Veterans news update for June 4

Veterans news update for June 4

Veterans news updateHouse panel says VA firing bill necessary to weed out problem employees (Fierce Government)
A House panel debated a bill Tuesday that would give the Veterans Affairs Department secretary greater authority to fire employees, with many saying it’s a necessary step to revive the beleaguered agency. The bill is similar to one passed last year that gave the VA secretary more leeway in firing senior executives, except this bill (H.R.1994) would extend that authority to all VA employees, not just senior executives. The bill comes as a result of last year’s manipulation of wait lists by employees at the VA’s Phoenix medical center to make it look like veterans weren’t waiting as long for appointments as they actually were. At the June 2 House Veterans Affairs subcommittee on economic opportunity hearing, Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said that 99 percent of the more than 300,000 VA employees are dedicated and hardworking, and are not part of the problems that exist at VA. The VA has a history of transferring problem employees to other offices, Miller said, and the bill is necessary since it allows the agency to fire those employees instead of passing them off to another office. And while some have questioned whether the bill denies VA workers due process and could scare away whistleblowers, Miller denied those claims. Though the VA secretary could remove any employee based on misconduct or performance, that employee could file an appeal within seven days with the Merit Systems Protection Board and that panel would have to rule on the firing within 45 days.

VA slow to pay, owes millions to outside providers who assist veterans (The Advertiser)
Federal officials have been slow to pay companies providing emergency medical transportation to veterans, sometimes leaving veterans stuck with the bill, the vice president of a Lafayette ambulance company told Congress Wednesday. The Veterans Affairs Department “has a responsibility to ensure that our veterans receive the best health care we can provide,” Asbel Montes, vice president of Acadian, told a House subcommittee. “It also has a responsibility to ensure they are not required to bear an unjustified burden because the VA fails to pay non-VA providers in a timely and accurate manner.” Members of the Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Health, including Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-Aldo, blasted the VA for acting slowly to reimburse ambulance companies, hospitals and other businesses for providing services to veterans, and said they will hold agency officials accountable. “It’s totally unacceptable what’s happening,” Abraham, a physician and Army veteran, said after Wednesday’s hearing. “Our veterans are getting negative credit ratings because they are having to get the bill that the VA should have paid months, if not years ago.” VA officials acknowledge the problem and said they’re working to speed the claims process. They plan to hire 220 more workers in the next three months. “We own the problem… We are fixing the problem,” said Gene Migliaccio, deputy chief business officer for purchased care at the Veterans Health Administration. Migliaccio said the VA processed about 6 million claims from January 2015 to May 2015, an increase of 21 percent over the same period last year. Montes and other witnesses complained veterans are sometimes billed for services provided by companies that weren’t paid by the VA. Montes’ company provides emergency medical care and transportation in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. Montes cited one example of when his company was reimbursed 15 months after providing emergency transportation for a Louisiana veteran and only after the veteran reached out to the media. “There’s definitely a bipartisan willingness to help providers,” Montes said after the hearing. “Everybody understands this issue needs to be fixed.” Providers also complained the VA often doesn’t pay interest on overdue payments. “There are millions of dollars right now that are past due,” said Sam Cook, president of the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association, which also does business in Louisiana.

Lawmaker: Central Alabama veterans getting the worst treatment (
Patients at Veterans Administration hospitals in Montgomery and Tuskegee are receiving the worst treatment in the country, U.S. Rep. Martha Roby said. In a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives, Roby, R-Montgomery, said that efforts to make improvements to the VA have slowed as attention has shifted from the issue. “I’m tired of the excuses from this giant bureaucracy,” Roby said. “My constituents – my veterans – in Alabama are getting the worst health care service in this entire country and they don’t deserve it.” Roby has championed the cause of addressing problems in the VA and her speech came within days of the first anniversary of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s resignation as part of the scandal of extended wait times for veterans at VA facilities became public as well as efforts to cover up the problem. Roby repeated that she is working on legislation that would compel national VA officials to take over constantly failing facilities such as those in central Alabama. Roby said the VA centers in Montgomery and Tuskegee – both within her district – were identified as the worst and second-worst in the nation for extended delays in veteran appointment completions. “When a public school continues to fail to meet basic standards, what happens?” Roby said. “The state department of education steps in to takeover and takes charge of turning the place around. It is a process that isn’t pleasant, but everyone from principals and teachers to students and parents understand the consequences of failure to improve. I believe we need a similar mechanism at the VA.”

‘Frogman’ admits claim of WWII heroism is bogus (Contra Costa Times)
An 89-year-old Morgan Hill, Calif., resident who has presented himself for years as one of the nation’s most decorated World War II veterans — most recently in a talk Saturday aboard the USS Hornet that was covered by this newspaper — admitted Wednesday that he lied about his service. “Most of the things I talked about were not true,” said William C. Goehner, who struggled to explain the false claims when approached by a Bay Area News Group reporter at the Centennial Recreation Senior Center in Morgan Hill. Military records provided by ABC7, which exposed the false claims on its Monday newscasts, show that Goehner served in the Navy during World War II. But he was a seaman first class, not, as he claimed, the Navy’s youngest lieutenant commander or a member of the elite Underwater Demolition Teams, known as the Frogmen. And he never was awarded any Purple Hearts, Silver Stars or the Navy Cross. Goehner has parlayed his fake war stories, including a made-up “suicide” mission to blow up a German U-boat bunker, into an award from his local Rotary club, several newspaper articles and most recently a speaking engagement aboard the USS Hornet, the aircraft carrier museum in Alameda that printed his claims in a brochure promoting his talk.  With the museum promoting his appearance, a 2013 story about Goehner in the Morgan Hill Times was brought to the attention of Mary Schantag, who runs the POW Network, a Missouri-based organization that investigates fraudulent military claims. Schantag forwarded the story to Don Shipley, a retired Navy SEAL, who ran Goehner through a database of everyone who has graduated from training as a SEAL or member of the Underwater Demolition Teams, the forerunner to the SEALs. Goehner wasn’t in the database. “I don’t know how anyone could have believed any of the bull … that guy spewed,” Shipley said. “A 19-year-old lieutenant commander? Are you kidding me?”

Lawmaker rips VA for slow response to Iowa vet’s suicide (Des Moines Register)
U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst blasted the Department of Veterans Affairs on Wednesday for taking too long in determining whether a Des Moines veteran obtained appropriate care before he committed suicide. Richard Miles, 41, was found frozen to death in Water Works Park on Feb. 20. Friends said the Iraq War veteran suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and had gone to Des Moines’ VA hospital on Feb. 15 for help. Instead of being offered inpatient treatment, he was given medication and was told he would receive an appointment with a psychiatrist later, friends said. Ernst formally requested an investigation by the VA inspector general a few days after Miles’ death. She told reporters Wednesday that she was originally told she’d get a response by April, but she still hasn’t received a report. “It is frustrating, disappointing and absolutely unacceptable that this has taken so long,” she said. Ernst said part of the problem could be that the inspector-general’s top position is vacant. “We must have answers,” said Ernst, who is an Iowa National Guard veteran of the Iraq War. “We can no longer save Richard Miles. Unfortunately, that time has passed. But what we can do is ensure our veterans are receiving the care that they deserve and have earned.” Joanne Moffett, a spokeswoman for the VA Office of Inspector General, said Wednesday that her agency should have the report ready soon. She said the office generally tries to get congressional-requested reports done within 120 days. “I think we’re on track to hit that,” she said of the Miles report. Moffett said she couldn’t comment on Ernst’s recollection that the report was supposed to be done in April. Friends have said Miles disappeared after he went to the VA for assistance but was not admitted for in-patient treatment. CNN reported that medical records showed he told VA staff that he needed help but that he was not suicidal. The network, which was given access to 1,200 pages of medical records by Miles’ family, said a doctor prescribed medication and ordered a follow-up mental-health appointment, then released him.

Offering treatment, not punishment, to veterans (
Five years ago, Erik Castro came back from Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder and an alcohol problem, though he wouldn’t admit to either. “I don’t want to ask for help,” he says. “I wanted to do what I know how to do. Violence. Drinking. In the Marine Corps, it was just drinking a lot.” It’s a combination — PTSD or other mental illness and substance abuse problems — that has landed a disproportionate number of veterans in the criminal justice system. In response, more than 200 jurisdictions have opened veterans courts. Modeled on drug courts, they offer defendants an alternative to jail or prison time, and proponents say, save counties and states money in the process. Castro ended up in the veterans court in Orange County, California, after he got drunk and beat up a worker in a Subway restaurant. He says he doesn’t remember much of what happened, but he woke up the next morning in jail facing a bunch of felony charges. The veterans court wasn’t his first choice, he says, but it seemed better than prison. And when he started the program, he was pleasantly surprised to find that it felt familiar. “It was like being in the Marine Corps again,” he says. “They’re watching you … they’re on you.” The program is modeled on drug courts, so the emphasis is on treatment and recovery rather than punishment. In this case, the court connects clients to existing services, mostly through the Department of Veterans Affairs, and then forces the vets to make use of them or go back to jail.   It’s intense: there’s substance abuse treatment, group therapy and individual therapy, plus regular check-ins with the judge and probation officer at court. “They make you get those demons out,” Castro says. “They make you work, work, work.” But it’s also supportive. “What makes this unique,” says Joe Perez, the presiding judge, “is we’re all getting together, trying to figure out what’s the best way to keep this person from coming back.”

Veterans home in New Jersey pays $1.4 million in choking death (
The New Jersey Veterans Memorial Home in Paramus has agreed to pay $1.4 million to settle a lawsuit in the death of one of two patients who choked to death at the facility within two weeks. Russell Larson was 85 when he choked on his breakfast after being left alone to eat in his room at the nursing home on June 10, 2012, according to court documents. His family claimed in their suit that the home failed to provide adequate nursing staff for the Navy veteran, who had a swallowing disorder and was supposed to be watched carefully whenever he ate. Just two weeks later, another patient also choked to death, records show. A nurse found the patient choking in the day room around 12:45 p.m. and performed the Heimlich maneuver on the resident, who died soon after, according to a state report. The home’s administrators and director of nursing would later tell a state health inspector that they thought the resident died of heart failure – even though the patient’s death certificate stated the cause of death was “acute airway obstruction with food,” according to the inspector’s report. Accidental deaths in the nursing home must be reported to the state Department of Health, but that notification did not occur in either incident. The 336-bed state-operated nursing home was later cited for a “deficiency” for failing to properly report the death of the second patient, identified only as Resident No. 29.

Trendy tech bootcamps reach out to veterans, with support of the VA (The Denver Post)
After Skill Distillery opened its intense Java programming course last year in the Denver Tech Center, the high-tech boot camp began getting calls from veterans. “These were very intelligent people coming out of the military and contacting us about the GI Bill,” which subsidizes education for veterans, said Cole Frock, the school’s director of education. “We’ve probably had somewhere around 75 calls.” The company had to turn veterans away from the 19-week, $16,000 programs, but it began the process to become a GI Bill educator. Now the school, a division of longtime IT training firm Batky-Howell, has good news for vets: They can use their benefits to pay tuition. “Right now, when someone gets out of the military and is transitioning from military life, they have options, but the options are fairly limited as far as IT goes,” Frock said. “Across the nation, there is a massive developer shortage. … What this program does is give someone with limited experience the ability to get hired as a junior Web developer or front-end developer, which, at the current rate, you’re looking at a $65,000 starting salary.” Desperate for more skilled workers, the tech industry is tapping into the underused resource of veterans who could benefit from a quick training course to get up to speed. Private boot camps, such as Skill Distillery and Galvanize, are popping up all over the country to offer specialized programming courses to train the inexperienced and underemployed. The VA is very aware of the deficit in training opportunities. Last year, it partnered with Coursera, which offers free online classes taught by college professors. The VA upped the ante, offering courses at brick-and-mortar Learning Hubs, including one launched Wednesday in Colorado Springs, where veterans can enroll in a Coursera program and earn one certification for free. The program charges for additional certifications. This summer, the VA plans to launch the Accelerated Learning Program and use $10 million to pay tuition fees at these tech boot camps, said Rosye B. Cloud, the VA’s senior adviser for veteran employment.

Commentary: Honor vets by abolishing the VA (The Charlotte Observer)
“Americans have no faith in socialized medicine, a system in which the federal government owns the hospitals, employs the doctors and nurses and pays the bills. Yet the United States has a vast system of socialized medicine. Its name is the VA! Would you trade your health care for the VA? Of course, you wouldn’t. Why then do we dishonor veterans by forcing them into a failed system that we would never choose? And how do we right this wrong? The Department of Veterans Affairs is an entrenched, Jabba the Hutt, behemoth. It is the second largest federal agency with more than 200,000 employees. Only the Department of Defense is larger. It operates more than 1,000 health-care facilities, including 163 hospitals. The Obama administration is requesting that Congress appropriate $168.8 billion for the VA for the coming fiscal year. The request states, “the budget supports veterans, their families and survivors in receiving the highest quality benefits and services which they earned through their sacrifice and service to the nation.” That’s a lie. The shocking revelations about the VA over the past year, while the worst yet, are not new. The VA’s current problems are not an aberration from a long-standing track record of competence and accomplishment. The truth is that the VA has had a deeply troubled history since the Revolutionary War.”