Private care for vets plagued by delays, say VA inspectors (USA Today)
Inspectors for the Department of Veterans Affairs say a community-referral program designed to make private medical treatment available for veterans is plagued by delays in care, improper patient scheduling practices, cost overruns and other problems. The findings make it clear that former military personnel who have suffered stress and medical complications because of delayed treatment in VA medical centers are now encountering the same problems when they get referred by the VA for private care. The Patient-Centered Community Care program, known as PC3, was created to provide outside treatment for veterans when VA medical facilities are too busy or do not have needed services. Instead, the 35-page report says the program has “caused patient care delays” and “is not achieving its intended purpose to provide veterans timely access.” Those scathing conclusions are based on research at nine VA medical centers nationwide. The new report adds to a 15-month crisis of leadership and operations at the VA caused by revelations of delayed and inappropriate medical services, mismanagement, financial problems and other problems. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned amid controversy last year and interim Inspector General Richard Griffin retired under pressure this week. According to the report, VA contractors routinely engaged in “blind scheduling” — setting up appointments without first discussing the date with patients who might not be available. Because of that practice and other issues, about 43,500 of the 106,000 doctor visits that were authorized either did not get scheduled or were never carried out. The PC3 system is so problematic that every VA leader interviewed by inspectors had cut back or completely stopped use of the program. As a result, the report says, VA costs increased dramatically because expected savings were based on patient volume. The inquiry was launched after an unnamed whistleblower complained about rampant failures in the system. Inspectors determined that VA staffers at every facility they visited had stopped using the medical-referral program as intended due to “pervasive dissatisfaction.”
Veterans hotline tries to survive without Pentagon funds (The New York Times)
In a row of beige cubicles in a suburban office park in Piscataway, N.J., a hulking former Army sergeant hunched over his phone next to a photo taken in Afghanistan, a few days before he was hurt by a roadside bomb. “Look, man, sometimes you’re dealt a raw deal and you’ve got to play it,” the former sergeant, Adriel Gonzalez, said into his headset. Big as a bouncer, he wielded his gruff voice tenderly. “I’ve known you long enough that you’re ready to hear this: It’s not going to be all sunshine and rainbows. You might be in for a lifelong struggle, but it is a doable one. This I can tell you, my friend.” On the other end of the line was a combat veteran, also wounded in Afghanistan, who had called a peer hotline, Vets4Warriors, that connects troops and former service members seeking help with veterans. Since 2011, Vets4Warriors has fielded more than 130,000 calls from military personnel stationed around the world. The counselors say their military service and nonclinical approach help them form a bond with callers that can break down mistrust. Now the hotline faces its own problems. Though the program has been lauded as a model, the Pentagon has ended its funding as part of an effort to cut costs and streamline services. Vets4Warriors has moved to find other funding so that it can continue on its own. In late June, weeks before the call center was set to lay off its 40 veteran peers, the New Jersey Legislature voted to spend $2.5 million so the program could operate another year, giving it time to find private funding. A variety of small programs were created during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in an effort to stem a rising number of suicides, said Keita Franklin, director of the Defense Suicide Prevention Office. Now the Pentagon is consolidating the work of organizations like Vets4Warriors. The program’s counseling will be taken over by another help line, Military OneSource, which has more services available. Military OneSource counselors are licensed clinical social workers, some of whom are veterans, Ms. Franklin said. “It will still be peer to peer, 24 hours a day, but with more services we can connect callers with,” Ms. Franklin said of Military OneSource (1-800-342-9647), which will take over calls from active-duty troops next month. “Imagine a call center where if you need family support or financial support services, we have that all right there.” The crucial question for Vets4Warriors is how to connect with those in need while finding donors to keep the hotline running. The program’s phone number (1-855-838-8255) will no longer be given out by the Pentagon, which means that the group will have to rely on word of mouth and unofficial referrals.
Head of POW-MIA favors closer links to private groups (Military Times)
The head of the Pentagon’s new agency in charge of recovering and identifying remains of U.S. war dead said he will push for more partnering with private groups that have resources and interest to help reinvigorate a troubled POW-MIA accounting mission. Michael Linnington, a recently retired three-star Army general and veteran of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, took over the Defense POW-MIA Accounting Agency in late June and intends to complete its top-to-bottom reorganization by the end of the year. His agency was created by merging the two offices that had previously been in charge. He has little experience in the MIA mission, but told The Associated Press last week that he knows its history is riddled with controversy as well as criticism from Congress and groups that advocate for families of the missing. “I am aware of some of the reports on the dysfunction,” he said, referring to 2013 reports of deep conflict among multiple agencies previously assigned to the accounting mission. “Whenever you have disparate organizations all focused in the same area, there’s going to be a natural tendency to step on each other,” he said. Linnington said he sees promise in partnering more extensively with private groups like History Flight, a Florida-based group that has worked with the Pentagon in discovering and recovering war remains abroad, including dozens of Marines killed in the World War II battle of Tarawa in the Pacific. “There are lots of folks out there that want to help us,” he said.
Gold fillings, family grit help solve 71-year-old mystery of vets’ burial (Stars & Stripes)
Clay Bonnyman Evans was 5,000 miles from home, deep in a pit on the Pacific island of Betio, when he heard the words his family had awaited for so long. “It’s gold,” announced Kristen Baker. With a brush, the archaeologist gently swept the sand off an unmistakable shape: a human skeleton — with a mouth full of gilded fillings. “It’s gold.” Two words to end a 71-year wait. Two words to solve a mystery that had vexed Evans’s family for four generations. Two words to give a long-lost war hero the happy ending he deserved. First Lt. Alexander “Sandy” Bonnyman Jr. was finally coming home. For the better part of a century, the Medal of Honor recipient was literally lost to the chaos and carnage of World War II. His grave said “Buried at sea,” but his family knew better. Sandy Bonnyman was entombed — somewhere. The story of how Evans, a 53-year-old freelance journalist from Colorado, tracked down his grandfather’s remains is almost as incredible as Bonnyman’s heroics. It involves gunfights and flamethrowers, radar and drones, mass graves and a cadaver dog named Buster. “It is incredible,” Evans told The Washington Post. “Just incredible.” For three days in late November 1943, the Marines tried to take Betio from the Japanese. Bonnyman, the executive officer of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines’ Shore Party, led his party across the island, destroying enemy outposts as he went. On the day the island was secured, Bonnyman was killed. But if the story of Bonnyman’s heroics was well recorded, the location of his body was not. As the Marines moved to secure the island and press on through the Pacific, they hurriedly buried their men in mass graves. And so started a mystery that would stretch out for 71 years. Bonnyman’s parents desperately tried to discover where their son had been buried. “They got all these stories, that he was buried here or there,” Evans told The Washington Post in a phone interview from his home in Colorado. “Until finally my great-grandfather gave up and bought a headstone that said ‘Buried at Sea.’ ” Evans grew up believing that his grandfather was buried in an anonymous grave at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, a lush, circular cemetery in Honolulu nicknamed “The Punchbowl.” But in 2009, he learned that the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, or JPAC, was planning to return to Tarawa to try to identify the remains of American Marines. When Evans looked into the project, however, he learned that it was really being pushed along by a small, Florida-based nonprofit called History Flight. In August 2010, Evans flew the 5,726 miles from Colorado to the archipelago in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. And while he wasn’t impressed with JPAC, Evans admired Noah and his team at History Flight. The nonprofit has found scores of veterans’ bodies across the Pacific theater. “I reached a conclusion that I was going to hitch my cart to this little bitty nonprofit because I could see the dedication and the determination there,” Evans said. “I honestly never saw that with JPAC, so I said, ‘Hey, Mark, I want to work with you.'” Finally, in late March of this year, History Flight called Evans and said he thought his team was close to finding his grandfather. Using ground-penetrating radar, old military maps, the latest GPS technology, remote-controlled drones and Buster, a cadaver dog from California, they had found a trench — dubbed Cemetery 27 — where Bonnyman was thought to lie.
Editorial: Clean VA house from the top (Charleston Post & Courier)
“The Veterans Health Administration, which runs VA hospitals, has experienced a perfect storm of crises during the past six years. It is not out of the storm path yet. Continued mismanagement, demonstrated by numerous reports, continues to plague the Veterans Affairs department despite last year’s change of leadership following a White House report that found a “corrosive” culture in the hospital system. That’s a galling problem on any day. And on this Independence Day, it’s especially infuriating. The systemic problems at the VA must end, even if that takes another shake-up at the top. One obvious contributor to the troubles of the VA has been the near doubling since 2008 of patients requiring the highest priority for care. In 2008, according to the department, the number of veterans requiring priority one care was about 890,000. In 2014 it was 1.6 million, an increase of roughly 80 percent. The causes are an aging veteran population and actions by the White House and Congress to expand eligibility for VA care. During the same period the VA’s budget grew by 65 percent. But instead of managing its tight budget carefully, the agency ran up high cost overruns on construction projects, used government credit cards to buy billions of dollars of supplies without competitive bidding or even routine documentation, and came back to Congress annually asking for more.”
Tennessee lawmakers await IG inquiry into state’s VA hospital failures (Washington Free Beacon)
Tennessee lawmakers are waiting for the Department of Veterans Affairs to respond to a letter outlining problems with the state’s VA hospitals in order to allow the Office of Inspector General to begin an official investigation. “The Office of Inspector General has informed Congressman Black that it will not make a determination on whether to proceed with an investigation of the Murfreesboro VA clinic until we first hear back from our letter to VA Secretary McDonald,” said Jonathan Frank, a spokesman for Rep. Diane Black (R., Tenn.). “Congressman Black believes that the reports of lengthy wait times and poor care at the Murfreesboro VA clinic merit an immediate investigation and is disappointed that a handful of DC bureaucrats have slow walked a congressional effort to demand better care on behalf of our veterans.” Long wait times, short-staffed clinics, and closed emergency rooms prompted Tennessee representatives to push for an inspector general investigation into the state Veterans Affairs agency. Rep. Black organized the writing of a letter to VA Secretary Ray McDonald calling for an IG inquiry into the state VA, citing similar infractions that were revealed in Arizona veterans’ centers last year. “What was found across the entire country was it wasn’t isolated to Arizona’s VA, it was something that was prevalent in a lot of hospitals, and that is when we first originally found out just how bad things are in our own districts,” Black told the Washington Free Beacon. The two veterans aid centers in question are located in Murfreesboro and Nashville. They are part of what is referred to as the Tennessee Valley Healthcare System.
Veterans lead the way in reconciling with former enemies (The New York Times)
The American and Vietnamese war veterans, former enemies, sat together at wooden picnic tables eating hamburgers and chili while Creedence Clearwater Revival played in the background. Do Hung Luan, a former Vietcong fighter who was imprisoned and tortured for nine years by America’s South Vietnamese allies, ate a burger and chicken wings with chopsticks. Next to him was Nguyen Tien, whose wooden leg replaces the one he lost to American artillery during the war. “I can feel the friendship,” a smiling Mr. Tien said, surrounded by American veterans who seemed three times his size. “We have closed the door on the past.” The Fourth of July party, steps away from what American soldiers used to call China Beach, was organized by Larry Vetter, a Texan and retired Marine who moved here three years ago to live among some of the people he was once supposed to kill. “Everybody is so friendly,” Mr. Vetter said. “It’s almost mind-boggling how much they accept Americans.” Over the past several years, and the United States have come together so quickly that even the architects of the reconciliation call it breathtaking. That will be highlighted on Tuesday when Nguyen Phu Trong, the head of Vietnam’s Communist Party, the symbol of what America was fighting, visits the White House for the first time. “It’s really the exclamation point on the establishment of diplomatic relations,” Antony J. Blinken, the deputy United States secretary of state, said in an interview. “One Vietnamese senior official said to me, ‘With this visit there is no going back on the relationship.’ ” Vietnamese officials describe the visit, which comes four decades after the fall of Saigon, as America’s acceptance of the legitimacy of the Communist Party’s rule. American officials have a different interpretation, saying it is significant because Mr. Trong, who will also be signing a deal with Boeing, was considered a leading skeptic of the United States among Vietnamese leaders.
VA hospital that once treated Civil War vets now faces closure (NBC News)
Perched atop a bluff in the remote Black Hills, a veterans hospital built of thick blocks of pink sandstone and topped with red-tiled roofs in a Spanish mission style overlooks the tiny town of Hot Springs, South Dakota, and has provided recovering soldiers a bucolic haven for more than a century. Wounded warriors from Civil War battles at Antietam and Gettysburg came to the Battle Mountain Sanitarium for brief, intensive treatments for musculoskeletal and respiratory conditions. Physicians believed the dry air and warm, fabled mineral springs helped mend broken soldiers. Today, veterans from the Vietnam to Iraq wars suffering from ailments such as post-traumatic stress disorder and drug and alcohol abuse recuperate at this quiet retreat. But this long tradition could soon end. Officials with the Department of Veterans Affairs have proposed shuttering the campus and relocating some of its services 60 miles north to Rapid City, the second-largest city in the state, leaving only an outpatient clinic in Hot Springs, which the state calls “The Veterans Town.” One of the key issues driving a wedge between the VA and the veterans fighting to keep the hospital open is its remote location. Does the isolation and serenity of Hot Springs help heal patients or hold them back? VA officials counter that moving the services north to Rapid City would help attract physicians, better accommodate female and single-parent veterans and link patients with job opportunities and occupational training. The VA anticipates a final report recommending the best course of action to be announced in the spring of 2016.
Vets take to the waves as Florida Military Surf Club (Military Times)
As dawn stretched its fingers over the Atlantic Ocean and onto the St. Augustine pier, seven veterans trekked over the sand toward the waiting waves. The men, some officers, others enlisted personnel, are all part of a newly formed group called the Florida Military Surf Club. Most are Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and some used to be active-duty before coming to the organization they now all call home: the Florida National Guard. Yet, as one, they hit the water like teenagers and paddled out with giddy enthusiasm. Though the waves left something to be desired, the men took in the scenery and admired the skill of pelicans plunging headlong into the ocean for fish and that of a marine mammal of the blond variety paddling not far away. The group is a new one, though many of its members have been meeting at the St. Augustine Beach pier for dawn patrol — early morning surfing — for more than a year. They now have a board of directors and want to be involved in the veterans community and the community as a whole. “We’ve reached out to Surf Quest that the Ark of St. Augustine does with the kids to try and hook up with them for the kids,” Maj. Adam Bailey said. “Then, on the military side, we’ve reached out to Wounded Warriors up in Jacksonville to let them know that we’re up and running so we can help out with anything they’ve got going on. “We’re talking about buying soft-top boards to help people learn how to surf.”
Amtrak unveils new locomotive for veterans (The Washington Times)
Sen. Tom Carper addressed a crowd of about 200 Amtrak workers donning hard-hats at a ceremony today to unveil an old glory-colored locomotive with the words, “Amtrak’s railroad salutes our veterans.” At Amtrak’s maintenance facility in Wilmington, Delaware’s senior senator led the crowd in a chant to support the roughly 50 workers in attendance who are also military veterans. “I just want us to say, welcome home, welcome home. One more time, welcome home,” Carper said. The unveiling of the Siemens-built electric locomotive, which will operate in the Northeast Corridor, is the latest effort in Amtrak’s collaboration with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to aid military veterans. In addition to the commemorative train, Amtrak is attempting to fill its ranks of new engineers, mechanics, and maintenance workers with ex-soldiers. “If you know somebody, who’s a veteran, who’s looking for a job, send them to one of (Amtrak’s) job fairs,” Carper said at the event. Since 2013, 21 percent of new Amtrak employees are military veterans, said Kimberly Woods, spokeswoman for Amtrak.