affected by this contamination there are some avenues they can get additional assistance.”