August 27 Veterans News

August 27 Veterans News

Veterans news updateVideos allegedly show Memphis VA leaving disabled vets unattended (Fox News)
Video footage allegedly showing veterans — many of whom are quadriplegics or paraplegics — being left unattended at a Memphis Veterans Affairs hospital during staff meetings is reviving concerns about how VA hospitals treat American servicemembers. The videos, first reported by Communities Digital News (CDN) and said to be filmed at the Memphis VA Medical Center, show patients being left alone for about 30-45 minutes each evening during a staff meeting attended by all hospital staff, whistleblower and former Memphis VA employee Sean Higgins told Higgins said the videos, filmed by a close friend of his, show a breach of hospital policy, which dictates that even during meetings, there should be a nurse at the nurse’s station. He said the videos all show the spinal injury ward, which contains quadriplegics and paraplegics. “If there was an emergency, we’re screwed,” the unnamed patient filming the video says, as he films various empty hospital corridors. Another video also shows the ward during a staff meeting, apparently empty, with the patient saying: “Once again, we’re left to the wolves.” “Not a soul in sight,” he says. Another video appears to show a nurse in a spinal injury ward not wearing the appropriate gown or gloves while treating a patient. “You have a video there of a nurse in an isolation word, she’s feeding him and she takes a bite out of that cake,” Higgins said. “As hospital policy, if his food was too hot she’s not even allowed to blow on it.” The VA has been trying to overhaul its treatment of claims and patients after last year’s scandal over patient wait-times. But complaints keep surfacing at the local level. “The fact that they’re videotaping this is indicative of clearly they don’t have a good relationship with the staff,” Pete Hegseth, of Concerned Veterans for America, told Fox News regarding the videos. “The Memphis hospital has been cited for some of the longest wait times, poor care, and yet administrators have continued to receive bonuses.” The videos, filmed in July of this year, did not come as a surprise to Higgins. He claimed that after the videos were uploaded to YouTube, a hospital official went to the patient’s bedside, accompanied by police, and told the veteran it’s against policy to film in the hospital. “She was more concerned that the guy violated hospital policy, than what he was filming,” Higgins said.

‘Getting better is scary’: Women veterans with PTSD (
For Erica Slone, the choice boiled down to a simple equation: Die. Or go to Fort Thomas. In early July, she pulled into the parking lot of the Cincinnati VA’s Trauma Recovery Center in Fort Thomas. She stood outside studying the formidable brick building. She had a lot riding on this place. Slone had arrived after years of suffering. In 2003, barely a year into her Air Force enlistment, another airman raped her. She told no one. She pushed on through her 6-year hitch, earning a rack of medals and serving in Iraq. When she got out of the service, she earned an art degree. Through it all, she fought to block the memories, even as every moment of her life demanded hyper-vigilance. At last, the trauma broke within, and the war against intrusive thoughts, anxiety and dread went badly. Slone ended up in a VA hospital planning suicide. Then a bed opened in the residential treatment program at Fort Thomas. She was doubtful. But she wanted to function in society again. So she walked inside. In confronting post-traumatic stress disorder among military veterans, the Cincinnati VA Medical Center and its Fort Thomas Division stand as important battlements. Last year, more than 5,000 of the 43,000 veterans in Greater Cincinnati received treatment for PTSD at the medical center’s main campus, the Fort Thomas facility and six area clinics. Psychologist Kathleen Chard directs the VA’s Trauma Recovery Center. She is bullish on bringing PTSD under control as she oversees three residential programs for veterans – for men, for veterans with traumatic brain injuries and for women. When the Fort Thomas program for women opened in 2007, it was just the third in the nation. The main reason women veterans seek PTSD treatment is for enduring military sexual trauma – a VA term that includes rape, assault and sexual harassment while in service.

Should we be rationing hepatitis drugs? Obama pressured to end restrictions (The Fiscal Times)
Amid mounting evidence that federal and state authorities are rationing costly new wonder drugs for treating people with the potentially lethal hepatitis C virus, public health experts have begun pressing the White House to intervene to expand the use of Sovaldi and other new medications. An estimated 3.2 million adults are chronically infected with hepatitis C while an estimated 20,000 people die from the serious liver ailment every year, including many military veterans. The New York Times reported on Tuesday that a group of experts from the Public Health Service and President Obama’s Advisory Council on H.I.V./AIDS wrote a letter to the White House complaining that restrictions on the use of these drugs by many states are inconsistent with prudent and sound medical practices. The advisory group members said that the federal government should order states to either relax or eliminate restrictions that delay or deny treatment to low-income Medicaid beneficiaries. They did not address who would pay for such a move. The cost of the new state-of-the art hepatitis C medications – as much as $1,000 a pill or $84,000 for a 12-week treatment – has become a major budget concern for the Department of Veterans Affairs, the federal prison system, Medicare and state Medicaid officials across the country. The VA and many state Medicaid programs have negotiated deep discounts of as much as 40 percent with California-based Gilead Sciences, the manufacturer, for the purchase of Sovaldi and Harvoni, a similarly effective new drug. Yet their overall pharmaceutical costs continue to skyrocket as more and more people seek the treatment, which has an astounding 90 percent success rate and eliminates the need for long-term treatment. While VA and Medicaid officials have denied they are intentionally rationing the drugs to save money, two new studies published in late June by the Annals of Internal Medicine found that most states in fact are picking and choosing which Medicaid patients will be granted access to Sovaldi.

VA won’t release names of doctors performing brain injury exams (KUSA-Denver)
The Denver Veterans Affairs Medical Center has refused to release the names of doctors who are performing initial exams for traumatic brain injuries. KUSA made the request for the medical providers’ names in Colorado after learning unqualified people were preforming similar exams on scores of veterans in Minnesota. The VA’s traumatic brain injury (TBI) screenings are critically important to veterans. If misdiagnosed during an initial Compensation and Pension exam, the veteran will miss out on the monthly disability compensation and medical care they are entitled to receive. Minnesota farmer Wallace “Butch” Hamersma drove over a landmine while serving in Vietnam in 1968. The explosion broke his skull and caused other serious injuries. “First time I looked in the mirror, I thought I done got killed” Hamersma said. “I still got wires up here and in my jaw yet, and they’ll never come out.” Since the Vietnam era, we’ve learned much more about the often invisible — but debilitating impact – of brain injuries. According to the VA’s own rules, only four types of specialists, including neurosurgeons and psychiatrists, are allowed to make the initial diagnosis of a veteran’s traumatic brain injury. Hamersma, who says he still suffers from headaches years after his injury, applied for VA medical care after losing his private insurance in 2012. As part of his initial Compensation and Pension exam, he was screened for a TBI. The results showed “no diagnosis” of “TBI/concussion.” However, the person who performed the exam was a nurse practitioner, not a neurologist. “There’s no excuse; the VA has absolutely no excuse,” Minnesota-based veterans’ attorney Ben Krause said.

Tomah VA shutting psych unit; offering top dollar for psychiatrists (La Crosse Tribune)
Citing staff shortages, the beleaguered Tomah VA Medical Center is closing its inpatient psychiatric unit, halting psychiatric admissions to a residential treatment center and permanently curtailing urgent care hours. The hospital stopped admitting new psych patients Wednesday and will temporarily close the 11-bed unit next week, the VA announced Wednesday. There were two patients in the unit, Tomah VA spokesman Matthew Gowan said. Both would likely be discharged before the Sept. 4 closure, as inpatient stays typically last only a couple of days. Veterans requiring psychiatric treatment will be transferred to VA facilities in Madison and Milwaukee, or to non-VA hospitals if necessary. The VA will also suspend psychiatric admissions to its Community Living Center, a residential long-term care facility, until more staff are added. Gowan stressed that the nursing home would continue accepting veterans with nonpsychiatric needs. In a news release, Interim Director John Rohrer said the moves were necessary to ensure the “safe, high-quality care” that veterans deserve and that the unit would not reopen until “we have the necessary psychiatric staff to do so safely.” “I do not make this decision lightly,” he said. Rohrer has scheduled a news conference for Friday to address the issue. In an effort to recruit psychiatrists, Tomah has increased the starting salary to $240,000, the maximum allowed for a staff physician under the VA’s pay scale. The VA has been under close scrutiny since a Jan. 9 story by the Center for Investigative Reporting detailed high levels of opioid prescription at the Tomah VA — which patients dubbed “Candy Land” because physicians there dispensed prescription painkillers so freely — and a pervasive culture of intimidation and retaliation against employees who spoke out.

Vets to VA: Scrap Choice Card program in Alaska (KTVA-Anchorage)
Eagle River, Alaska, hosted an official hearing for the Senate Veterans Affairs committee Tuesday. Sen. Dan Sullivan said the focus was finding solutions and accountability to many difficulties Alaska’s vets face when they try to get health care. The rollout of the 2014 Choice Card program took a system that was working well in Alaska and broke it, according to Air Force vet Emmet Heidemann. “I got fantastic service from the VA until this Choice program came out,” he said. Heidemann has now been waiting three months just to get an appointment to be fitted with a CPAP breathing machine, and his friends are having the same trouble. “They had such a perfect program before and now they got nothing,” said Heidemann. “That’s from the highest level down to the lowest level. No service.” That’s the kind of feedback VA Undersecretary of Health Dr. David Shulkin heard when he traveled the state this week. Vets went from working with local providers to calling a hotline, where they’ve experienced hang-ups, lost information and long wait times for appointments – if they get an appointment at all. Shulkin says the hearing will give them ideas on how to fix the problems. “The Choice program’s intentions, we believe, are the right ones and that is to work with community providers. It turns out that Alaska has been doing that for a long time and that it was working for a long time, so we’re actually looking to try new ideas,” said Shulkin. Heidemann says forget solutions; just scrap the Choice Card. “Whoever thought the program up – it sounds good in print and it spins a hell of a good story, but it don’t work,” said Heidemann. Shulkin says Congress has asked the VA to come up with a plan to solve the problems with the Choice Card by Nov. 1.

American Legion convention puts spotlight on new generation of vets (The Baltimore Sun)
The American Legion expects to draw thousands of veterans to Baltimore this week for its national convention, where officials plan to show what the organization can offer the newest generation of potential members: the veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq. Michael Hjelmstad, a Marine veteran and American Legion member in Hollywood, Calif., who will be traveling to Baltimore, said the organization is trying to move away from the image of bars haunted by “old veterans telling stories.” (Even though he says his own post has an “amazing” Art Deco bar.) The gathering at the Baltimore Convention Center is the American Legion’s 97th annual convention, but it’s the first since the conclusion of combat operations in Afghanistan last year brought an end to America’s two long wars there and in Iraq. That leaves the American Legion with a question it has faced several times throughout its history: Will the latest cohort of veterans join up? Legion spokesman Henry Howard expects them to sign up, eventually. He describes a Wall Street Journal article during the 1970s that predicted the death of the organization as it struggled to attract Vietnam veterans. Now they’re the largest group of members. “Joining a volunteer organization wasn’t at the top of their list” in the years immediately after the war, Howard said, but over time they began to gravitate toward the group. Howard said the organization is already experiencing strong membership growth among people who were in the military in the past decade. Ten thousand Legion members are expected to attend the convention, which runs through the weekend and into next week. Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, his predecessor, Chuck Hagel, and Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert A. McDonald are scheduled to appear. When the convention’s formal program begins Tuesday, delegates will honor troops who served during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and young veterans will have prominent roles in the proceedings. Noah Galloway, an Army veteran who lost two limbs in an improvised bomb attack in Iraq and appeared on the cover of Men’s Health and was a contestant on “Dancing with the Stars,” will serve as master of ceremonies. Ryan M. Pitts, an Army veteran who won the Medal of Honor for fighting against overwhelming odds in Afghanistan, is scheduled to speak.

VFW Auxiliary opens membership to men (Military Times)
The Ladies Auxiliary for the Veterans of Foreign Wars is now accepting men. Membership in the 101-year-old organization, founded to aid the venerable veterans service organization in its community outreach efforts, had been restricted to wives and female relatives of veterans, a policy that has sparked criticism in recent years from some who saw it as an anachronism from the days before large numbers women served in the armed forces. But VFW members voted at their annual convention in July to drop “Ladies” from the auxiliary name and open the organization to male relatives. The group already boasts about 465,000 members, and expects to grow significantly with the change. “Gender equity is the real issue here,” said VFW National Commander John Biedrzycki Jr. “Right now, nearly 20 percent of those serving are women. We know their family and spouses want to be more involved, so our members overwhelmingly approved this move.” Several local and state chapters had already authorized “Men Auxiliaries” in recent years, and other traditional veterans organizations have founded “Sons of” and related subgroups in response to member requests. But women veterans have long complained that they are assumed to be spouses or daughters of male service members when they attend events with older members, a significant slight as they lobby for better support services from the government and outside groups. “The time has come for this change,” Biedrzycki said. “And this is going to mean more hands, more capacity for the work the auxiliary is already doing.” Auxiliary program director Cara Day said the change in membership policy will not mean a corresponding update in the group’s goals and mission.

Border shelter for women veterans hits a roadblock (Texas Tribune)
Retired Lt. Col. Hope Jackson expected to be helping homeless female veterans in El Paso get back on their feet by now. But her efforts to open a shelter hit a snag when fundraising fell short, and she lost out on a contract with the local veterans administration. That Jackson didn’t get the nod wasn’t as much of a surprise to her as who did: a privately run company on the city’s outskirts located next to a halfway house. She sees the decision as a sign that, despite the growing number of female veterans in Texas, their unique needs are not being met when they face challenges transitioning to civilian life. In October 2011, Jackson paid $70,000 for a house near El Paso’s Fort Bliss on the city’s northeast side with plans to turn it into a shelter for women veterans. She hoped to have the eight-bed facility, called the HOPE Institute, finished by December 2014. Her plan calls for programs including classes on topics ranging from basic hygiene to finances and credit repair, homeownership and career searching. The first 16 weeks would be free, Jackson said. After that, tenants will need to have a job and help with rent. But funds and volunteers fell short. Jackson applied for a contract with the El Paso Veteran’s Administration that would have helped her finish the facility, she said. She passed the VA’s inspection and the City of El Paso signed off on the project. Ultimately, however, Jackson says she was told she didn’t have enough experience to run a shelter, though she believes the decision had more to do with her plan to do more than just provide residents a temporary roof. “’We don’t need all that other stuff [you’re] trying to do, we just need to house these people,’” Jackson said she was told. The contract was instead awarded April 1 to Avalon Correctional Services, a private company that operates its shelter next to a halfway house whose residents include convicted sex offenders. The $137,000 contract is for one year with an option to renew for three more, said Robert Miller, a VA contracting officer.

Inspection report finds some errors in Wichita VA payments to vets (Wichita Eagle)
The Wichita Veterans Affairs Regional Office does pretty well in paying out benefits to veterans, according to an inspection report released Wednesday. The inspection found several errors, but some resulted in overpayments to veterans. The national VA Office of Inspector General studied a sample of claims at the Wichita office as part of a program it started five years ago to inspect benefits at regional offices every three years. This was the second inspection conducted in Wichita. The report emphasized that it’s not an all-encompassing review of the Wichita claims office because it only looks for common errors. Karen Townsend, director of the Wichita VA Regional Office, said her office already has fixed all of the claim errors found in the inspection when national inspectors visited in December. Townsend and Stacey Bonnett, veterans service center manager for the Wichita VA, said staff members have already worked to address all the problems found in the inspection. Overall, the inspectors found that the Wichita office inaccurately processed two of the three types of claims it reviewed. It did not accurately process claims known as “temporary 100 percent disability evaluations” and “special monthly compensation.” No problems were found with claims involving traumatic brain injuries. In fact, only one problem was found out of 30 traumatic brain injury claims, a significant improvement from the 2012 inspection that showed half the samples contained errors. In some cases, the mistakes favored the veterans. The inspection found that 12 out of 72 claims reviewed contained processing inaccuracies. That resulted in $73,700 of overpayments to veterans between February 2011 and December 2014.

Ben Carson: We don’t need a Department of Veterans Affairs (The Daily Caller)
Ben Carson stated that, “We don’t need a Department of Veterans Affairs. Veterans Affairs should be folded in under the Department of Defense” in order to reduce the size of the government. Carson, appearing on the “Dave Ramsey Show” Wednesday, stated there needs to be a support system for soldiers that should assist “a year before their time of discharge to be working on their integration back into society. There shouldn’t be a period of unemployment when they come out of the military.” More from Carson: “And they should have a health savings account which allows them to go to any medical facility in the country and we should be delighted to take care of them. And we should use our VA facilities for specialized care for traumatic brain injury, limb replacements, and research.”

N.Y. doctors’ group wants veterans hospitals in drug database (The Washington Times)
A New York doctors’ group is urging that Veterans Administration hospitals and medical facilities join the new statewide database intended to prevent patients from getting excess painkiller prescriptions by shopping among multiple physicians. The New York State Academy of Family Physicians in a letter has asked Secretary Robert McDonald to require VA facilities in the state to participate. The group, which says it represents more than 6,000 physicians, residents and students in family medicine, says New York like other states is in the midst of a prescription drug epidemic. That’s related in part to increased prescriptions for opiods. New York’s system requires other doctors, physician assistants and nurse practitioners to check patient records in the statewide database before prescribing painkillers, with pharmacists responsible for recording related prescriptions they fill.