June 16 Veterans News Update

June 16 Veterans News Update

Veterans news update‘It’s worse than ever’: Philly VA employees vent to lawmakers (Stars & Stripes)
Two months after testifying to Congress for a third time about the Department of Veterans Affairs Philadelphia regional office, this time about a “revolving door of taxpayer waste,” culture of retaliation and improper behavior — like two managers asking workers to pay one’s wife to contact the dead — whistleblower Kristen Ruell said little had changed. “I’m wondering what problems have been fixed,” she said Monday, as a bipartisan delegation of congressmen showed up to grill managers about the scandal that has engulfed the office, which oversees benefits to more than 800,000 veterans in three states. “I’m seeing the same things, and it’s worse than ever. Employee morale is at an all-time low.” Nine congressman and one senator inspecting the office Monday said they heard a similar message during a closed-door meeting with Ruell and other employees — very different than the upbeat assessment from managers in a separate meeting. “It seems to me there’s a bit of a disconnect between what management is saying and what many people who are working here are saying,” Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., said at a press conference outside the office. During the press conference, several lawmakers pointed to an administrative investigation board report expected June 30 that will “name names” of those responsible for the scandal. “We’re going to make some major changes — maybe fire people,” Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-La., said in an interview with Stars and Stripes. Among the other issues employees complained about were ongoing nepotism in hiring and promotion, a continued culture of retaliation and a lack of action taken against leaders responsible for the scandal, according to lawmakers and staff who attended the meeting. Employees “want to hold the management staff accountable,” said Joe Malizia, president of the local chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents the VA employees. “That’s a big word in VA, but it doesn’t seem to be in action here.” The VA did not make regional office leaders available for comment.

Mysterious case of $54M spent by VA on prosthetics in $24,999 payments (The Washington Post)
The payments couldn’t help but catch the attention of the top procurement official at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Employees in the purchasing department of a VA hospital in the Bronx, N.Y., had used government purchase cards like credit cards at least 2,000 times to buy prosthetic legs and arms for veterans. Each time they swiped the cards, it was for $24,999. That was precisely one dollar below VA’s charging limit for purchase cards. When word reached Congress about the $54,435,743 worth of prosthetics bought under such odd circumstances over two years — the subject of an inspector general investigation announced Monday — lawmakers demanded details. But they were told there was no documentation. VA officials had prepared to tell Congress that the records had been destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, according to previously undisclosed records, until a senior adviser in the Secretary’s office pointed out that the timing was wrong and the excuse wouldn’t hold up. The Bronx case was one of several acquisition practices Jan R. Frye described in an internal memo to Secretary Robert McDonald that accused the VA of mismanaging  how its buys medical care and supplies for veterans. Frye, deputy assistant secretary for acquisition and logistics, described a culture of “lawlessness and chaos” at the Veterans Health Administration, the massive health-care system for 8.7 million veterans. He said the agency 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. Purchase cards are an appropriate way to acquire supplies or medical care that costs up to $3,000, Frye testified at a House hearing in May. But above that limit, the cards can be used for payment only if there is a certified invoice linked to a properly awarded contract. He said he suspected that the thousands of prosthetics put on cards in $24,999 increments was a sign that contracting staff was trying to get around writing contracts.

Senator to VA: End mindless narcotics prescriptions now (Military Times)
Jason Simcakoski is one of countless post-9/11 veterans under VA care who have died by accidental overdose since at least 2005. The families of former Marine Sgt. Rob Richards, Senior Airman Anthony Mena, Marine Gunnery Sgt. Christopher Bachus, Marine Cpl. Nicholas Endicott, Marine Cpl. Andrew White and others share the inescapable memory of either finding their loved one deceased or of receiving a devastating phone call. A 2011 VA study based on 2005 data — the most recent public VA analysis of the problem — found that veterans ages 18-29 who received care at VA died of accidental overdoses at 1.5 times the rate of civilians their own age and those ages 30-64 had overdose rates more than twice the civilian rate. Since 2007, members of Congress have grappled with the problem, hearing testimony from family members relaying horror stories of drugged veterans and former troops with multiple prescriptions, taking narcotics or opioids and benzodiazepines with deadly results. This week, Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., will try again. Baldwin’s proposed Jason Simcakoski Memorial Opioid Safety bill would implement a number of safeguards to protect veterans and improve VA medical care. It would: require VA and the Defense Department to update their clinical practice guidelines for opioid therapy for pain; mandate training for VA doctors who prescribe opioids; and create pain management boards at each VA region that would oversee compliance of pain management practices at each VA facility. “This is a response to the significant increase in addiction and over-reliance on opioids both within the VA and on the outside,” Baldwin said. The bill also would require VA to develop plans for researching and incorporating alternative pain management therapies into treatment. While many VA hospitals and clinics offer alternative therapies like acupuncture, biofeedback, yoga, meditation and art therapy for pain management and behavioral health, programs are inconsistent across VA hospitals, Baldwin said.

GOP congressman jokes that the VA should run ISIS (Huffington Post)
Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) suggested Friday that the leaders who run the Department of Veteran Affairs should also run ISIS because they’re so incompetent and would presumably run the terrorist group into the ground. “I was speaking before a group the other day and said, ‘It’s too bad we can’t take VA leadership and export it and give it to some of our adversaries around the planet,” Coffman said during his radio interview with 850 KOA in Denver. “Let them suffer under VA’s leadership.’” “Can you imagine if the VA was in charge of ISIS? You know they would probably say, ‘Oh yeah, you know, it wasn’t quite 2,000 that we beheaded. It was really — 24 is the accurate number,” he added. “And we’re sorry, that, in fact, they were all our own terrorists that we beheaded because it got misclassified in the system as Christian.’ I mean, that would be the VA in charge of ISIS.” In response, one of the show hosts said, “I don’t know what they’re putting in your orange juice back there.” Coffman has been pushing to get more funding to complete construction of a VA hospital in Aurora, Colo., which has been plagued by cost overruns.

A veterans suicide prevention network built by veterans (CBS News)
Six weeks ago Special Forces veteran Johnny Primo logged on to his Instagram account and says he was horrified to see a suicide note from a veteran who lived just a few miles away. The note read: “Very few people know the truth … I want this in everyone’s memory.” Desperate to help, Primo tracked down his address. “I was 45 minutes too late from him taking his own life,” said Primo. “Immediately it was a gut wrenching feeling, knowing that there was a chance that if he had my phone number he wouldn’t have killed himself.” Primo called friend and fellow veteran Casey Gray and that night they launched an Instagram suicide prevention page by posting a message pleading with veterans who are having suicidal thoughts to call them, day or night. They call it “22 Too Many” — highlighting an estimate of the number of veterans who commit suicide every day. Veterans responded immediately. “Within the first three hours we saved one person,” said Primo. “Within the first 24 hours we saved five people, people who were on the verge of suicide.” Casey Gray served in Iraq, lost friends in combat and was severely injured in a helicopter crash. He says his experiences help him connect and built trust with other veterans. “Guys get to the point where they feel secluded and they isolate and they need to know that there’s somebody still there for them,” said Gray. There are now about 180 veterans offering a lifeline on the “22 Too Many” Instagram page and they’ve already helped more 400 veterans who were contemplating suicide.

VA cited for neglecting follow-up treatment for depressed vets (The Fiscal Times)
The embattled Veterans Affairs Department is once again under scrutiny for potentially violating agency guidelines when treating patients—this time, failing to ensure that veterans with depression are receiving sufficient follow-up care after being prescribed anti-depressant medication. That’s the conclusion of an investigation by the Government Accountability Office. The GAO reviewed patients being treated for depression at six separate VA medical centers and found that after the veterans received anti-depressants, their doctors did not conduct follow-up appointments within four to six weeks, as the VA requires. In its review, the GAO said that among all patients whose records were reviewed—almost none of them received check ups with doctors in the required time after they were given anti-depressant medication. “Given the debilitating effect that depression can have on veterans’ quality of life, VA’s monitoring of veterans with [depression] is critical to ensuring they receive care that is associated with positive health care outcomes,” GAO director of health care Randall Williamson said in congressional testimony this week. He went on to criticize the VA for not following its own guidelines to assure veterans receive sufficient treatment. “This work illustrates, once again, a continuing pattern of VHA’s [Veterans Health Administration] noncompliance with its own policies and established procedures,” Randall Williamson, the GAO’s director of health care said in congressional testimony last week. Separately, the GAP flagged the VA’s Behavioral Health Autopsy Program which is used to collect data on veterans that have committed suicide in order to inform policy decisions, saying it is plagued with inaccuracies.

Improving cyber security and harnessing data at the VA (Federal Times)
The Department of Veterans Affairs has a security problem. The agency is struggling under an onslaught of cyberattacks, a growing backlog of vulnerabilities to patch, and a lack of staff and money to handle the workload. The VA failed its last 16 FISMA audits. Then the VA released NEWT. Development began on the Nessus Enterprise Web Tool in January 2014 and, after initial successful pilots, it was rolled out across the agency earlier this year. The tool pulls together all known vulnerabilities and security workflows into a single database that prioritizes the threats and helps assign staff to optimize efficiency. Using this data-driven management tool allowed VA security personnel to patch 55 percent of known vulnerabilities, including all of the critical- and high-level weaknesses. “All the different scans that we do, it pulls them into a single screen, color-codes it and prioritizes it for them in terms of what’s a critical, what’s a high, what’s a medium and what’s a low,” VA CIO Stephen Warren explained. “We moved from this manual process … and now it’s a tool that actually sorts it and segregates it, pulls out the false positives and gives it to them in such a way that it’s actionable.” The White House has made harnessing the power of federal data a top priority over the last few years, firing off a series of memos and executive orders to press agencies to use their data to make better management, spending and program decisions.

Pittsburgh VA hospital suspends 5 employees amid harassment investigation (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
Five employees who work in the Veterans Affairs Pittsburgh Healthcare System hospital in Oakland have been placed on paid leave pending an investigation into allegations that they harassed a fellow employee, the VA said today. The Pittsburgh VA employee told a supervisor on Thursday that fellow employees had been harassing him in his work area for the prior week, the VA said. The supervisor told the employee to tell VA Police, who are now investigating the allegations. The VA’s Office of Inspector General was notified, and the Pittsburgh VA leadership also has undertaken a review using outside human resource consultants “to determine the broader context surrounding the incidents,” the VA said. WPXI-TV first reported about the case Friday, saying that a plumber at the Oakland hospital said he was tied up with duct tape and left alone by his fellow employees. The VA would not confirm the details of the television report, and the union representing VA employees had no comment about the incident. “This incident is despicable, deeply troubling and completely contrary to VA’s core values of integrity, commitment, advocacy, respect and excellence,” the VA said in a statement today. “VA has zero tolerance for harassment of any kind. This type of behavior has no place in our organization. VA Pittsburgh leadership immediately launched an investigation into the matter and if substantiated will take swift and appropriate disciplinary action to hold accountable those responsible for this unacceptable behavior.”

VA whistleblowers push for system-wide changes to improve patient care (Fierce Healthcare)
Whistleblowers who put a spotlight on problems at Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical facilities that resulted in a nationwide scandal last year vow to keep up the pressure on the agency to improve care for veterans. The group, known as the “VA Truth Tellers,” have set up a Facebook page to support other VA whistleblowers through their own experiences disclosing wrongdoings at medical facilities across the country. Members also plan to speak at a whistleblower panel in Washington next month, according to USA Today. The whistleblowers group includes roughly two dozen current and former VA employees from medical centers in 10 states that serve more than 600,000 veterans each year, reports USA Today. Members include doctors, nurses, social workers and administrators, who say they will keep pressure on the VA to fix the widespread problems that included secret wait lists to cover up long wait times for veterans to receive care, protect other whistleblowers from retaliation and improve patient care in VA facilities. “I think that all of us coming together will send a message. The message is, ‘VA you’ve got to change’,” Germaine Clarno, a social worker at the Hines VA Medical Center near Chicago, told the newspaper.