Veteran, fired by VA for complaining to senator, returns to work (The Baltimore Sun)
A disabled Army veteran who was fired from the Department of Veterans Affairs after he sought help from Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski with his own benefits claim was back at work Tuesday. The Office of Special Counsel, a federal agency that investigates allegations of retaliation against whistleblowers, said Tuesday it believed the VA broke the law when it fired Bradie Frink in 2013. Frink, then a time and leave clerk in the Baltimore office of the VA’s Benefits Administration, had contacted Mikulski’s office after his paperwork went missing. “The constitutional right to petition Congress must be guaranteed for all Americans,” Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said in a statement. “Federal agencies cannot deny their employees this right even if it leads to scrutiny of their operations.” Frink, 46, called his firing “traumatic.” “It created some very hard financial situations for me,” he said. Frink’s problems began when he was hired by the VA in February 2013, investigators for the special counsel wrote in a 19-page report on his case. Frink had filed a benefits claim seeking years of back payments. Now the claim had to be transferred to another office so it would be handled impartially. But officials could not find the paperwork. “This caused Frink serious concern since the VA could not begin work on his claim until his folder was transferred to another facility,” investigators wrote. “And even after it was finally transferred, he might still face a long wait for the retroactive payments to be processed and distributed.” Frink sought help from his supervisor, whose name is redacted in the report, and from the independent organization Disabled American Veterans. In June 2013, Frink sent Mikulski a letter asking for her help. Frink was fired in July. Officials said in a letter that he had misused his identity badge, failed to follow instructions from his bosses, taken time off improperly, and threatened a colleague. The special counsel’s office concluded that the VA fired him because he had sought Mikulski’s help and that managers who were interviewed by investigators provided testimony that was “inconsistent and lacked candor.”
VA fighting release of names tied to brain injury exams (KARE-Minneapolis)
In the wake of disclosures that unqualified doctors performed hundreds of brain injury exams at the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Medical Center, the Department of Veterans Affairs is now refusing to release the names of doctors who performed initial traumatic brain injury (TBI) exams at other VA facilities across the country. Without those names, it’s virtually impossible to independently verify whether the doctors were properly qualified. VA policy states that only four types of specialists, including neurologists and neurosurgeons, are qualified to make the initial diagnosis of whether a veteran has suffered a TBI. KARE 11 News reported last month that, contrary to the policy, hundreds of initial TBI exams conducted from 2010 through 2014 in Minneapolis had been done by unqualified medical personnel. Vietnam veteran Butch Hamersma’s medical records show his TBI exam was performed by a VA nurse practitioner, not a neurologist. As a result of the improper exam, Hamersma was denied TBI benefits. That decision was made even though records show Hamersma’s skull was shattered in an explosion near Chu Lai in November 1968. After KARE 11’s initial report, a Minneapolis VA spokesperson acknowledged that some veterans had been evaluated by doctors, “who were not specialists.” In a written statement, Ralph Heussner said those veterans were being given new examinations, adding “we greatly regret the inconvenience to Veterans who returned for a repeat evaluation.” In a form letter sent to veterans, the VA said only a “small number” of cases were involved. But new records obtained by KARE 11 indicate the problem is more serious. In at least one case, medical records show a veteran was denied benefits not once, but twice, after being examined by two different unqualified doctors.
Marine vet pays for billboards saying VA is lying (Breitbart News)
Two huge billboards in Central Florida paid for by a Marine veteran are advertising the message that the Veterans Affairs Administration is lying about their improved service for veterans. Roger Gagnon, of Orange City, paid $775 for an Orlando billboard and $1,400 for another near Daytona Beach to send his message for one month. The billboard, boasting a bright yellow background, read, “VA is lying, veterans are dying.” Gagnon asserted, “It’s not about me, I’m all set. This is about the people who are in the service and the ones who are fixing to go in the service.” He said of the VA, “They got that last nerve of mine that I just got to the point where I said, ‘I’ll eat Ramen noodles for a month, but I’m going to let them know that I’m upset.’” Gagnon pointed out what he said are spurious claims from the VA and Barack Obama that wait times for veterans’ doctor appointments have been radically cut. Gagnon argued that the VA is lying, saying that his experiences with the veterans he knows have led him to a starkly different conclusion. He offered, “Now they come on the news and said we fixed things. They’re lying. Nothing has changed.” Images of the billboards can be found on the “VA is lying group” Facebook page, which has over 12,000 members. Gagnon concluded, “I want the public to finally realize this is totally unacceptable.”
VA’s new customer service credo: Make employees happy (Federal News Radio)
Starbucks calls its employees “partners.” Disney has “cast members,” not staff. The Ritz-Carlton’s motto is, “We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen.” Maybe the Veterans Affairs Department should re-brand its workers too. Following a year of scandals and congressional scrutiny, the department is trying to get veterans, lawmakers and the American public to trust it again. As part of its strategy, it has hired its first chief veterans experience officer, Tom Allin. He said the VA is studying retailers’ secrets to improve its own customer service. The first secret: If you want satisfied customers, focus on your employees. The name matters a lot, Allin said. Consider the famed hospital Cleveland Clinic, where even those who schedule appointments are known as “caregivers.” “If I’m a scheduler, a customer is an interruption. If I’m a caregiver, the customer is whom I’m here for,” he said. “The focus on the employees is clearly the biggest thing we have to do.” Allin is one of several new VA leaders who owe their jobs to the scandal that engulfed the department last year. VA outraged the nation when it was discovered that veterans had been waiting weeks for critical medical appointments, while VA staff manipulated records to hide the delays. At the time, Allin was about to retire after a long career in the restaurant industry. But then he saw the new VA Secretary, Bob McDonald, vow to give veterans the service they deserved but had not received. Allin was so moved that he sent McDonald his resume. McDonald called him soon after. “I said, ‘Give me the hardest thing that you’ve got and let me help you,’” Allin said. “I could complete his sentences. Everything he was talking about was starting with the customer, which was my background.”
San Diego company aims to curb VA wait times (KPBS-San Diego)
A new center opened in San Diego to help vets find care outside the VA. The opening comes a little more than a year after Congress created the Veterans Choice Program to help cut long wait times. TriWest Healthcare Alliance made the announcement before its staff of 250 people at its operations center in Rancho Bernardo on Tuesday. TriWest is operating in 28 states. It is one of the companies that have a contract with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to match veterans with private doctors and facilities when they are having problems accessing care through the VA. Julie Townsend, senior vice president, said the company isn’t just trying to end the VA’s notorious backlog. The company believes it can have a long-term relationship with the VA, even as the overall backlog declines. “There’s always areas where they don’t have the capability inside the VA so they have to buy it from outside for their veterans,” she said. “Or they have capacity problems because maybe they’ve lost a provider. Maybe there is a surge in demand.” It took a while for the VA to work through the bureaucracy to set up Veterans Choice, Townsend said. Congress created the program under a three-year pilot program in 2014. She said in recent months they have seen a steady increase in the number of requests from veterans to see doctors outside the VA system.
Veterans’ care should include their families (Fort Worth Star Telegram)
Opinion: “After more than a decade at war since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, we face an unprecedented challenge in caring for our military service members. Too often, veterans’ spouses and families are left behind. Because Texas has the second-largest veteran population and will have the largest number of veterans by 2019, Texas should set the standard for how we treat our veterans’ families. How do we do that? We need to address families’ employment, education and mental health needs. We must ensure strong and effective community-based programs that are affordable and accessible. Unlike veterans, spouses do not receive special consideration for employment and education opportunities, yet they deserve these opportunities. Many have delayed higher education or employment, or they have been underemployed, throughout the veteran’s military service because of frequent moves and absences due to training and deployments. Congress has acknowledged the need for services for veterans’ families but has taken little action. So, it’s left up to the states and local communities. It’s true that Texas has set the bar high by helping veterans with higher education access. The Texas Hazlewood Act provides qualified veterans with up to 150 hours of tuition exemption at public higher education institutions in Texas. But we fall short for veterans’ spouses and children, who only receive these benefits if the veteran died in the line of duty or the family meets several other qualifications. Texas should extend these benefits to all veterans’ immediate family, regardless of the veteran’s death or disability.”
Thousands of veterans reunite at Air Force Museum (Military.com)
They served in flak-filled skies or on battlefields of Vietnam, England or wayward Pacific islands, but there’s often one place they meet to reconnect decades later. Thousands of veterans travel across the country every year to attend reunions at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson. In a typical year, the museum may count about 75 reunions and more than 3,000 veterans who plan a stay and others who spontaneously show up unannounced, a museum official says. And, often, they bring their families. “I think sometimes the museum is the place we pay the bill to recognize our veterans,” said Teressa Montgomery, chief of the museum’s special events division. Bringing in more than a million visitors a year, the world’s largest military aviation museum has a yearly economic impact of $37 million, based on National Aviation Heritage Alliance figures. “It’s big business (for those) who want to put people in hotel beds, but it’s also great for our communities,” she said. “There are two really popular aviation museums in the United States, and this is one of them,” said Tony Sculimbrene, NAHA executive director, citing the other as the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. “There isn’t a place like this anywhere in the country in terms of the assets that we have.” The Air Force museum has 70 veteran reunions set in 2015, with Vietnam-era veterans’ groups — 13 this year — the most common in recent years, Montgomery said.
Woman pleads guilty to stealing VA benefits (Military Times)
A Ferriday, La., woman has pleaded guilty to stealing more than $100,000 of her deceased aunt’s Veterans Affairs benefits. U.S. Attorney Stephanie A. Finley said Tuesday that 45-year-old Linda Sue Bourgeois pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Dee D. Drell to one count of theft of government property or funds. Court documents show that even though Bourgeois’ aunt died in July 2007, Bourgeois did not inform Veterans Affairs and took the benefits from a shared bank account until March when the payments terminated. Bourgeois stole $107,452. Bourgeois faces up to 10 years in prison, three years supervised release, a $250,000 fine and restitution. A sentencing date of Dec. 17 was set.