Congress OKs funding shift to keep VA hospitals open (Military Times)
Veterans Affairs Department officials will get the budget help they need to avoid facility shutdowns in August after the Senate approved a last-minute deal Thursday. The move comes a day after House lawmakers overwhelmingly backed the plan and about a week after VA Secretary Bob McDonald appeared on Capitol Hill to warn Congress that health care for tens of thousands of veterans could be disrupted without a budget fix. The measure allows the VA to use about $3.3 billion in funds assigned solely to the new Choice Card program to cover other account shortfalls, a move that lawmakers have resisted over the last year. But McDonald said use of the Choice Card program has grown slowly while outside care programs have increased dramatically, leading to the budget problems. The measure includes language to consolidate all outside care efforts into a single “Veterans Choice Program,” to provide less bureaucracy and better funding flexibility. VA officials must submit plans to do that by November. It also requires biweekly reports to Congress on how the transferred money is being spent, in response to lawmakers’ concerns they were caught unaware of the department’s mounting financial problems. “We’re in this situation, quite frankly, because of gross ineptitude in planning that can only be characterized as malpractice in management,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, in the moments before the vote. “Congress cannot be expected to continue to bail out VA because of mismanagement.” Department officials said they didn’t know the extent of the shortfall until the start of the summer, but have warned for the last year that inflexible budget accounts could create such fiscal woes. But critics have accused the VA of covering up the budget problems until the last minute in order to raid the Choice Card program, authorized by Congress last summer in an effort to force the VA to give veterans wider options in their health care offerings.
Slowdown by VA employees cost 34,000 vets their benefits (Examiner.com)
VA employees at the VA enrollment center in Atlanta dragged their feet for so long and delayed processing applications from 34,000 Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans for so long that the applications expired, and the 34,000 combat veterans lost their eligibility for VA healthcare. In some cases the applications were delayed illegally for nearly 3 years. That is a national disgrace. Scott Davis, a program specialist at the VA enrollment center in Atlanta, first revealed the illegal actions by his fellow VA workers in a letter to Senator Johnny Isakson (R-Ga). Then Davis revealed the details of exactly what happened by testifying before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. According to Davis, VA employees at the VA enrollment center in Atlanta deliberately delayed processing the applications for VA healthcare benefits filed by Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans through the VA’s online application system, eBenefits. Davis testified that the VA employees at the enrollment center in Atlanta designated the applications as pending because they lacked income information. However, under federal law, combat veterans are not required to verify their income when applying for VA benefits. The VA employees knew that, but they didn’t care. According to Davis, they wanted to reduce the number of veterans applying for VA health care in order to make the statistics, for things like wait times, look better. In his testimony before Congress, Davis put it this way. “I’ll give you an example of the sort of lackadaisical attitude by VA management. In the report that I read from earlier, in 2013, it talks about the backlog. It talks about the slow processing of online applications. Could anyone imagine an application for health care that you can write in your house, drive to a VA medical facility, wait in line, turn it in to someone at the counter, wait for them to process it is actually faster in 2014 than the online process?” According to the VA’s eBenefits website, if the veteran needs time to obtain supporting evidence, the veteran can begin the eBenefits application process, obtain their evidence and then complete their application. The VA will recognize the date the veteran started the application as the veteran’s date of claim as long as the veteran completes the application within one year. But the VA employees at the VA’s enrollment center in Atlanta short circuited that process by demanding unnecessary information from the Iraq and Afghan war veterans, and that delayed the eBenefits application process for those veterans beyond the one year time limit, and that costs those combat veterans their eligibility for VA health care benefits.
VA whistleblowers blast new agency watchdog (USA Today)
Current and former Veterans Affairs employees who blew the whistle on poor health care at VA facilities came face-to-face with the agency’s new chief watchdog for the first time at a Senate hearing Thursday. The whistleblowers were not impressed. “I was incredibly disappointed to the point of being horrified,” said Dr. Katherine Mitchell, whose actions exposing long patient wait times at the Phoenix VA last year led to the resignation of former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. VA Deputy Inspector General Linda Halliday took over the watchdog post July 6 from Richard Griffin, who abruptly retired after whistle-blowers accused him of conducting cursory investigations and of targeting them instead of the problems they uncovered. Halliday told members of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee overseeing the VA Thursday that she is requiring more training for her staff on protecting whistle-blowers, but she did not apologize or admit to past mistakes. Instead, she suggested the whistle-blowers were wrong. “Although whistle-blowers’ perceptions are directly related to their complaint, at times, they are not in a position to know all the facts, or they overemphasize the(ir) viewpoint,” Halliday said. In addition, she suggested that when investigators from her office launched probes of whistleblowers, they were “making sure that all the bases are covered.” Miller and other whistleblowers at the hearing had hoped for more. “I know full well that there was no misunderstanding in my investigation,” said Shea Wilkes, a VA social worker in Shreveport, La., whom the inspector general investigated after Wilkes disclosed problems with patient wait lists. Miller said the testimony from VA officials amounted to “political rhetoric and failure to acknowledge their deficiencies.” “And if they don’t recognize they have a problem, they’re not going to be able to fix it,” she said. Such comments suggest Halliday is off to a bumpy start leading an office responsible under federal law with rooting out fraud and mismanagement at the VA.
More research, support needed for children of veterans (Military Times)
Momentum is growing to learn more about the needs of military children as their parents make the transition out of uniform — and to address those needs. And there’s a lot of work to be done. “I’m fearful we’re not building out the infrastructure to follow these children when their family leaves the service” to provide continuing support, said Dr. Paula Rauch, a child psychiatrist who is director of the family program for the Red Sox Foundation/Massachusetts General Hospital. Across the country, health care providers need to be educated about not just military service, but about child development, she said, so they can identify when military and veteran children aren’t developing as they should, said Rauch, speaking during a session at the Military Child Education Coalition’s 17th National Training Seminar on Thursday in Washington, D.C. Larger and longer-term studies on military children are needed, said Dr. Stephen Cozza, a retired Army colonel who is now associate director for the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. “We know kids get stressed after deployment, but we don’t know when and how the stress abates over time. That would be really important to know,” Cozza said. “And we have not addressed the strengths of military kids,” he went on. “We have a lot of studies of military kids in terms of the difficulties they’re having, but we haven’t addressed more of the strengths of military kids and what they do well. We know they do a lot well. What can they teach us about health and well-being and thriving under adversity?” Some efforts in that vein are under way within the Defense Department and elsewhere to help families in transition. “We want to think of not just the service member’s transition, but the whole family,” said Barbara Thompson, director of DoD’s office of family readiness policy. Key transition points for military children include their parents’ relocation, deployments, and transitions from military service to the civilian sector, Thompson said, adding that some of the accomplishments and adversities from earlier transitions can carry over.
Senate moves closer to allowing GI Bill startups (The Hill)
A Senate panel this week advanced legislation that would allow veterans to use their GI Bill benefits to start small businesses. The Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee unanimously passed the bill, dubbed the Veterans Entrepreneurial Transition (VET) Act of 2015 out of committee on Wednesday. The bill, introduced by Sens. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.), would create a three-year pilot program that would allow up to 250 veterans eligible for GI Bill benefits who apply to the program to start a new business or purchase an existing business or franchise. Currently, GI Bill benefits can only be used for attending school. “Veterans in Kansas, as well as across the country, face challenges when they separate from the military and transition into civilian life,” Moran said in a statement. “After serving our nation, many veterans want to continue their service by giving back to their communities as small business owners and entrepreneurs. It’s common sense to give them more flexibility and choice in their benefits to achieve their goals.” The legislation still faces a long road, however, because it would still have to be approved by the full Senate, introduced and passed in the House, and signed by President Obama before becoming law. But the action by the committee could put the measure in play for floor action, particularly if it can retain bipartisan support. The pilot program that would be established under the bill includes a thorough application process and requires participating in an approved entrepreneurial training program. It would be overseen by the head of the Small Business Administration in consultation with the agency’s Advisory Committee on Veterans Business Affairs and the secretary of Veterans Affairs. The bill is endorsed by veterans organizations including the American Legion, the National Guard Association of the United States and the Iraq Afghanistan Veterans of America.
Asbestos-containing material found in one Denver VA building (The Denver Channel)
Crews checking the roof of one of the satellite buildings on the Denver Veterans Affairs Medical Center campus for leaks got more than what they were expecting. On July 11, crews with the Occupational Safety and Health Program (OSH) discovered a potential asbestos-containing material, but follow-up testing by an industrial hygienist confirmed the building’s stair well and the overhead spaces on the first floor have fire-proofing spray that contains asbestos, according to Daniel W. Warvi, a spokesman for the VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System. “The VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System (ECHCS) goal is to provide to a safe and healthful work environment for our Veterans and our employees, and to be forthright with all who entrust us for their health care,” said Carolyn Adams, Acting Medical Center Director. Warvi said after a second inspection by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health, the hospital has to submit a plan to abate the asbestos. “Our on-site Safety manager has already taken aggressive actions to inform employees about the presence of asbestos-containing material in the areas detected” said Adams. “This includes a personal briefing by the Safety Manager on the labels that are being placed in their work areas, past asbestos abatement projects and current areas that asbestos remains in the building. They were also provided the approved OSHA asbestos facts sheet for individual reference.” Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral fiber. It was used in numerous building materials and vehicle products for its strength and ability to resist heat and corrosion before its dangerous health effects were discovered. Asbestos fibers are only a health hazard if they become airborne in sufficient numbers.
Obama taps Mike Michaud for veterans employment post (Bangor Daily News)
President Barack Obama intends to nominate former U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, a Democrat who represented Maine’s 2nd District for 12 years and ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2014, for a federal post leading the Department of Labor agency dealing with veterans training and employment, according to a Labor Department notice sent Thursday. Before his unsuccessful bid for governor, Michaud spent much of his time in Congress focused on veterans issues and in 2012 was the top Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Michaud has laid low since the gubernatorial bid, for which he gave up his seat in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District. Peter Miesburger, an Air Force veteran and chairman for the legislative division of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Department of Maine, lauded the nomination. “On behalf of veterans, they couldn’t get a better guy,” Miesburger said in a telephone interview Thursday. In Congress, Miesburger said, Michaud was “always going that extra mile to make sure that veterans had the best health care going. Whatever issues that were associated with veterans, he was always there.” If confirmed by the Senate, Michaud would succeed Keith Kelly, who announced his retirement in March, as the assistant secretary of the Veterans’ Employment and Training Service. Kelly is an Army veteran, serving during the Vietnam War, and led the Veterans Affairs Committee of the National Association of State Workforce Agencies before joining the Department of Labor.
Marijuana will be given away to Colorado vets with PTSD (The Denver Channel)
From candy bars to actual pot buds, Colorado veterans dealing with PTSD will be eligible for free marijuana products during a giveaway this weekend in Denver. But even thought the event is open to the general public, however the products are reserved for veterans. “I’ll eat an edible at night just to take pain away enough that I can sleep,” said veteran Roger Martin. Martin is the founder and executive director of “Grow for Vets,” an organization that helps veterans with their medical marijuana needs. “A lot of veterans have to use it on a daily basis. Martin says pot is effective and less addictive than other painkillers. Yet two weeks ago, the state health board rejected marijuana as an approved drug to treat post-traumatic stress. “The fact PTSD is not recognizable as a condition for which you can obtain a card in Colorado is just outrageous.” This leaves Colorado veterans with no choice but to use recreational pot, instead of the cheaper medical products. “It can cost double what medical cannabis costs,” said Martin. At one recent giveaway, more than $70,000 of pot was distributed. Cannabis related companies, including the social media site “High There!” are among the sponsors. “There’s not enough of mainstream organizations that will get involved in things like this. So the industry is left to its own devices at lot of times,” said CEO Todd Mitchem. This giveaway allows veterans to go green for free, to help veterans to better live their lives. “We’re tired of waiting for the government to take action,” said Martin.
Report: Central Alabama VA has shortage of psychiatric staff, other woes (AL.com)
The Central Alabama VA Health Care System doesn’t have enough psychiatric staff and veterans continue to experience long waiting times to see providers, according to an inspector general’s report released on Wednesday. The VA inspector general didn’t find, though despite complaints, that mental health patients have committed suicide due to care delays, or that the VA refused to provide inpatient detox services. “We substantiated that CAVHCS leaders were aware of many of the identified issues, that some corrective actions were not always implemented timely, and that others did not appear to have been implemented at all,” John Daigh, the VA’s assistant inspector general for healthcare inspections, stated in the report. A complaint to the Veterans Affairs Department’s investigation hotline in July 2014 sparked the investigation into the system being short staffed and patients experiencing long wait times, which caused some to go unseen by a doctor and lack of follow-up care for many. The inspector general made 17 recommendations to improve operations, which include hiring more mental health professionals at the system’s outpatient clinics. CAVHCS officials say they are complying with the recommendations, USA Today reported. U.S. Rep. Martha Roby, R-Alabama, introduced legislation – the Failing VA Medical Center Recovery Act — on Tuesday that would require top VA officials to intervene at the worst performing VA medical centers by deploying a “rapid response team” of managers and medical professionals to turn them around, Roby’s office released. Roby told the USA Today, though a spokesperson, on Wednesday that she’s “pleased that (IG’s office) followed through with investigations of the various problems within CAVCHS.” According to the inspector general’s findings, the Dothan mental health community based outpatient clinic (CBOC) only has two psychiatrists, which is “inadequate to assure timely and appropriate care.” And, for part of 2012, the clinic only had one psychiatrist. “Upon interview in November 2014, both CBOC psychiatrists stated that the workload continued to be overwhelming and expressed the need for additional providers. One of the psychiatrists gave us multiple case examples of patients who should have returned to clinic in three-four months but could not be scheduled for eight or nine months,” the report stated.
A very simple computer program could help vets with PTSD (The Huffington Post)
The U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs estimates that between 11 and 20 percent of veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder during any given year. As veterans return home, new research is helping design innovative treatments for them. A recent study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry explores an alternative PTSD treatment, delivered via a computer screen. While it’s not a new idea to tackle PTSD using computer tasks and even video games, this study tests the effects of a method called “attention control therapy,” in which a computer task helps the user shift their focus away from a scary image to an assignment. The attention control training used in this new study helped neutralize extreme responses, by forcing test subjects to redirect their attention to completing a task, even though they’d just seen something threatening. Led by Yair Bar-Haim at Tel Aviv University, a team of researchers asked former members of the U.S. and Israeli military who suffered from PTSD to look at a series of negative and neutral images and then complete a simple task, like counting the number of dots on a screen or describing whether an arrow was pointing right or left. The images shown varied: Israeli veterans were shown words — some with negative meanings, like “death,” juxtaposed with words that looked and sounded similar but had a neutral meaning, like “dates” — while the American veterans were shown faces, contorted into an hostile glare or posed in a neutral expression. The theory is that, by completing the task repeatedly, the differences between the scary image and the neutral image diminish. Whether completing the program with faces or words, the participants who underwent the treatment showed significantly diminished PTSD symptoms after completing the therapy. According to Bar-Haim, this result suggests that the researchers are onto “a deeper mechanism” about the way PTSD functions.