VA chief blasts ‘political’ proposal to privatize the Department (Military.com)
Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald on Thursday rejected criticism from a political advocacy group that has called for privatizing the department. McDonald made his comments during an interview at The Newseum in Washington, D.C., where Politico White House Correspondent Mike Allen cited “a 10-page document of VA low-lights” given to him by Concerned Veterans for America, an Arlington, Virginia-based based organization that favors market-based federal policies. “First of all, you have to understand the political nature of the Concerned Veterans for America,” McDonald said. “I’ve met with [CVA Chief Executive Officer] Peter Hegseth many times. I know the people that back him politically, who fund his organization. We are not in favor of privatizing the VA.” The secretary didn’t go into detail, though his reference to those supporting the group likely refers to reports that it has largely been funded by Koch Brothers’ organizations. Hegseth hit back at McDonald’s remarks, saying it was disingenuous of him to avoid criticism of VA health care by claiming the group is politically motivated. He said the group wants to give veterans a choice in using the private sector, not privatize the VA. “It is disappointing that Secretary McDonald chose to once again blatantly mischaracterize CVA’s bipartisan comprehensive VA reform plan – the Veterans Independence Act,” he said in an email. “However, it is not totally surprising considering that Secretary McDonald has a history of struggling with the truth,” he added, referring to McDonald’s statement in February that he served with Army Special Forces. The secretary, a West Point graduate, served with the 82nd Airborne. In February, the organization released a plan for improving VA health care that included converting the department into a government-chartered nonprofit and creating a premium-supported insurance option for eligible veterans who want to use private-sector health care.
McCain bill would let all veterans seek care outside VA (Military.com)
Just before Congress leaves town for a month, Sen. John McCain introduced a bill Thursday that could increase the controversy over how to fix the Department of Veterans Affairs, proposing that all veterans be eligible to have private care paid for by their VA insurance. Currently, veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility and those who face long wait times can apply to seek medical care in the private sector on their VA insurance. That was part of the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014, a three-year pilot program that McCain, R-Ariz., championed as a way to give veterans faster, more convenient access to health care and to make it easier to fire senior VA officials. McCain’s latest bill would make the choice card pilot program permanent and erase the qualifications in the 2014 law, opening the option to every VA eligible veteran. “This would help remove uncertainty from within the VA, among providers, and especially among our veterans, while sending a strong signal to all Americans that this program is here to stay,” McCain said in a released statement. “More than a year after the VA scandal first came to light and a year since VA reform legislation was signed into law, wait times are still too long and veterans are still not getting the care they have earned and deserve.” Veterans groups seemed caught off guard by the bill Thursday, and many contacted said they had not yet taken a position on the proposed legislation. In the past, most veterans advocates have come out strongly against privatizing VA health care, and this bill appears to put much more emphasis on paying for private health care for veterans.
Editorial: VA continues to resist reform at all costs (El Paso Times)
“The French army at Verdun in 1916 wasn’t this deeply entrenched. In two separate developments last month, the Veterans Administration demonstrated yet again that its concrete-encased bureaucracy is willing and able to resist reform at all costs. Early in July, Department of Veterans Affairs inspectors produced a 35-page analysis of the private-care alternative Congress created in 2014 to help alleviate the enormous backlog of veterans seeking health care through the VA. Inspectors found the program, designed as a release valve for the crush of VA patients, was itself awash in delays and incompetence. Research of patients seeking care through nine VA facilities found tens of thousands of authorized doctor visits were never scheduled or carried out. As reported by The Arizona Republic’s Dennis Wagner, one private contractor took an average of 146 days to return 50 unfilled-appointment authorizations for oncology patients. In another case cited in the report, 94 of 150 rheumatology appointments booked by one private provider involved waits greater than 30 days. Has nothing changed with the VA? Government-supplied care? Private care? It all appears the same. No one, it seems, can provide prompt, quality health care to American veterans. At first blush, anyway.”
Investigators blame Tomah VA failures for death (Appleton Post Crescent)
An investigation by the chief watchdog at the Department of Veterans Affairs concluded a series of failures at the Tomah VA contributed to the death last year of 35-year-old Marine Corps veteran Jason Simcakoski from mixed drug toxicity. Psychiatrists treating Simcakoski prescribed what could have been a fatal mixture of depressants and did not warn him or his family members about the potential adverse effects, the inspector general’s report released Thursday states. In addition, when providers found him unresponsive, they did not immediately perform cardio pulmonary resuscitation or use an in-room emergency call system. Staff also did not quickly try and assess cardiac activity with defibrillation pads and drugs to revive Simcakoski were not available in the unit where he was staying and so weren’t administered until more than half an hour after he was found unresponsive. “Our inspection’s results were consistent with the medical examiner’s conclusion that the patient’s cause of death was mixed drug toxicity,” the inspector general said in his report. “Additionally, we found deficiencies in the informed consent process and cardiopulmonary resuscitation efforts.” Simcakoski died Aug. 30, 2014 as an inpatient in the Tomah VA’s psychiatric unit. His death, chronicled in news reports earlier this year, prompted national scrutiny and an overhaul of prescription practices at the facility. Representatives from the inspector general’s office briefed Simcakoski’s parents and widow on the results Thursday evening before releasing them. “I feel some comfort knowing they have admitted they failed Jason,” his widow, Heather Fluty Simcakoski, said afterward. “It doesn’t bring him back but I know it’s a step closer to getting justice for him… It was heartbreaking to relive but at least we now have some answers.”
VA retaliation against whistleblower alleged in sworn statement (AZCentral.com)
A former official at the Department of Veterans Affairs medical center in Phoenix has signed a sworn statement alleging that the hospital’s acting director sought to fire or suspend a mental-health staffer just hours after the employee appeared on a television newscast criticizing VA suicide-prevention efforts. Laurie Butler, who served as acting human resources officer for the Phoenix VA Health Care System, wrote in an Aug. 3 affidavit that top administrators met on Jan. 13 to discuss options the morning after whistleblower Brandon Coleman complained that suicidal veterans were not being properly handled. Butler’s declaration says the hospital’s interim director, Glen Grippen, was joined during the meeting by Chief of Staff Darren Deering, VA regional counsel Shelley Cutts and others. According to the statement, Grippen told the group “he wanted to discuss what he could do about Coleman’s actions and asked if it were possible to remove Coleman from employment. At the least, Grippen wanted to know if he could put Coleman on administrative leave.” The affidavit says Cutts responded that, under the federal Whistleblower Protection Act, Coleman could not be fired for speaking to the media, but he could be removed or suspended for unrelated misconduct. Three weeks later, Coleman was accused of having an altercation with a colleague. He was suspended pending an investigation, and his treatment program for veterans convicted of substance abuse was shut down. Coleman said he has since been cleared of misconduct, but remains on paid leave.
McDonald stays focused on long-term, not 2016 election (Military Times)
Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald may have only 16 months left to accomplish an overhaul of his department, but he’s not looking at the calendar yet. “I don’t know that I’m going to be gone (after the 2016 presidential election),” McDonald told audience members at a Politico media forum Thursday. “And I’m not acting like I will be gone.” His comments came just days after the one-year anniversary of his appointment to the top VA post. His confirmation was unanimous in the Senate, and the former Procter & Gamble CEO made repairing congressional relations one of his top priorities in the ensuing months, reaching out to lawmakers in both parties in an effort to accelerate reform efforts through Capitol Hill. “I’m not a political person,” McDonald said Thursday. “My political party is veterans.” Those efforts have met with mixed success. Veterans groups have privately begun floating the idea of the next commander in chief keeping McDonald on as part of the new Cabinet, to maintain the steady improvements they’ve seen in the last year. But McDonald also has come under blistering attacks from critics who say reforms aren’t happening quickly enough, and accusations that he’s more interested in defending the bureaucracy than fixing its problems. The latest fight came in recent weeks as department leaders requested about $3 billion in funding transfers to cover shortfalls caused by an increase in the number of veterans using non-VA medical care programs. Congress approved the funding patch just before the start of its August recess, but only after weeks of criticism from Republicans and Democrats that the VA hasn’t been able to anticipate its fiscal needs, even with steady budget hikes over the last decade. Conservatives also have accused McDonald of trying to undermine the new Choice Card program, approved last year to give veterans more options to seek medical care outside the VA. McDonald brushed off those allegations. “Last year, VA mismanagement was not getting enough veterans care. This year, mismanagement is getting too many veterans care,” he quipped. “Congress has a role to play in this. We need to work together to identify what needs to be done. But I don’t have much tolerance for using veterans as political pawns.”
VA secretary: We need to simplify our website (NextGov)
The Department of Veterans Affairs needs to make its online services easier for veterans to navigate, VA Secretary Robert McDonald said Thursday during an event hosted by Politico. “If I went to a veteran and said, ‘What’s Blue Button?’ they would have no idea,” he said, referring to the service that lets veterans download their electronic medical records. “Our websites have unusual names,” he said, referring to MyHealtheVet, which has access portals for health records, prescriptions and other services. “What’s wrong with ‘veterans.gov,’ or ‘vets.gov’?” he asked, adding, “let’s look at everything from the lens of the customer” instead of the bureaucracy. McDonald also addressed VA’s upcoming update to its outdated medical appointment scheduling system, which led to delayed care for veterans in reports surfacing last year. “We’ve taken a two-track approach — one track is to put in fixes to our current system knowing that’s not the solution,” he said, though “it’s the fastest approach.” Separately, he said, VA is looking for an off-the-shelf scheduling system and plans to begin deploying it by 2016. The department currently has a smartphone app for scheduling appointments, he added.”Just like we need to make things simpler for veterans, we have to make things simpler for our employees,” McDonald said.
American Legion conducting survey on vets’ PTSD, TBI care (Military.com)
The American Legion is conducting a new national survey of veterans and their families to assess the care they are receiving from the Veterans Affairs Department for traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. Louis Celli, director of Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation for The American Legion, said the findings will provide the Legion’s PTSD/TBI Committee with an understanding of veteran satisfaction with VA mental health care in time for the organization’s national symposium on the issue later this year in Washington, D.C. “Veterans [will be] asked to identify treatment programs they are using and to rate quality, access and timeliness of care,” Celli said. The 59-question survey is the Legion’s second dealing with TBI and PTSD. Last June its survey of 3,100 veterans found that 59 percent of respondents reported feeling no improvement or feeling worse after undergoing TBI and PTSD treatment. It also found that 30 percent of respondents ended their treatment before it was completed. “The last survey was definitely impactful and was referenced several times by Congress while introducing new legislation to improve PTSD programs,” Celli said on Wednesday. Celli also said that the Legion’s 2014 findings that treatments were often ineffective are validated by a newly released study by the Journal of the American Medical Association. The Legion’s new survey, which may be accessed by veterans and their families through Aug. 16, are mostly multiple-choice and can be answered with a single click from a drop down menu.
Idaho residents protest vet’s possible gun confiscation by VA (Fox News)
A group of residents in northern Idaho lined up outside a U.S. Navy veteran’s house on Thursday to protest claims that federal officials are planning on confiscating the man’s weapons. Idaho Republican state Rep. Heather Scott of Blanchard said the Veteran Affairs office has sent a letter to John Arnold of Priest River warning him that he cannot possess or purchase firearms. The protest — spearheaded by Scott — attracted roughly 100 people. Veteran Affairs spokesman Bret Bowers confirmed a letter had been sent to Arnold from the VA’s benefits office in Salt Lake City, but he said that VA policy prohibits discussing individual health records without consent. Bowers added that the agency doesn’t have the authority to confiscate weapons. “We don’t send officers to confiscate weapons. We are about providing health care to health care,” he said. Currently, the Veterans Affairs Department can bar veterans from purchasing guns if they are declared incompetent. However, this authority has been criticized by Second Amendment advocates. Most recently, Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas proposed legislation that would require court action before barring gun purchases by veterans declared incompetent. “This does happen sometimes, where the VA sends out a letter,” said Bryan Hult, veteran services officer for Bonner County. “Especially if a veteran has dementia … and a fiduciary has to be appointed to manage finances like a pension and income. You wouldn’t want that person to be in possession of a gun.”
GEICO launches veterans IT development program (Business Wire)
The pathway to career success for military veterans often has its share of obstacles and uncertainty. To assist veterans interested in building a career in information technology (IT), GEICO is launching a Veteran’s IT Professional Development program. “Since our doors opened in 1936, GEICO has always had a strong relationship with the members of our armed forces personnel. So providing these men and women with real career opportunities is very important to us,” said Greg Kalinsky, GEICO’s senior vice president and CIO. “The Veterans IT Development program will help build their foundation in IT from the ground up through comprehensive training, mentoring and hands-on technical experience.” The Veteran’s IT Professional Development program is a 12-month learning platform that brings veterans on as full-time GEICO associates. The program provides the skills and experience required to perform as an IT professional through a blend of classroom work and real-world experience. Veterans participating will work in all areas of GEICO’s IT department including: information services, systems operations and internet business divisions. Participants will also be assigned mentors and receive supplemental training depending on their project assignments. The program is based at GEICO’s corporate headquarters in Chevy Chase, Md. A college degree is not required nor is previous IT experience. GEICO will be recruiting military veterans for an additional class in the Fall.