Veterans news update for June 2

Veterans news update for June 2

Veterans news updateVA temporarily suspends 2 officials linked to night of psychic readings (USA Today)
The VA said Monday that it had temporarily suspended two of its officials who were the focus of an investigation into an evening of psychic readings last year. The Department of Veterans Affairs inspector general issued a report late last week saying that several VA employees in Philadelphia had been pressured to attend the event at their boss’s home. That supervisor, Lucy Filipov, then acting director of one of the VA’s largest benefit payout centers, has been temporarily relieved of duty pending decision about any administrative action against her, the agency reported Monday. Also placed on suspension was Gary Hodge, a veterans pension manager at the Philadelphia office, whose wife provided the psychic readings at Filipov’s home June 6, 2014. Investigators said that Hodge had failed to report $20,000 in psychic income for his wife on the family’s tax returns for 2012 and 2013, and the Justice Department and Internal Revenue Service were notified. Eight senior employees wound up attending the event hosted by Filipov and each paid up to $30, leaving the cash on Filipov’s kitchen table. Many of them later told investigators they were in a hurry to pay, receiving their reading and leave, and were “generally not enamored of the psychic experience,” the report says. The inspector general’s office concluded that Filipov misused her authority for the private gain of Hodge and his wife. “The Department of Veterans Affairs takes the allegations as outlined … very seriously,” says a VA statement issued Monday.

VA brings in former ‘To Catch A Predator’ host for employee compassion training (The Washington Post)
Veterans Affairs employees received “communication” training this week from the man who made a career catching would-be child predators. The mandatory one-hour sessions left the federal employees in D.C. scratching their heads about what Chris Hansen, the former “Dateline” NBC reporter, could teach them about handling veterans’ benefits. The Board of Veterans’ Appeals, part of a vast benefits system working through the overwhelming backlog of veterans’ claims that tarred the reputation of the wider agency, hosts quarterly communication courses, a VA spokeswoman said. Hansen, she said, “spoke both about his communication techniques as an investigative reporter, and about communication techniques in the workplace, emphasizing the importance of strong listening skills, respectful interaction, empathy, and compassion.” We’re told by one person that Hansen told stories from “To Catch a Predator,” the news show that tricked adult men on the Internet into thinking they are meeting up with an underage girl, but then encountered Hansen…and the cops. “He told a lot of anecdotes from ‘Predator’ … And how most of the time the subjects would shake his hand at the end, because he was tough but fair,” a person with information about the sessions said. “There was also an aside about how cool Reddit and Kickstarter are. Again, my co-workers and I are still confused about the connection to VA.” We asked the VA how much it cost taxpayers to have Hansen come teach staff about “compassion.” (Hey, we could all use a primer.) Before we got a response, we’re told all the employees received an e-mail letting them know Hansen’s talk was done voluntarily. “We hope everyone enjoyed yesterday’s quarterly communication training. For clarification, please note that no funds were paid to the speaker leading yesterday’s training,” Bruce Gipe, the appeals board’s principal deputy vice chairman e-mailed to the staff.

Survey: Civilian physicians underprepared to treat veterans (
A survey of nearly 150 U.S. physicians who frequently treat veterans found civilian doctors aren’t adequately trained in health issues related to military service, according to research published today in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association. More than half of the respondent indicated they were not comfortable discussing health-related exposures and risks that veterans might experience such as depleted uranium, smoke and chemical weapons. Further, the survey indicated doctors needed more training to properly identify, communicate with and treat veterans who have military-related health conditions as more than 70 percent reported that they felt that they were between very uncomfortable and just moderately comfortable in this area. The survey, which spanned two medical meetings in Ohio, involved 140 civilian physicians serving high levels of veterans, defined as at least one of five patients. “None of the survey results showed an overall high level of comfort with veteran’s health issues,” said Todd Fredricks, DO, lead researcher. “Our research suggests civilian physicians need more resources to better understand the health implications of military service, particularly since a large number of these patients have experienced combat and may face long-term physical and mental implications.” It’s estimated that PTSD effects 31 percent of Vietnam veterans, 10 percent of Desert Storm veterans and as many as 10 percent of veterans of the war in Afghanistan. Yet, only 15 percent of physicians reported a high level of understanding of PTSD. Furthermore, 80 percent reported unfamiliarity with the referral and consultation services for veterans.

VA acknowledges it has no contracts in place for private medical care for veterans (The Washington Post)
Top officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs acknowledged to House lawmakers Tuesday that they have been spending billions of dollars a year on private medical care for veterans without contracts, and said it would be too costly and cumbersome to put them in place. “VA acknowledges that our long-standing procurement processes for care in the community need improvement,” Edward Murray, VA’s acting secretary for management and interim chief financial officer, testified, referring to what’s called non-VA care. Murray said that “serious legal questions” have arisen over medical care veterans get outside VA hospitals and clinics, a growing cost that’s expected to reach more than $10 billion this fiscal year. The hearing before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs’s investigations panel was the second of three scheduled for the spring to address allegations of billions of dollars in misspending flagged by Jan R. Frye, VA’s deputy assistant secretary for acquisition and logistics, about contracting practices. The Washington Post reported in May that Frye had sent a 35-page memo to VA Secretary Robert McDonald in March accusing agency leaders of making a “mockery” of federal acquisition laws and spending at least $6 billion a year in violation of contracting rules. Frye described a culture of “lawlessness and chaos” at the Veterans Health Administration, the massive health-care system for 8.7 million veterans, and said his efforts to reform a wasteful, disorganized contracting process that put veterans health and taxpayers money at risk have been met with resistance from agency leaders for years. Frye, testifying Tuesday, repeated his concerns that 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, obstetrics care and other procedures. VA has paid billions of dollars in such fees, in violation of federal acquisition rules that the agency’s own general counsel has said since 2009 must be followed, Murray and other officials acknowledged at the hearing. Frustrated lawmakers from both parties said the lack of contracts represented another case of bureaucratic incompetence they said has become the order of the day at VA. “If the atom bomb can be built and wars conducted under the acquisition regulations, surely VA can deliver patient care under them as well,” Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), chairman of the oversight panel, said, and later called the contracting issues an example of “bureaucratic lawlessness.”

Officials back away from deadline on homeless vets (Military Times)
Heads of the departments of Veterans Affairs, Housing and Urban Development, and Labor on Monday backed off the White House’s stated goal of ending veterans homelessness by the start of 2016, instead emphasizing “sustainable” plans to permanently end the problem as soon as possible. “I think all of us are fixated on getting to the goal eventually and not whether it’s Dec. 31 or Jan. 1,” said VA Secretary Bob McDonald. “We want to build a system that is sustainable because we know there will be variation over time.” The three Cabinet officials joined Interagency Council on Homelessness Executive Director Matthew Doherty in Houston for the start of a three-city tour to highlight partner efforts to get veterans off the streets — a goal outlined by White House officials five years ago. Since then, the number of homeless veterans has been reduced by more than 25,000 individuals, but between 40,000 and 50,000 veterans are believed to still be struggling with homelessness. Advocates have acknowledged that reaching the goal of getting all of those veterans into housing by year’s end — the White House’s original goal — will be difficult.

Houston ends chronic veteran homelessness (The Huffington Post)
Houston, we don’t seem to have a problem. Mayor Annise Parker announced on Monday that Houston has effectively ended chronic veteran homelessness. The city, which joined a national movement to put an end to the issue by the end of the year, succeeded in doing so by bringing together a number of local agencies to house 3,650 veterans over the course of three years, according to a release provided to The Huffington Post. “Too often those that answered the call of service still find themselves struggling long after leaving the military,” Parker said in a statement. “Houston is there for our heroes, and just like on the battlefield, we will leave no one behind.” Houston joins a number of U.S. cities, including New Orleans, Phoenix and Salt Lake City, which have ended vet homelessness ahead of schedule. First lady Michelle Obama first pressed U.S. cities to make the issue a priority when she launched the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. More than 600 local leaders have accepted the challenge of wiping out the problem this year. Houston, which has the second largest veteran population in the country, tackled the problem through a community driven initiative called the Way Home. By bringing together more than 35 local agencies, the city established an effective response system, which involved aligning local and federal resources, beefing up street outreach teams and efficiently identifying the appropriate solution for each individual in need, according to the released statement. Since 2012, the Way Home has reduced overall homelessness in Houston by nearly 50 percent.

VA leadership must resign, says Phoenix whistleblower (Phoenix New Times)
Phoenix VA whistleblower Jared Kinnaman is demanding that U.S. Secretary of Veteran Affairs Robert McDonald and Glen Grippen, interim director of the Phoenix VA Medical Center, resign from their leadership positions. Kinnaman sent them personalized letters late last week, describing the Phoenix VA system as “a very volatile and grossly unsafe environment for Veteran patients to receive care as well as employees currently working in duress.” His letters allege that the two haven’t solved major problems they promised to fix, and that they’ve failed to protect whistleblowers from retaliation. Kinnaman, a Marine Corps combat veteran, works as a vocational rehabilitation counselor in the VA and came forward as a whistleblower earlier this year because of what he saw as shortfalls in patient care. “It pains me to sit back and watch my fellow brothers and sisters suffer under your leadership,” he writes. “I along with several other whistleblowers have brought to the attention of leadership on numerous occasions factual and undeniable evidence that your office has yet to resolve. Instead we have received countless forms of harassment, defamation, and threats while working and receiving care at this medical facility.” He tells New Times that he wrote the letters because VA leaders talk a lot about changes, but make none. “They deflect questions” and have “no reason to tell the truth” because they’re never held accountable. “They’re not willing to say we fucked up, [even though] trust and being authentic really go a long way.”

Will Veterans Accountability Act deliver quality health care? (The Washington Examiner)
Editorial: “Darin Selnick wasn’t surprised last year to hear about corruption at the Veterans Health Administration — sadly, some details of the scandal were familiar territory. Selnick worked there from 2001-09 as a special assistant to three of the VA’s secretaries and headed up numerous projects and initiatives. He knew the culture well. “I tried to fire a bad employee one time, and it was impossible,” he says. “This person was habitually late to work and rarely completed assignments on time. I had an HR background and new the appropriate process to take. But even then, I was told not to fire this person, but instead, just make the problem go away.” In addition to a union-protected, cronyism-based network that made it virtually impossible to get fired at the VA, Selnick also heard that people “skimmed money off the top to buy boats and such,” but adds that “under the old ethical line at the VA, they would never do anything to directly harm the veterans and patient care.” He was, therefore, “very surprised” to hear about what was uncovered in April 2014 in Phoenix, where more than 40 U.S. Armed Forces veterans died while waiting for care in the city’s local VHA facilities — a revelation followed by an internal VA report in June confirming that more than 120,000 veterans were left waiting or never got care at similar VA medical centers across the country. “Most corruption was at the supervisor through hospital director level,” he says. “And those above them simply turned a blind eye because they knew they’d lost control.” A retired captain in the United States Air Force who served from 1985-2005, Selnick eventually left the VA and volunteered at Concerned Veterans for America in 2012 when the organization was just getting started. CVA advocates for initiatives that support veterans and their families, as well as policies that protect national security and the freedoms the veterans fought and sacrificed to defend. Selnick now serves as CVA’s senior veterans affairs advisor and was appointed last week by Speaker of the House John Boehner to the Congressional Commission on Care, tasked with evaluating veterans’ access to healthcare throughout the VA system.”

Department of Veterans Affairs also has a choice (The Hill)
Commentary: “The recent scandals at the Department of Veterans Affairs, from secret waiting lists to the abusive usage of purchase cards, show that the department is out of touch and self-absorbed, focused only on their own processes and incentives at the expense of the veterans’ needs. Discussions on how to change the culture at the department have focused on changing the incentives for VA employees and offering veterans a choice in where they get their health care. The choice that the department faces is simple: Are they going to attract veterans with superior services or are they going to keep the status quo of holding veterans captive in their system? The current system doesn’t provide veterans with a real choice—only the illusion of choice—as that option only comes after the default VA-provided care fails. In recent discussions of the future of veterans’ healthcare in the country, a few stakeholders have presented a false dichotomy: Either keep the status quo or privatize the system. However, fixing veterans’ healthcare is going to require a blend of care through the VA healthcare system and the private sector. After all, even the Department of Veterans Affairs admits that it needs to reform itself and that it needs help from the private sector in serving our nation’s veterans.”

PTSD severity linked to rise in sleep apnea in veterans (Psychiatry Advisor)
For veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the risk of sleep apnea increases along with the severity of the mental health condition, a new study contends. Sleep apnea — a common sleep disorder in which breathing frequently stops and starts — is potentially serious. Researchers looked at 195 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who visited a Veterans Affairs outpatient PTSD clinic for evaluation. About 69% were at high risk for obstructive sleep apnea, and the risk rose along with PTSD symptom severity, the study authors said. PTSD symptoms can include intrusive memories and nightmares, negative changes in mood and heightened emotional reactivity. Every clinically significant increase in PTSD symptom severity was associated with a 40% increase in being at high risk for sleep apnea, according to the study published in the May issue of the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. “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,” co-principal investigator Sonya Norman, a researcher at the San Diego VA, said in a news release from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. “This is critical information because sleep apnea is a risk factor for a long list of health problems such as hypertension [high blood pressure], cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and psychological problems including depression, worsening PTSD and anxiety,” she explained.

Vet’s family wants to keep convicted murderer buried in military cemetery (
George Emery Siple’s gravestone at Indiantown Gap National Cemetery says a lot about his life in the military. He was a Corporal in the U.S. Army Air Corps and then a Staff Sergeant in the U.S. Air Force. He served during three wars — World War II, Korea and Vietnam — and received the Purple Heart for wounds sustained during combat. That is what George Siple’s family wants people to remember about him — his honorable service to his country. They say that his military service earned him a place in a military cemetery. But what isn’t on his gravestone or in his military records is that after serving in the armed forces for about 20 years, George Siple shot and killed Bertha “Bertie” Smith in 1969. He was convicted and died in prison in 1999. Now, U.S. Rep Lou Barletta, R-Hazleton, and the victim’s family are trying to pass a law that would disinter George Siple from the cemetery and keep other veterans convicted of capital crimes from being buried in military cemeteries. On Oct. 15, 1969, Smith was leaving her job at the General State Authority, in what is now known as the Kline’s Plaza in Harrisburg. Police said Smith, 49, was killed by one or two shotgun blasts from George Siple. The two had been friends and the shooting apparently stemmed from an argument, according to a 1969 story in the Lebanon Daily News. George Siple’s family said they know that the murder he committed was terrible and that he deserved to be put in jail for the rest of his life. But the crime, they said, should not take away from his military service. “I know he committed a bad crime, but he paid his time,” said Wayne Gottshall, a nephew to George Siple. “He has the right to be buried at the Gap.” “My grandfather has two Purple Hearts,” said Kendra Siple. “What he did after — to me it’s wrong — but it shouldn’t remove him from the Gap.” Gottshall said what happened later on in his uncle’s life should not dictate whether or not he kept buried in the cemetery. Only his military record, he said, should dictate that.

N.C. veteran pleads guilty to misdemeanor after threat to VA (Raleigh News & Observer)
On Thursday, Army veteran Ryan Broderick could shed his orange jumpsuit, a uniform he has worn since January when he was accused of being a threat to the government he upended his life to serve during three combat tours. Broderick made a call to the Veterans Affairs health resources center and crisis hotline. His words were sharp and menacing: If he didn’t get the help he needed for his combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder, he might come to the VA medical center in Fayetteville and start shooting doctors and nurses. That call, which he said was an act of desperation, landed him in jail to await a federal trial. On Monday, Senior U.S. District Court Judge W. Earl Britt accepted Broderick’s guilty plea to a misdemeanor assault charge. Britt, an Army veteran, said the case has given him “much concern,” as he expressed empathy for wounded veterans struggling to get the help they need from a beleaguered VA system. He denied the U.S. attorney’s request for 60 days to prepare for a sentencing hearing and scheduled it for Thursday. Britt expressed his distaste with the plea. Britt could have rejected it, but doing so would have forced Broderick to face the same uncertainty he has since his arrest in January. Britt said he wanted to spare him that. Assistant federal public defender Diana Pereira told Britt on Monday that she had asked repeatedly for some mercy from the U.S. attorney’s office, including a diversion program that would have allowed Broderick to get the psychological care he had sought from the VA. Periera said the deal they submitted Monday wasn’t what she had wanted for Broderick; she described the case as “heartbreaking.” For 21/2 years, Broderick said, he has sought therapy and medicine from the VA to treat his PTSD. Other than a group therapy session in the summer of 2013, he said he has received none. In December, he contemplated suicide; the VA made him an appointment to see a psychiatrist for Feb. 3. He received no medicine to help with depression until he was locked up in January.