Wisconsin veterans hospital’s former director no longer on VA payroll (Reveal.com)
Officials at Wisconsin’s troubled Tomah VA Medical Center confirmed today that its former director, Mario DeSanctis, is no longer employed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs – the latest fallout from Reveal’s revelations of improper prescription practices at the hospital. “The search process for a new Director will be initiated immediately,” the acting director, John Rohrer, wrote in an email to hospital employees this morning. The VA had reassigned DeSanctis in March and appointed Rohrer interim chief of the facility, once dubbed “Candy Land” because of its seemingly unrestrained reliance on opiate prescriptions – sometimes leading to tragic consequences. Last month, the VA’s chief watchdog office concluded that a lethal cocktail of prescription drugs had killed Marine Corps veteran Jason Simcakoski while he was being treated in the hospital’s psychiatric ward for anxiety that had left him feeling suicidal. The hospital recently announced that the acute psychiatric unit would close temporarily as of Friday “(d)ue to critical psychiatric staff shortages.” Patients were to be transferred to VA facilities in Madison or Milwaukee, or to non-VA facilities. “We intend to re-open the unit but will only do so when we have the necessary psychiatric staff to do so safely,” Rohrer said in the statement, which outlined a series of initiatives, including advertising job openings and increasing starting psychiatrist salaries to $240,000. In its August report, the VA’s inspector general blamed Simcakoski’s death on “mixed drug toxicity” after being prescribed more than a dozen drugs, including buprenorphine, a potent medication distributed under the name Suboxone that often is used to treat opiate addictions. The report blamed a breakdown in procedures, including the failure of psychiatrists at the hospital to adequately inform patients of the risks some drugs posed and for neglecting to get written consent before administering dangerous drugs.
VA inspection finds inadequate care in death of Iraq War veteran (KSHB-Kansas City)
A federal inspection into the death of a Kansas City Iraq War army veteran has found “inadequate care” and has resulted in several recommendations to the VA Medical Center. The Veteran Affairs Office of Inspector General Office conducted the inspection at the request of Congressman Kevin Yoder (KS-03) in response to the alleged treatment of Issac Sims. Kansas City police shot and killed Sims at his family home on 23rd and Lawndale in a standoff over the Memorial Day weekend last year. Sims suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. According to Sims’ family, The Kansas City VA hospital told the 26-year-old veteran he would have to wait 30 days to be admitted for treatment two days before he was killed. The Office of Inspector General states they couldn’t verify that allegation. Dr. John Daigh, Jr., Assistant Inspector General for Healthcare Inspections wrote the following in the 15-page report released Wednesday: “We found that the patient had multiple health issues and had been screened for admission to another inpatient program and assigned an admission date to the other program 35 days after being screened. However, the patient died a few days after acceptance into the program.” Inspectors found Sims’ care was inadequate. “In particular, we found that some requests for outpatient consultations were inappropriately canceled or discontinued, the patient’s abnormal findings and/or care needs were not fully assessed, and appropriate consults were not made when the patient was treated in the Emergency Department,” the report states. In response, the VA Medical Center in June 2014 reviewed with staff the procedures they should take in case a patient does not show up for scheduled appointments. The Office of Inspector General made other recommendations to the Kansas City hospital including making sure patients evaluations are accessible to other providers.
New VA undersecretary talks problems, solutions at Paralyzed Veterans of America summit (Jacksonville.com)
The Department of Veterans Affairs’ new health care boss said he is well aware of how messed up its health-care system is right now and of local issues like monthlong waits at Jacksonville’s VA clinic. But as David Shulkin spoke to about 700 doctors, nurses and others who work with veterans attending the Paralyzed Veterans of America’s fifth annual summit in Jacksonville, the VA’s undersecretary for health said officials and staff are working hard to solve the problems. “We are faced with both incredible challenges and incredible opportunities, and I remain very excited about the work that is going on,” he told the Times-Union after Wednesday’s speech. “We are working hard with Congress to make sure we have the resources we need to care for them, and I am very optimistic about what this year will bring.” The Paralyzed Veterans of America advocates for veterans with spinal-cord injuries and diseases, and President Al Kovach said one of his goals was to build a better relationship with Shulkin. He’s done that, and invited him to speak at the conference. “He’s open to any ideas and realizes that when he took the job, that he was going to have to jump into the middle of it and find out what the heck’s gone wrong before he can fix it,” said Kovach, a former Navy SEAL injured in a parachute incident 20 years ago. “… He realizes that he doesn’t have the big picture yet and I admire that he came here. There is a lot of frustration in the VA, not just the veterans but the staff.” One person asked him when the VA hiring freeze might be lifted. Shulkin said he would lift it after a set budget is secured, which it isn’t. In fact, scandals of the past year meant he was “actually looking at shutting the whole system down.” A Topeka VA center staffer asked about the apparent increase in administrators over those who provide the care. “I wonder how much looking there is into how much money goes to those bean counters versus the beans themselves,” she said. Shulkin said some VA staff feel like the agency has become “bloated.” “What I don’t want to do is over-promise so I am trying to be careful,” he said. “… I understand that we have to re-prioritize the focus of what we are doing and it has to be on the patient, the veteran.”
U.S. veterans’ delegation ‘proud’ to take part in China military parade (The Los Angeles Times)
Among those honored at Thursday’s military parade in Beijing was a delegation of American World War II veterans from the California-based Flying Tigers Historical Organization. The U.S. veterans attending included Robert Lee, 87, of 14th Army Air Force; plus a number of retired servicemen in their nineties: David Thompson, P-51 pilot who flew out of Xi’an; Paul Crawford, another P-51 pilot; Jay Vinyard, a pilot who made 87 round trips across the infamous “Hump” bringing supplies; and Frank Losonsky, who was a member of the original Flying Tigers founded prior to Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. Also in the group were David Hayward, a B-25 pilot; another veteran, Leroy Parramore; and 101-year-old Maude Pettus, whose late husband, Dr. William Winston Pettus, was a surgeon in China for a decade during wartime. Maude Pettus, who worked as a nurse in China, recently had a book published about her experiences — “Ten Good Years,” written by Linda Bordner. “Everybody in our delegation was proud to be there and happy to be there, and we were chagrined that U.S. wasn’t better represented,” said Flying Tigers Historical Organization President Larry Jobe, 74, a retired pilot for United Airlines who lives in Groveland, Calif., near Yosemite. Jobe and his group have been working with local Chinese government officials in the southern city of Guilin for the last decade on a Flying Tigers museum and park. The museum was dedicated in March. The U.S. nonprofit group is currently raising $400,000 to help restore the cave used by Gen. Clare Chennault as his command and operations center. “There’s an anti-China paranoia in the U.S., much of it generated by the news media,” Jobe said after the parade. “People will feed on that and will grasp this as a provocative act. This was a ceremony to mark the end of a terrible war, and a military parade is entirely appropriate.”
8 now dead from Legionnaires’ disease in Western Illinois (ABC News)
State officials are reporting another death and four new cases of Legionnaires’ disease among residents of a western Illinois town, bringing the number of deaths to eight from an outbreak first disclosed last week. The Illinois Department of Public Health said Wednesday that the new cases are not connected to an infectious disease outbreak that has sickened nearly 50 residents of the 129-year-old veterans home in Quincy, Illinois, but they are in the same city. Adams County Health Department Director Jerrod Welch said that the eighth person to die from the severe form of pneumonia, like the seven veterans home residents who died, was also elderly and had underlying medical conditions that increased the risk of exposure. The state public health director has warned that more fatalities could occur since the disease has a two-week incubation period. As of Wednesday, 49 people have been sickened in Quincy— 45 of whom lived at the state facility. Similar outbreaks have been reported in California and New York. Legionnaires’ experts at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the outbreak prevalence so far this year is not unusual, but that the number of patients involved is larger than typically seen. The outbreak was first identified in Illinois late last week after an initial case at the home in early August; its source remains undetermined. An epidemiological team from the CDC remains at the 129-year-old facility to assist the state investigation. Those who exhibit symptoms — such as breathing difficulties, coughing, fever and muscle aches — are monitored closely, and infected patients are treated with antibiotics, said Ryan Yantis, a Department of Veterans Affairs spokesman.
Utah lawmaker: Military pensions should be tax-exempt (Salt Lake Tribune)
Utah is one of 16 states that don’t offer income tax exemptions for retired military members, but one state lawmaker is working to change that. Veterans have served their country and giving them an income tax exemption is the right thing to do, according to Rep. Lee Perry. Perry, a Republican, also argues that by taxing the pensions, it discourages service members from retiring in Utah and spending money in the state. Perry is working on a bill that would give veterans a tax break, but he has not yet publicly released the details of the proposal. He plans to introduce it during the 2016 legislative session. Utah lawmakers considered a similar proposal in 2008. It passed overwhelmingly in the House of Representatives but the full Senate never considered it before adjourning for the year. Perry said he hasn’t yet heard of any opposition to reviving the idea, which lawmakers have been discussing for several years. About 16,000 Utah residents receive a military pension, leaving Utah with a military retiree population that’s in in the bottom third of states. Terry Schow, the former longtime executive head of the Utah Department of Veterans Affairs, said military retirees benefit the state because they have reliable incomes to buy homes and spend money. If veteran pensions were completely exempt from state income taxes, Utah would lose about $5.7 million in annual revenue, according to an August report from the state Department of Veterans and Military Affairs.
Deputy VA chief to visit site of over-budget VA hospital in Colorado (The Denver Channel)
The VA’s deputy secretary is returning to the site of a vastly over-budget veterans medical center under construction in suburban Denver. Sloan Gibson will meet with local Veterans Affairs Department officials and construction managers Thursday. The half-finished hospital is expected to cost up to $1.73 billion, nearly three times the estimates given last year. Gibson and others have blamed problems in the contract process and an excessive design. The VA has asked Congress for an additional $600 million to finish, but some lawmakers are balking. They want the VA to fire those responsible for the overruns and make significant changes in the way it plans and builds hospitals. Construction has continued under a series of short-term agreements while a long-term funding deal is negotiated to finish the work. The reasons the costs escalated so sharply have yet to be fully explained. The VA has said the plans weren’t complete when work began, and VA construction executives tried to switch to a different design-and-build process too late. At least two internal VA investigations are underway, and the department says all the key executives on the project have been replaced — some were demoted or transferred, and another retired a day after investigators interviewed him under oath. But no one has been fired, angering many in Congress.
McCaskill calls for higher VA director salary to attract candidates (KMOX-St. Louis)
The Veterans Administration is no longer accepting applications job of St. Louis VA Medical Director. The position has been vacant for two years. They aren’t saying how many people applied or when a decision could be made. The posted job would pay between $120,000 to $181,000. U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill says that’s not enough. “So its one of those jobs that we are going to have to up the anti here,” McCaskill says. “And we are going to have to make those jobs more valuable because it’s worth it.” St. Louis is one of 30 VA cities around the country struggling to fill vacancies in the top position. McCaskill says there have been times that no one applied for an open medical director position at the St. Louis VA. The interim St. Louis director told KMOX in August she had fired some people and taken steps to improve patient care.
VA’s new pilot program for IT training open to all-era veterans (Military.com)
O’Malley attacks Carson’s plan to shut VA (CNN)
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democratic presidential candidate, attacked Ben Carson’s desire to eliminate the Department of Veterans Affairs Tuesday, the day after the retired neurosurgeon was named the Republican race’s new front-runner. “Apparently @RealBenCarson didn’t talk to vets for his vets plan. We should fight for vets, not cut care,” O’Malley tweeted. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democratic presidential candidate, attacked Ben Carson’s desire to eliminate the Department of Veterans Affairs Tuesday, the day after the retired neurosurgeon was named the Republican race’s new front-runner. “Apparently @RealBenCarson didn’t talk to vets for his vets plan. We should fight for vets, not cut care,” O’Malley tweeted. Carson wants veterans to have a health savings account that will allow them to pay for private-sector medical care, he said last week according to the Military Times. Carson also said defense-run veterans’ clinics should be for highly specialized care. “There is a lot of stuff we’re doing that doesn’t make any sense,” Carson said. “We don’t need a Department of Veterans Affairs. Veterans Affairs should be folded in under the Department of Defense.” A new Iowa poll issued Monday showed Carson tied with national GOP front-runner Donald Trump in the caucus state. “Unlike @RealBenCarson, I am working with vets across the country on a plan that is worthy of their service and sacrifice,” O’Malley tweeted on Tuesday.
Veteran’s final days at VA hospice prompt efforts to ensure dignity (The Prescott Daily Courier)
In the last five days of Vietnam veteran Richard Miller’s life, his bedside companion was a two-tour Iraq veteran some 20 years his junior who wanted to be sure the Army soldier did not die alone. Without formal permission from anyone, the former U.S. Navy sailor John Keith, 37, of Pine, opted to stand vigil with Miller, a patient in the Northern Arizona Veteran Affairs Health Care System’ hospice. Miller died on the Fourth of July. “I promised him that we would be brothers till the end,” Keith said of the promise he made to the former U.S. Army combat medic. The two became acquainted some four years ago when Miller connected with Keith through the online Facebook veteran community, OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom) Veteran Community, he founded in 2009. The mission of the organization, which has more than 50,000 members, is to help veterans get the benefits, services and support they have earned the right to receive, Keith said. The community also strives to educate veterans about issues of concern, including veteran suicide rates. The organization is currently working to propose to Congress a Veterans Bill of Rights. As the organization founder, Keith said he makes it a point to personally connect with every member so as to determine their needs, be it a VA benefits form, housing options or medical assistance. His community does not provide any direct service nor does it collect donations, but it works with veterans to get the paperwork they require and refer them to agencies they are confident can assist them. In this role, Keith has become a vocal advocate for veterans. In Miller’s case, Keith became a self-appointed guardian as Miller has no close family ties and was diagnosed more than six months ago with terminal bone cancer. Before Miller’s imminent death, Keith turned to his online community to reach out to his reclusive friend. He wanted to flood him with cards and care packages to lift his spirits in his final days.
Walmart Foundation donates $1 million to N.C. veterans partnership (Ripon Advance)
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory said on Tuesday that the Walmart Foundation has donated $1 million to a public-private partnership aimed at helping returning veterans readjust to civilian life. Studies by the Pew Research Center indicate that in the past decade, over 40 percent of veterans re-entering the civilian work force report some type of difficulty in doing so. Programs such as WalMart’s NCServes work to ease the transition with therapy, job placement and other services. “We want veterans to choose North Carolina as their new home,” McCrory said. “Veterans enrich our work force because of the skills and discipline they received throughout their military career, and their leadership skills will strengthen the communities in which they live. I want to thank the Walmart Foundation for assisting us in helping newly separated veterans get off to a good start in their new civilian life.” The public-private partnership is being led by the North Carolina Division of Veterans Affairs through its NC4VETS initiative. NCServes, a network of service providers for veterans and their families, is operated by the Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) at Syracuse University. Already, many successful partnerships have been formed with NCServes. “The purpose of this partnership is to ease and streamline the access to services an individual veteran and family members need,” Ilario Pantano, North Carolina’s Veterans Affairs director, said. “NC4VETS has tremendous reach, and by partnering regionally with NCServes’ community-based networks, we have a winning formula to attract veterans and help them make North Carolina their new home.”