Probe: Cancer patients died waiting for care at Phoenix VA (The Washington Post)
Some patients with bladder and prostate cancer died waiting for care, and medical treatment for almost 1,500 others was delayed because of short-staffing and mismanagement of urology care at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Phoenix, a new investigation has found. Senior officials at the medical center, the center of a national scandal last year over fudged wait times, did little to respond to a severe staffing shortage as recently as April 2015, investigators for the Department of Veterans Affairs inspector general found. Their solution? They canceled appointments for 3,200 urology patients, some of them for crucial follow-up tests, and never rescheduled them. And many veterans had no idea they couldn’t see a doctor until they showed up for their appointment. “The Urology Service was not able to manage the volume of patients in need of either diagnostic evaluation, treatment, or routine follow-up related to multiple urological conditions,” the report by John Daigh, Jr., assistant inspector general for health-care inspections, said. The delays placed patients at “unnecessary risk for adverse outcomes.” Seven patients died after delayed treatment and lapses in the quality of medical care they received in Phoenix, investigators wrote. Hospital administrators “did not promptly respond to the staffing crisis, which contributed to many patients being “lost to follow-up” and staff frustration due to lack of direction,” Daigh wrote. When some patients finally were referred to outside doctors for follow-up care, almost a quarter of them may never have received it. In 23 percent of the cases, investigators would find no documents to show the appointments ever took place. Over two years, this delayed or non-existent care affected almost half of all patients in Phoenix with bladder, prostate and urinary-tract issues, even after patient wait times became a national scandal. The former director of the medical center was fired amid reports that managers falsified waiting lists in order to collect bonuses by covering up months of delays in appointments.
Veterans still facing major medical delays at VA hospitals (CNN.com)
Appointment wait times at the Department of Veterans Affairs are not getting better. Despite billions of extra dollars poured into the agency in the last year and numerous reforms intended to improve veterans’ access to care, whistleblowers and internal documents obtained by CNN reveal some VA facilities continue to grapple with appointment wait times of months or more. Even at the Phoenix VA medical center, where CNN learned last year “secret” appointment lists were hiding how veterans were dying waiting for care, sources say complicated wait-time calculations obscure ongoing appointment delays. “The reality is veterans are waiting months — three, six months at a time, sometimes more — for care at the Phoenix VA,” said one source in Phoenix who agreed to speak to CNN anonymously because of fears of retaliation. The source said this includes veterans waiting for potentially critical health procedures, such as colonoscopies, and other categories of specialty care that require timely attention. In August, more than 8,000 requests for care had wait times longer than 90 days at the Phoenix VA, according to documents obtained by CNN, but whistleblowers say delays like these are not accurately reflected in public data because of changes in the VA’s method of measuring wait times. “The VA central office enables an official line that’s not consistent with reality,” the source in Phoenix said. Additional VA documents show ongoing delays in care are not limited to Phoenix. An internal VA draft memo from August warns, “Currently wait times are increasing significantly,” referring to an overall increase of appointments with delays. VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson, who received this internal memo, told CNN there are almost 500,000 appointments with extended wait times, which includes appointments with delays longer than 30 days and veterans waiting on a list for appointments to become available.
House panel issues subpoenas in VA scandal (Washington Times)
For the first time ever, the House Veterans Affairs Committee voted unanimously Wednesday to issue subpoenas, seeking the testimony of five officials in the Department of Veterans Affairs about abuses in a relocation program for senior agency managers. The committee voted to subpoena Danny Pummill, the department’s principal deputy undersecretary for benefits; Diana Rubens, director of the Veterans Benefits Administration’s offices in Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware; Robert McKenrick, director of the VBA’s Los Angeles office; Kimberly Graves, director of the St. Paul, Minnesota office; and Antoine Waller, director of the Baltimore office. All five officials turned down invitations to testify before the committee voluntarily on Wednesday. Chairman Jeff Miller, Florida Republican, said it was the first time in the committee’s history that it has issued subpoenas. “I assure you that I have not come to this decision lightly,” Mr. Miller said. A government watchdog investigation found that Ms. Rubens and Ms. Graves orchestrated their transfers to their current posts after pressuring Mr. McKenrick and Mr. Waller to move out of the Philadelphia and St. Paul offices, respectively. In Ms. Rubens’ case, the agency spent about $300,000 in relocation costs. The report also found that senior VA managers often were offered salary increases beyond their job descriptions as inducement to transfer to less desirable posts. Mr. Miller said he invited the witnesses to appear Wednesday “to go over the facts of the report — not to determine their innocence or guilt. It’s as simple as that.” “There is ample evidence that VA does not move quickly when it comes to accountability,” Mr. Miller said. “We have seen time and time again, that if we do not aggressively shed light on issues we uncover, the IG uncovers, or whistleblowers uncover, then often VA will just sweep them under the rug for an extended period of time and wait for public attention to go elsewhere.”
VA critics renew calls for better accountability reform (Military Times)
Presidential hopeful Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., renewed his attacks on Veterans Affairs Department accountability efforts on the Senate floor Tuesday, part of an ongoing wave of criticism by lawmakers over continued public scandals for the department. During an off-campaign stop in Washington, D.C., Rubio unsuccessfully pushed to advance his pending comprehensive VA reform measure, arguing that new accountability measures are long overdue. “This is about taking care of our veterans, but it’s also about taking care of people at the VA who are doing their job,” he said. “It isn’t fair that people who aren’t doing their jobs continue in their positions, and in many instances are increasing the workload on others.” Also on Tuesday, the advocacy group Concerned Veterans for America released new polling numbers arguing for expanded health care flexibility and employee dismissal rules. They blasted Democratic opposition to Rubio’s legislation as telling veterans that “they are not a priority for the United States Senate.” Rubio’s legislation would give VA officials authority to reduce the pensions of department executives convicted of a crime; limit the time employees can spend on paid administrative leave; and change how VA performance bonuses are awarded. VA officials and Democrats have objected strongly to the legislation, saying it would violate federal workers’ rights. They also argue that not only would it do little to help cure the department’s problems, it also would scare away top talent. “We ought to avoid creating unnecessary litigation and challenges to the law that can’t be enforced effectively,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., senior Democrat on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “This one unfortunately cannot.” CVA officials, who have harshly criticized the current administration and VA leadership, conducted their poll to revive companion reform efforts. The results mirror findings from last year, when they rolled out similar accountability and health care expansion proposals.
Democrat blocks vote on VA Accountability Act in the Senate (Washington Free Beacon)
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.) on Tuesday blocked an up-or-down vote on legislation meant to hold VA employees accountable for misconduct. The Democratic lawmaker denied a motion for unanimous consent after Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), a GOP presidential candidate, brought the VA Accountability Act of 2015 to the Senate floor for immediate consideration. The bipartisan bill would allow Department of Veterans’ Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald to remove or demote a VA employee because of poor performance or misconduct. The House passed the legislation at the end of July. However, Rep. Jeff Miller (R., Fla.), who introduced the bill in the House, said before its passage that McDonald does not support the legislation. President Obama has threatened to veto the legislation, calling it “counterproductive” and insisting that it would “have a significant impact on VA’s ability to retain and recruit qualified professionals and may result in a loss of qualified and capable staff to other government agencies or the private sector.” Meanwhile, an independent assessment released last month found that the Department of Veterans’ Affairs network of health facilities faces “crises in leadership and culture” and other problems warranting a “system-wide reworking” of the Veterans Health Administration. Various VA inspector general reports published in recent months pointed to serious flaws at specific VA facilities as well as waste at the Veterans Benefits Administration. Concerned Veterans for America CEO Pete Hegseth slammed Blumenthal in a statement Tuesday for standing with “Washington special interests and corrupt VA bureaucrats” by blocking the vote. “Almost every day, there is a new story of VA employees engaging in misconduct or corruption–demonstrating that a year and a half after the wait list scandal began and after promises of change from the Obama Administration and Congress, a toxic culture still infects the VA,” Hegseth stated. If the Senate does not move the legislation through regular order as quickly as possible, Hegseth said, lawmakers will be sending “a message to the millions of veterans who use the VA that they are not a priority for the United States Senate.”
Senator presses VA, DoD on rules for payback of separation pay (Augusta Free Press)
U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) pressed the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Department of Defense (DoD) on policies that are impacting former service members in Virginia who have received military separation pay and are later deemed eligible for disability benefits. Under U.S. law, the cost of separation payments received prior to being deemed eligible for veteran’s disability must be repaid before the veteran can begin receiving benefits. However, many former service members have reported that they were not made aware of this policy at the time of separation, and as a result are facing unexpected financial hardship when the disability pay they are counting on to make ends meet is withheld in order to recoup the earlier payment. “Multiple constituents have reached out to my office for help on this matter after applying for and receiving disability retirement benefits only to learn they will not receive payments until their separation pay has been completely recouped by the federal government. While I recognize that this recoupment is required by law (10 U.S. Code § 1175a), I would like information about how the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Department of Defense (DoD) are implementing this policy in practice,” wrote Sen. Warner today in a letter to Secretary Bob McDonald and Secretary Ashton Carter. “As my constituents have indicated to me, and as has been reported in the press, many former service members say that they were never made aware that their separation pay would have to be paid back once they are deemed eligible for disability payments. Those who have voluntarily separated because of a financial incentive to do so might have reconsidered their voluntary separations if they had known the separation pay might later have to be reimbursed.” Warner pressed the Secretaries on what policies are currently in place to educate service members at the time of separation about the recoupment requirement if they are later deemed eligible for disability pay, and about the process for granting a repayment waiver in cases of financial hardship. “Separation pay is intended to help ease the transition from service to civilian life, but for veterans who learn only after the fact that the cost of their military separation pay will be deducted from the disability benefits for which they are eligible, it can in fact be a source of additional and unexpected stress for their families,” Sen. Warner noted, requesting a response from the Secretaries about what policies are in place to ensure veterans are able to plan accurately for their financial futures.
Former Navy secretary Webb dropping Democratic bid for president (Military Times)
Former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb said Tuesday he is dropping out of the Democratic race for president and is considering his options about how he might “remain as a voice” in the campaign. Webb said at a news conference that he is “withdrawing from any consideration” of becoming the Democratic party’s nominee and would spend the coming weeks exploring his options about a possible independent bid. “The very nature of our democracy is under siege due to the power structure and the money that finances both political parties,” Webb said, joined by his wife, Hong Le Webb. “Our political candidates are being pulled to the extremes. They’re increasingly out of step with the people they’re supposed to serve.” Webb said many of the issues that he cares about are not in line with the hierarchy of the Democratic party, saying he did not have a “clear, exact fit” in either party. Asked if he still considers himself a Democrat, Webb said, “We’ll think about that.” A Vietnam veteran and former member of President Ronald Reagan’s administration, Webb complained that he did not get the chance to make his views fully known at the first Democratic debate. He has trailed badly in the field that includes Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Webb has been polling in the back of the pack with former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee. Webb has raised only about $700,000 and ended the month of September with more than $300,000 in the bank. Rivals like former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders have raised millions for the campaign. Webb surprised many fellow Democrats when he became the first major figure in the party to form a presidential exploratory committee in November.
High school football player stops during game to thank WWII vets (CBS News)
Security officers patrolling high school football games have seen it all. But one sheriff working a night game last week in Bossier City, La., said he’s never seen something quite like this. A group of seven World War II veterans — six men from the U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy and one female veteran who served in the Women in the Air Force — were seated on the sideline as Parkway High School Varsity football team’s honored guests. They smiled as they watched players 80 years their junior run back to the field at the end of halftime. The players were heading for a team huddle when #83 broke from the group and made a beeline for the vets. Chase Hill, a junior at the Louisiana high school, stopped to greet the group. “He just left the formation and came up to vets and shook every one of their hands,” Lt. Bill Davis of Bossier Sheriff’s Office said. “This isn’t something we see every day.” When Davis saw the one football player jump out of the crowd he knew he had to capture the moment on camera. “Law enforcement officers deal with teens who do stupid stuff every day,” Davis said. “And for this kid to do what he did, which to me was really just a class act — a badge of honor if you will, that’s what you want to see.”
JBLM veterans focus on filmmaking (Tacoma News-Tribune)
Staff Sgt. Toby Hensley doesn’t tell his family much about his experiences in Iraq. “There are things I haven’t said that I probably won’t tell anyone,” Hensley said. He’d like to figure out how. His desire to share his story with his loved ones was one of the reasons he joined a special project at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. He and other soldiers this week are learning new ways of communicating behind handheld cameras. They’re taking part in a program developed by the youngest grandson of famed World War II Gen. George Patton. It aims to help veterans work through traumatic experiences by teaching them how to make their own movies. The idea behind the program, called I Was There Films, is that soldiers who’ve been in the middle of the nation’s long wars might feel uncomfortable opening up about their time in combat. But working on a film project can focus them and let them express emotions they might otherwise hide. “It’s a wonderful way to break down barriers and at the same time you’re actually creating a piece of narrative that may allow you to communicate something you haven’t before,” said founder Ben Patton, whose father also led soldiers as an Army officer in Korea and Vietnam. He developed the program about three years ago, weaving knowledge from his career in public television with experiences from his youth growing up in a military family. He’d been looking for a way to give back to veterans, carrying on his family’s storied tradition of service. Since then, the program has hosted more than 30 workshops at major military bases around the country. Over the course of the project, participants will make their own short movies. A gallery at its website, iwastherefilms.org, shows that troops at past sessions have tackled difficult subjects, such as mourning friends who died in combat.
San Antonio gets preview of documentary about disabled vets (San Antonio Express-News)
Another Emmy-winning TV documentarian named Burns — Ken’s younger brother — will be in San Antonio Wednesday to unveil his latest film and spark a conversation about it. “Debt of Honor: Disabled Veterans in American History” is a powerful, poignant and unflinching chronicle of severely injured veterans throughout the years — from the Revolutionary War and the Civil War through both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam and up to today’s conflicts in the Middle East. “Over the last 20 years, I’ve made a lot of films,” said the director, whose work includes the hauntingly beautiful “New York.” But, he added, this one in particular “resonates deeply with me.” … “Debt of Honor” stands tall among them. This story of injured veterans and the way the U.S. government and society have regarded them throughout our history is moving and poetic. It also is candid and shocking. Some of the recollections and images are so wrenchingly potent that you’re bound to think about them for days later. “We were really, really blessed with the disabled veterans we were able to interview,” Burns said. These veterans not only recall their pain and struggles, but also speak of ways they’ve coped upon resuming their lives at home. “They understand how crucial it is to be out front,” Burns added, “not as showboats but to connect with the civilian population in a very grounded way as well to other disabled veterans who may need someone to show them the way forward.”
Missouri woman, 70, sentenced for defrauding veterans program (KansasCity.com)
A 70-year-old Missouri woman has been sentenced to 20 months in federal prison for defrauding a federal program designed to award contracts to businesses owned by service-disabled veterans. U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom says Mary Parker of Blue Springs, Missouri, pleaded guilty in federal court in Kansas City, Kansas, to one count of aiding and abetting wire fraud. She admitted helping her son, Warren Parker, and her son, Michael Parker, in making false claims for their company, Silver Star Construction of Blue Springs and Stilwell, Kansas. Prosecutors say the company obtained more than $6.7 million in contracts from the Veterans Administration. An investigation determined that Warren Parker never was classified as a service-disabled vet. He was sentenced in 2012 to 87 months in prison.
Man sentenced to prison for swindling disabled veterans group (CBS Boston)
A Cape Cod man has been sentenced to two years in prison with 18 months to serve after a jury found him guilty of swindling a disabled veterans group of more than $100,000. Richard Trott, Sr., 65, of East Sandwich, Mass., was found guilty on four counts of larceny over $250 by a Barnstable Superior Court jury on Monday. A judge says the remainder of his sentence was suspended for a probationary period of 10 years upon on his release. A restitution hearing is slated for Nov. 19. Trott previously served as the corporate officer of the Hyannis chapter of Disabled American Veterans. The charity represents the interests of disabled veterans and their families. The Attorney General’s office began investigating Trott in May 2013 after the case was referred to them by the Cape and Islands District Attorney’s Office. A grand jury indicted him seven months later. Prosecutors say Trott transferred money from the charity’s accounts into his personal bank accounts and repeatedly withdrew money for his own use.