Ben Carson: Veterans’ health care needs bold reform (USA Today)
Commentary by Ben Carson: “A few days before Labor Day, as Americans prepared for the end of summer, we learned that some 300,000 U.S. veterans might have died while waiting for health care at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Yet due to “generally unreliable” VA data and ineffective systems, even this critical statistic could not be confirmed. These disturbing findings, revealed in a report by the agency’s inspector general, confirm the urgency for VA reform. When it comes to veterans care, Americans are rightfully outraged, and can no longer be content with business as usual: We must seek — and our veterans deserve — real improvements that are bold and long-lasting. During my career as a neurosurgeon, I worked at VA hospitals as a medical student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and again in Baltimore. Both my internship and residency at Johns Hopkins involved actual patient care as well as supervising resident physicians attending at VA hospital facilities. I sat at the bedside of many veterans and witnessed their selflessness, their sacrifice and their need for extraordinary care. Their anguish was my anguish. … These failures cannot stand. The VA is like the federal version of the Department of Motor Vehicles: inefficient, incompetent and infuriating. Except the VA is much worse: at least the DMV’s long wait times do not kill its applicants. At a minimum, the Veterans Health Administration (the entity in the VA that provides health care) should be eliminated to forge a 21st century veterans health care solution. Such a significant organizational change no doubt requires further study and consideration, and I will be providing more details in the weeks and months to come. Meanwhile, the following improvements can and should be made immediately. The health of our brave men and women veterans deserve no less.”
Why the VA death toll will keep on rising (New York Post)
Commentary by Betsy McCaughey: “Robert McDonald, head of the Veterans Administration, claims he’s making “great progress” delivering health care to vets and turning around the agency’s mismanagement and corruption. Don’t believe him. Right now, more than 35,000 combat vets who are automatically eligible for VA care are stuck on hold because the enrollment process is broken beyond belief. It’s been going on for years. A new Inspector General’s report shows the VA system can’t even tell when an applicant has died, or when the VA has mistakenly erased an application before it can provide any help. These flaws have harmed hundreds of thousands of veterans. The IG report concluded that the VA lacks the management “to ensure the consistent creation and maintenance of essential data.” Any company with that problem would go out of business — and its CEO would be looking for another job. Why isn’t McDonald? His cluelessness was on display at a recent Senate hearing, where he boasted that he’s holding VA cheats and incompetents accountable. First, he said, “We’ve terminated over 140,000” in the past year. What? That would be nearly half the VA workforce. An incredulous Sen. Johnny Isakson, head of the Senate Committee of Veterans Affairs, asked, “But isn’t it true that it’s almost impossible for you to fire somebody under current law?” McDonald squirmed and said, “That actual number fired is 1,800.” A few minutes later, he stammered, “I mean 1,400.” It got worse. McDonald corrected himself twice more, saying “1,755 employees have been terminated,” and then “755 is the number that’s been terminated.” It’s clear he has no handle on his own agency’s data.”
Accountability bill brings urgent reforms to VA (Tampa Bay Times)
Column by Diego Echeverri: “There hasn’t been nearly enough progress in fixing the Department of Veterans Affairs since last year’s wait-list scandal. In fact, the VA has actually gotten worse. Wait times for health care are up, budgetary problems abound, and veteran disability claims are literally being thrown out. It’s hard to have confidence in an organization where these stories have become so common. Congress and President Barack Obama finally have a chance to change that, however, with the VA Accountability Act. Unlike many veterans bills passed in recent years, the VA Accountability Act actually reforms the VA by making it easier to fire bad VA employees and empowering whistle-blowers to report wrongdoing. This should be an obvious priority for Congress. Fortunately, Florida’s congressional delegation has played an important role in introducing and advancing the VA Accountability Act. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican, is the primary Senate sponsor of the bill, and a bipartisan majority of Florida’s House delegation voted for the legislation when it passed the House in July. However, Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat who has actively sought to uncover wrongdoing at the VA, hasn’t yet indicated whether he supports the VA Accountability Act. Considering his past support for VA reform, including a similar bill that targeted senior VA executives, this should be a no-brainer for Sen. Nelson. The VA continues to fail Florida’s 1.5 million veterans, which is why the act is needed. Just look at recent headlines.”
VA trying to go paperless for disability benefits, but costs are out of control (The Daily Caller)
The Department of Veterans Affairs is in danger of not meeting its goal of eliminating the disability backlog by the end of 2015, and costs continue to climb, a new inspector general report has found. Back in 2009, the VA kicked off an effort to modernize its benefits claims system to a paperless system with the goal of increasing efficiency and reducing errors. With a paperless system, the VA hopes to bring up accuracy in claims processing to 98 percent and to eliminate the backlog entirely by the end of 2015. The VA proposed 40 different initiatives to complete the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS) While claims have been reduced, it’s not clear that VBMS had anything to do with the reduction, as no metrics exist to make that judgment. Since 2009, the costs of modernization have ballooned from $579.2 million to $1.3 billion in 2015 — a 120 percent increase — because of poor cost controls and contracting practices as well as abrupt changes in business requirements. The future is not promising. “Given the changing requirements and competing priorities that have repeatedly changed the scope and direction of the program, VBMS costs continue to spiral upward and final end-state costs remain unknown,” the inspector general’s report noted. Simply put, the VA has prioritized bringing the backlog down over fiscal prudence, which led the department to engage in shoddy contracting practices. The VA often neglected to perform market analyses to determine if contracts were in the best interests of the government.Additionally, the software is plagued with performance problems. Constant delays leading to system crashes make life difficult for VA employees. Some users refer to the system lockups as the “spinning eagle of death,” which is the VA seal displayed during operations. “Such issues forced users to frequently reboot and relogin to the system, resulting in frustration and potential claims processing delays,” the report said. Slow development has resulted in additional costs since legacy systems require maintenance alongside the VBMS.
McDonald talks greatest challenge to VA health care system (San Antonio Express-News)
In the coming years as American veterans grow older, the Veterans Affairs Department could struggle to care for them unless it modernizes, VA Secretary Robert McDonald said Monday. “The VA is a canary in the coal mine for American medicine,” McDonald said during a visit to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. “The aging of the veteran and the aging of the American population is going to put a strain on medical care.” To avert a crisis, the VA has developed a five-point plan that draws on the experience of Fortune 500 companies and partnerships with the private sector to streamline how the agency provides care. Starbucks and Disney, among other companies, are being sought out for their positive reputations with customers and employees, McDonald said. Also under review is internal support services, including a scheduling system that dates to 1985 and a financial management system that uses an operating language few in the VA understand, McDonald said. Even with these changes, the former Procter & Gamble executive said the VA is unlikely to improve care for veterans, especially the nearly 10 million over 65, without strategic partnerships. “In the past, the VA saw many of our private-sector providers as competition,” McDonald said. “We don’t do that anymore.” McDonald joined Gov. Greg Abbott and a Texas congressional delegation who visited the VA Health Care Center in Harlingen and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley medical school. Affiliations with medical schools, such as the newly created one at UTRGV, offer critical residencies for doctor training — about 70 percent of all doctors were trained in the VA system, McDonald said. With the proposed changes, McDonald hopes to repair the image of an agency mired in bureaucracy even as it has fallen under sharp scrutiny in recent years.
Don’t cut corners on veterans’ hearing care (Roll Call)
Commentary by Neil DiSarno: “If you need a heart stent, you go to a cardiologist. If you tear your ACL, you go to an orthopedist. If you have hearing difficulties, you go to an audiologist. That last sentence is worth repeating: You go to an audiologist. You don’t go to “hearing aid dealers” or “hearing aid specialists” or “hearing instrument specialists.” Yet that’s precisely what hearing aid dispensers and some lawmakers are proposing as an option for the tens of thousands of U.S. veterans seeking care for hearing ailments. For years, veterans with hearing loss or tinnitus — two of the top service-related disabilities — would be referred to audiologists for treatment. That’s as it should be. Today, in the wake of more than a dozen years of Gulf War conflicts, about 350,000 returning service members have reported tinnitus and another 250,000 have reported hearing loss, according to the Department of Defense. With this tsunami of need, the VA was overwhelmed, and some veterans experienced lengthy wait times for care or devices. To address this, Reps. Sean P. Duffy, R-Wis., and Tim Walz, D-Minn., introduced the well-intended, but ill-conceived, HR 353. What it would do is allow technicians — instead of audiologists — to independently see these veterans. The Senate version is S 564. The legislation is unwise and unnecessary.”
Two more die from Legionnaire’s at Illinois veterans home (Chicago Sun-Times)
The Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs says that two more veterans’ home residents have died from Legionnaires’ disease. That increases the number of recent deaths from the water-borne illness in Quincy to 12. Eleven of those who have died from Legionnaires since August in the Mississippi River city lived at the Illinois Veterans’ Home. The bacteria have sickened another 45 people there, including five workers, in addition to the eleven who died at the home. Separately, public health officials say four other cases of Legionnaires’ disease in Quincy, including the additional fatality, are not connected to the larger outbreak. All of the elderly residents who died had underlying health conditions that made them more susceptible to the severe form of pneumonia. The source of the outbreak remains unknown as environmental tests continue.
This nonprofit utilizes veterans’ skills for emergency response (New York Post)
When scores of houses were destroyed in Oklahoma after tornadoes hit in May, Coast Guard veteran Todd Adrian dropped his duties as a pharmaceutical marketing director and headed west to see what he could do to help. “My co-workers all know I use all my vacation days to respond to tornadoes,” said Adrian, 41, who for two weeks led a group of chainsaw operators removing trees that threatened structures. “It fulfills a need I have; it gives me the sense I’ve contributed.” The Bloomfield, N.J., resident is one of some 30,000 veterans who volunteer for Team Rubicon, a disaster-relief nonprofit founded by Marine veterans Jake Wood and William McNulty in 2010 after the devastating earthquakes in Haiti. Since then, Team Rubicon has deployed more than 100 disaster-relief operations around the world, with most in the US. After Hurricane Sandy, for example, 350 Team Rubicon volunteers helped communities in the New York City area. Wood and McNulty realized early on that the help they provided in Haiti was also transforming themselves and the other vets who were with them. “This was not just a mission helping disaster victims — it was also giving a sense of identity to the veterans who had come along,” says Ken Harbaugh, Team Rubicon’s chief operations officer and a Navy vet. “That’s what made me very interested in Team Rubicon.” It was also the draw for Navy veteran Lawrence Ksiez of Elmhurst, Queens. “On their Web site it says, ‘You gain purpose.’ You lose that camaraderie [you had in] the service, and I gained that back,” says Ksiez. “I was looking for purpose.”
Dreams for veterans: Honoring the final dreams for those who served (VA.gov)
Eighty-two-year-old Arkansas resident Gerald was diagnosed with end-stage coronary artery disease. He came to us with a simple yet powerful dream request: to reconnect with aspects of his former military service by revisiting the USS Laffey at Patriot’s Point, South Carolina. Gerald had served on the USS Laffey from 1950-1954 as a sailor in the U.S. Navy, working as a machinist mate in the engine room. He traveled the world on that ship and saw three tours in Korea during the war. His final dream was to walk the decks one last time, 60 years after the culmination of his service. “I just wanted to come back and see actually what happened to me in my early 20s,” Gerald said. “I think the bottom line was the four years changed me. I was a different person when I left.” Gerald’s Navy experiences included a 28-day stretch when, from off the Korean coast, he remembers the Laffey pouring shells at targets on the mainland. He described how the ship would roll from side to side when the guns were fired and how he would go out with a couple of other sailors in small wooden boats to clear mines. It had to be done at night, he recalls, with no lights and no weapons except for knives. He said the metal from the guns might have exploded the floating mines. We arranged for Gerald and his daughter’s reunion aboard the USS Laffey, including a special tour, catered luncheon, and the opportunity to share stories with members of the press and in an oral history interview. Father and daughter then spent the weekend touring Patriot’s Point, where Gerald became an instant local celebrity. Members of the community stopped him frequently as they recognized him and wanted to thank him for his service. We are honored to help support veterans like Gerald by giving them the opportunity to share their stories and receive acknowledgement for their military service. In addition to referring applicants, you can learn more about how you can participate in honoring and acknowledging a Veteran dream recipient or how you can help spread the word in your community by visiting www.dreamfoundation.org/veterans or calling (888) 4DREAMS/(888) 437-3267.
Texas woman stole $141,000 in veterans’ benefits (San Antonio Express-News)
A San Antonio nurse appointed by the Veterans Affairs Department to administer the finances of veterans who were deemed incompetent or incapacitated has agreed to plead guilty to stealing more than $140,000 of their benefits over five years. Cornelia V. Hurling, 58, has signed a plea deal in which she admits she spent much of it on personal expenses: a business she ran, meals, movie rentals and lawn services, for example. The VA claims she stole $141,734 directly or by taking excessive fiduciary fees. Hurling is scheduled to plead guilty Wednesday before U.S. Magistrate Judge John Primomo to one count of misappropriation by a VA fiduciary, which is punishable by a maximum of five years in federal prison. A separate charge of embezzling from the government is to be dismissed. Neither Hurling nor her Houston lawyer were available for comment. Between Jan. 1, 2008, and Sept. 20, 2013, Hurling, a licensed vocational nurse, served as a fiduciary appointed by the VA to administer the financial affairs of at least 22 veterans who were deemed incompetent or who were otherwise incapable of handling their own financial affairs, her plea deal said. In July 2013, the VA’s Office of Inspector General found Hurling had not submitted mandatory accounting statements for 12 of those veterans, including bank account statements for the previous four or five years. She had opened bank accounts for all 22, but she was also the signatory on a business bank account for Educational Health Care or EHC, which she incorporated in Texas in July 2008 and served as director, and an account she shared with her daughter, the plea paperwork said. A review of her business and personal accounts showed Hurling was the primary user, and that she deposited money from veterans’ accounts into the EHC account in amounts greater than her VA-authorized fiduciary fee.
A long road from Marines to college (Marketplace.org)
Marketplace’s Amy Scott has been reporting on how an expensive private college in New York has been trying to make its campus more inclusive. Vassar College has been working with a group called the Posse Foundation to bring military veterans to campus in supportive groups known as posses. It’s safe to say those veterans often don’t match the typical profile of a Vassar student. Keith Kohlmann is now a sophomore. He’s 32 years old, engaged with two kids and served in the Marine Corps for five years. He also spent years battling drug addiction after an injury from a fight toward the end of his service left him hooked on painkillers. Within a year of leaving the Marines, “I had lost everything,” he says. Now clean for almost five years and a sophomore at Vassar, Kohlmann is studying economics and hopes to work in banking. “You have to be willing to sacrifice a lot, and if you’re not, don’t even bother,” he says of the academic demands. “My family is willing to sacrifice, because it’s better for all of our futures.”