Study: After scandal, veteran wait times for VA care is actually worse (The Washington Post)
Veterans who are seeking care for everything from post-traumatic stress disorder to cancer may face even longer wait times in the coming years for help from the overburdened Department of Veterans Affairs, according to a highly critical 4,000 page VA-commissioned study of veterans health care. The report finds that VA facilities cost twice the norm for public facilities, a claim that will likely re-launch a debate about moving towards privatizing some VA services. The findings also contradict the VA’s claims that the majority of patients are satisfied with the care they receive. The wide-ranging study was commissioned after the VA’s largest scandal to date, sparked national outrage and shook up the agency tasked with caring for former troops. The study represents the best collection of information and analysis of the veterans care system since at least the Dole-Shalala report in 2007, if not before, said Phillip Carter, a veteran and senior fellow and counsel at the Center for a New American Security. “It’s an enormous report that shows the range of stresses on the VA, from demographic change among veterans to leadership and culture challenges within the VA health system,” he said. “The big questions are whether [Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert] McDonald’s reform efforts are enough to fix these issues, and whether these reforms have enough time to work before a new leadership team takes over VA in 2017,” he continued. The report says that of 6 of 10 patient-centered measures, on average, patients in VA hospitals reported significantly less favorable experiences with the care they received than did patients in non-VA hospitals. It also includes quotes from employees who highlight the need for whistleblowers to be protected and feel secure in shinning the light on problems. This problem lead to the wait-times scandal last year, veterans groups and VA employees say. “At almost every facility visited, at least one leader interviewed mentioned that risk aversion and a reluctance to “speak up” were a significant issue. This culture permeates across all levels—from the front lines to Medical Center leaders to people at the VHA Central Office—and it contributes to a lack of innovation and best-practice dissemination across the organization,” the report says.
VA failure to protect whistleblowers draws strong rebuke from Special Counsel (AZCentral.com)
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel on Thursday delivered a scathing letter to President Barack Obama, ripping the Department of Veterans Affairs for its failure to punish administrators who retaliate against Phoenix whistleblowers. Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said officials at the Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center in Phoenix investigated, transferred and harassed Dr. Katherine Mitchell after she reported that emergency patients were being endangered and hurt because nurses were not adequately trained in triage procedures. “I am concerned by the VA’s decision to take no disciplinary action against responsible officials,” Lerner wrote. “The lack of accountability for the Hayden VAMC leaders sends the wrong message to veterans served by this facility, including those who received substandard emergency care.” Lerner said the VA Office of Medical Inspector eventually verified allegations by Mitchell, after she was removed from her post as acting director of the Emergency Department. Investigators found that none of the ER nurses had completed a nationally recognized triage training regimen, and “only 11 of the 31 nurses had completed any triage training at all.” Mitchell, among several Arizona VA employees who launched a national furor over medical care for veterans, was harassed and abused for two years. She eventually received a settlement and new position at the department, but no one was disciplined for her mistreatment. Lerner’s missive comes one day after the chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs sent an equally critical letter to VA Secretary Bob McDonald. In that correspondence, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., noted an “alarming rise” in the number of reprisal complaints filed by VA whistleblowers, and demanded answers to 10 questions. In 2014, OSC received more retaliation complaints from VA whistleblowers than from the Defense Department, which has twice as many civilian employees. This year, more than 37 percent of the reprisal complaints lodged by all federal employees are coming from VA personnel.
No more retaliation: VA Accountability Act would protect whistleblowers (The Hill)
Commentary by VA whistleblower Brandon Coleman: “In January I went public with my concerns about how my employer, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Health Care System in Phoenix, was failing to address the needs of suicidal veterans. It was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made—and I paid the price when VA officials retaliated against me. As an addiction counselor with the Phoenix VA since 2009, I’ve received positive feedback from the veterans I serve and in my personnel reviews. But after exposing the VA’s failures to care for veterans in need, I have been subjected to harassment and intimidation from my superiors, who placed me on “administrative leave” on flimsy grounds. I was not entirely surprised. I had heard the horror stories of how VA officials punish employees deemed a “problem.” Whistleblowers recount sudden transfers and reassignments, having their computers confiscated and other forms of harassment. That’s why whistleblowers must be afforded the highest level of protection against reprisals. And it’s why Congress and the president must enact those stronger protections through the VA Accountability Act—so that other truth-tellers aren’t forced to undergo what I faced.”
Report: VA may have overpaid for hospital site in Kentucky (Louisville Courier-Journal)
A federal investigation shows that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs might have overpaid more than $3 million for a controversial site for a new veteran’s medical center in Louisville and violated its own policies about appraising and acquiring the property. Further, a $2,447 review of two appraisals the VA obtained after buying the site was a “waste of the taxpayer’s money” since it came nearly two years after it had already purchased the property, the investigation found. The findings come in a report by the VA’s Office of Inspector General and are likely to renew debate about the 36-acre site proposed to replace the VA’s aging medical center off Zorn Avenue. Many residents from the area have fiercely opposed the project at the Watterson Expressway because of heavy traffic congestion and questioned the $12.9 million price the VA paid for the vacant tract in 2102. U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, who requested the inspector general’s investigation, said the report “makes it clear that the appraisal process was severely flawed, costing taxpayers millions of dollars.” Yarmuth, a Democrat who represents Louisville’s 3rd District, said he plans to seek further information from the VA and ensure all regulations are followed going forward on the hospital project. “We cannot afford to see another dollar or moment wasted when it comes to providing our veterans with the care they need and deserve,” he said. The report released Thursday doesn’t indicate whether the findings could delay the construction of the new medical center.
VA, defense press programs to help prevent veteran suicides (WTOP-Washington)
He walked out of the Veterans Affairs Maryland Health Care System in Baltimore frustrated and desperate. The veteran was about to take his life, recalled Nikole Jones, the suicide prevention coordinator for the center. “It was a very scary moment,” Jones said. The VA police set out to look for the veteran and found him near the Amtrak tracks, Jones said. Thankfully, the outcome was positive. But this is just one incident of many that Jones has witnessed. September is Suicide Prevention Month and Jones is bringing suicide awareness to local VA facilities around Maryland by providing training to the staff on prevention and safety planning by teaching them warning signs and risk factors of a veteran thinking about committing suicide. It’s part of a nationwide effort by the Departments of Veteran Affairs and Defense to boost awareness of veterans at risk of suicide. It is estimated that 22 veterans commit suicide each day in the United States, according to federal figures. The VA health center’s goal is to understand why veterans feel the way they feel, Jones said. “We do a lot of compassionate listening,” Jones said. “We help them see some of the positive things that they may not be looking at to instill some hope.” There are a variety of factors that can make veterans prone to suicide, Jones said. An increased risk of suicide is more likely when a veteran has feelings of hopelessness, a sense of isolation, negative stress, fears of social encounters, suicidal fantasies, dissatisfaction with life, insomnia, fatigue and loss of appetite, according to guidelines from the VA and Department of Defense. “I tell people it isn’t a checklist,” Jones said. “Sometimes two risk factors are enough for one person. The next person may need a list of 10 risk factors.” In addition to the health center promoting Suicide Prevention Month, the DOD is working in collaboration with the VA to promote “The Power of 1” campaign. The message? One person can make an impact on someone’s life.
VA announces more money to stave off veteran homelessness (Long Beach Press-Telegram)
During a week when U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert A. McDonald is visiting the Los Angeles area, officials have announced millions in new funding to stave off veteran homelessness in the region. The money is intended to help low-income veterans and their families obtain a variety of services to keep them in housing. “It’s pretty obvious, if you’re going to end veteran homelessness nationally, you’ve got to end it in one of the biggest cities that has a chronic homeless problem,” the cabinet secretary said during a Thursday meeting with Los Angeles News Group editors and writers. The VA on Thursday announced that $600,000 will be paid to Del Richardson and Associates, an Inglewood firm, on a contract requiring the company to find area landlords willing to rent to veterans. “Some of the problems we’ve had in places like Los Angeles, which has high rents, is to get landlords who will rent for the HUD-VASH voucher amount,” McDonald said, referring to the federal government’s rental assistance program for veterans. “We ask for the patriotism of these individuals,” the secretary said. The announcement followed a report Monday that $300 million in grants provided through its Supportive Services for Veteran Families will be renewed nationwide. Some $42 million of those grants will be awarded in greater Los Angeles, with $30 million of the local amount to be paid out over three years. Supportive Services for Veteran Families dollars can pay for several services for low-income veterans, including health care, living expenses, transportation and child care, according to the department.
Soldiers climbing Everest launch fundraiser, plan film (Army Times)
The team that hopes to put the first active-duty soldiers — and first combat-wounded U.S. veteran — atop the world’s tallest peak won’t leave for the climb until April, but on Tuesday its members took their biggest step toward the goal to date. U.S. Expeditions and Explorations, better known as USX, launched its first crowdfunding effort in support of four climbers who will take on Mount Everest, aiming to raise more than $107,000 to cover what would be a history-making trek — and, the group hopes, a good bit more to help struggling veterans. It’s also partnering with Sebastian Junger and Goldcrest Films, the team behind the Oscar-nominated “Restrepo” and “Korengal,” for a documentary on the climb. “If we just raise enough money to climb Everest, that’s not enough. It’s not worth going,” Army 2nd Lt. Harold Earls, USX co-founder and team member, said last week. “The entire reason we’re climbing is to help our soldiers. … To me, raising awareness isn’t enough. It’s just part of the battle. We need to put our money where our mouth is.” Anything donated to the group in excess of the goal will be split between two charities offering mental health services to military members: Give an Hour and Stop Soldier Suicide. Also helping the cause: GovX, an online sales site open to military and federal employees, will serve as the climb’s presenting sponsor and is assisting in the crowdfunding rollout as well as promoting the climb in an email to its 1.7 million members. A Goldcrest-produced “sizzle reel” on the team debuted as part of the fundraiser.
House committee votes down measure affecting gay veterans (Washington Blade)
A measure that would have changed federal law to reflect that gay, lesbian and bisexual veterans are entitled to spousal benefits narrowly failed in a House committee on Thursday — thanks in part to a Democrat who voted “present” on the amendment. The House Committee on Veterans Affairs rejected the amendment, which was along the lines of the Veteran Spouses Equal Treatment Act, by a vote of 10-12. The measure would have changed definition of spouse under Title 38 to clarify that not all spouses are persons of a different sex. Rep. Dina TItus (D-Nev.), who sponsors the standalone bill, introduced the measure as an amendment to the American Heroes COLA Act, which seeks generally to increase compensation for veterans as benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act increase. In a statement, Titus said called the vote “a slap in face” to gay and lesbian service members who’ve served the country and their spouses. “As federal representatives and as members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, we have a responsibility to care for our nation’s veterans and their families, gay or straight,” Titus said. “Today we had an opportunity to put this issue behind us and move forward to concentrate on the many challenges facing our nation’s veterans. Rest assured I will not back down in this fight for equality. There are those who continue to stand in the way of progress; but remember, the arc of the moral universe is long and it bends toward justice.” The measure failed largely along party lines. Eight Democrats and two Republicans — Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) and Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.) — voted “yes,” but 12 Republicans voted “no.” Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.), the top Democrat on the committee, voted “present” on the amendment. In a statement, she said she didn’t support the measure to protect the integrity of the base legislation.