Army kicked out thousands of mentally injured vets for ‘misconduct’ (NPR)
The U.S. Army has kicked out more than 22,000 soldiers since 2009 for “misconduct,” after they returned from Iraq and Afghanistan and were diagnosed with mental health disorders and traumatic brain injuries. That means many of those soldiers are not receiving the crucial treatment or retirement and health care benefits they would have received with an honorable discharge. The Army has taken these actions despite a 2009 federal law designed to ensure that troops whose mental illness might be linked to the wars aren’t cast aside. That’s the finding of a joint investigation by NPR and Colorado Public Radio that listened to hours of secret recordings, looked at hundreds of pages of confidential military documents and interviewed dozens of sources both inside and outside the base. One of the Army’s top officials who oversee mental health, Lt. Col. Chris Ivany, told NPR and CPR that the Army is not violating the spirit of the 2009 law by dismissing those soldiers for misconduct. He says the soldiers’ “functional impairment was not severe” enough in some cases to affect their judgment. In other cases, the soldiers’ disorders might have been serious when they were diagnosed, but their “condition subsequently improved” before they committed misconduct — so they can’t blame the war for causing them to misbehave. The commander who runs the Army’s medical system, Lt. Gen. Patricia Horoho, ordered an investigation last year into one small piece of this nationwide problem. Commanders had told Staff Sgt. Eric James, an Army sniper who served two tours in Iraq, that they were going to separate him for misconduct because of a two-year-old driving-under-the-influence charge. James began secretly recording his meetings with Army therapists and officers at Fort Carson, in early 2014, to keep a record of what was happening. “I spent almost a week listening to all of Eric James’ recordings,” says Andrew Pogany, CEO of Uniformed Services Justice and Advocacy Group, a legal services nonprofit that Pogany and a colleague created to help soldiers in trouble. “It painted a picture that was mortifying. And horrifying.” After Pogany sent excerpts of the recordings to one of Horoho’s advisers, the Army sent investigators to Fort Carson who concluded that two therapists had not treated James “with dignity and respect.”
Report: Vets still struggle to get mental health care at VA (Military Times)
Eighteen months after a scandal broke over waiting periods for Veterans Affairs health care, the department is still struggling to manage patients’ schedules, at least in the mental health care arena where some veterans have waited nine months for evaluations, a new government report says. A review of 100 patient cases by the Government Accountability Office found that while 86 patients seeking an initial mental health evaluation generally were seen within an average four days of scheduling an appointment, they actually waited an average of 26 days from their first request for mental health treatment to get that appointment — and some waited up to 279 days. GAO also found that at one medical center, schedulers were not using the VA’s appointment system and were managing appointments manually — a practice that sidesteps oversight and, in the scandal that exploded last year, drew allegations of scheduling failures and use of “secret wait lists.” “The way in which the Department of Veterans Affairs calculates veteran mental health wait times may not always reflect the overall amount of time a veteran waits for care,” Debra Draper, GAO’s health care director, said. Nicholas Karnaze, a former Marine intelligence officer, told the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Wednesday he waited more than a year for care, and when he finally saw a VA psychiatrist, he was prescribed a medication for depression. When he reacted poorly to the prescription, however, he was not able to make a follow-up appointment for another two months. He stopped taking the drug cold turkey — a decision physicians caution against because withdrawal can cause physical and mental symptoms, including suicidal thoughts. “I truly believe when we get the right access to care in a timely manner, we are going to see a reduction in suicides and healthier happy families,” Karnaze said.
Pentagon, VA health records still far from interoperable (Military Times)
The Defense and Veterans Affairs departments have made progress creating interoperable electronic health records systems, but their divergent approaches to developing those systems means full compatibility will be a “concern for years to come,” a Government Accountability Office official told Congress on Tuesday. A 2013 decision by VA and DoD to abandon an effort to create a joint medical records system in favor of two systems that communicate with one another has cost an indeterminate amount of money and ensured that the departments will not meet the Dec. 31, 2016, deadline for full interoperability set by Congress, said GAO Information Technology Director Valerie Melville. “Establishing a modernized and fully interoperable health record systems is still years away,” Melvin told members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s oversight and investigations panel and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s information technology panel. In addition, the departments have failed to set “meaningful” goals and establish metrics for measuring progress — measures that would be helpful in ensuring the programs stay on track and on budget, she added. “Establishing measurable goals for improving the care that VA and DoD provide to the millions of service members, veterans and their beneficiaries is essential to more effectively position the departments to do so,” Melvin said. As early as 1998, DoD and VA began an effort to create health records that could work together, with an initiative to create a joint system — an integrated electronic health record system — starting in 2009. But after spending at least $564 million toward that effort, leaders of the two departments ditched the plan for a joint system in 2013, citing different system needs and a projected total price tag of $28 billion. VA instead decided to upgrade its decades-old Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture, or VistA, program while the Pentagon decided to buy a commercially developed health records system.
Survey: Military-family uncertainty about future is on the rise (Military Times)
Uncertainty about a variety of issues is on the rise among military families, according to the latest Blue Star Families Lifestyle Survey. For the first time this year, the survey included post-service employment on the list of topics of potential concern — and it placed in the top five among both active-duty and veteran respondents. There’s a theme of “eyes on the exits,” said Cristin Orr Shiffer, deputy director of research and policy for the nonprofit Blue Star Families. She said there are a number of reasons for that, including concerns among families about involuntary separations due to force drawdowns and about their financial situations now and after they leave the military. Tied into that are worries about future employment prospects for both service members and their spouses. The sixth annual Blue Star Families survey was conducted online in April and May, and was released Wednesday. Continued cutbacks to military pay, benefits and privileges compound the uncertainty families are feeling, on top of drawdowns and a continued high deployment pace, as new and ongoing trouble spots fester around the world. “There are a lot of conversations around the dinner table about whether to stay in or get out,” Shiffer said. While military pay and retirement changes still rank among the top two concerns for military spouses, active-duty members and veterans who took the online survey, the percentages of those with concerns was lower this year than last. For example, 65 percent of service members listed military pay and benefits as their top concern this year, down from 75 percent last year. Among military spouses, those figures were 63 percent this year and 75 percent last year. Possible retirement changes were ranked as a top concern by 63 percent of active-duty members this year, down from 75 percent last year. Among spouses, those figures were 51 percent this year and 63 percent last year.
McCain: Bernie is better than Hillary on veterans (Washington Examiner)
Amid controversy over Hillary Clinton’s comments last week about the Department of Veterans Affairs, Sen. John McCain praised Sen. Bernie Sanders, her Democratic opponent, for his longtime support of veterans. “He does have a record of advocacy for our veterans,” McCain said of Sanders Wednesday on a conference call with reporters and Rep. Jeff Miller, who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee. “I will say that Bernie Sanders worked very hard when he was chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee,” McCain said, referencing the committee gavel Sanders held from 2013 to the Democrats’ loss of the Senate this year. “He and I had many disagreements, but we were able to come together finally, after many spirited discussions,” McCain said. “I think my reward will be in heaven, not on Earth, after that exercise,” he added. Clinton sparked controversy Friday when she suggested Republicans had exploited problems with the VA in pursuit of a partisan plan to privatize VA care. She said the agency’s failure are not as “widespread” as Republicans have made them out to be. Miller accused Clinton of politicizing what should be a nonpartisan issue. “The interesting thing that Hillary Clinton has done is, she has interjected politics into this discussion,” Miller said Wednesday.
IAVA policy guide doubles as veterans playbook for campaigns (Military Times)
When staffers from Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America met with presidential campaigns later Wednesday night, they didn’t just urgethem to talk about veterans issues. They handed them a playbook on how to do it. The advocacy group released its latest policy agenda this week, a 71-page document detailing the top priorities of its membership, including calls for better mental health care, more resources for female veterans and improved accountability for Department of Veterans Affairs employees. IAVA hopes the work will serve not only as a road map for lawmakers on Capitol Hill but also an inspiration point for the presidential candidates, fewer than half of whom have a veterans issues page listed on their campaign websites. “We’ve been constantly hammering away at the need for the people who want to be commander in chief to address how they’ll care for troops on the back end if they’re committing them to battle on the front end,” Matthew Miller, IAVA’s chief policy officer, said. … The IAVA policy agenda lists 49 points of action, some legislative but many also framed as calls to action for communities and local governments. Suicide prevention and VA reform are among the top priorities, but the list also includes improving employment services, equalizing benefits for partners of gay veterans and expanding support for military families.
Army settles with whistleblower who exposed unsafe hospital conditions (Military.com)
The Army has settled with an employee who was reprimanded after reporting unsafe patient conditions at a major military hospital, revelations that led to the hospital’s chief being relieved of command. The announcement by the Office of Special Counsel released Tuesday mirrored similar problems at Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals, where staff who report dangerous conditions have routinely experienced retaliation. Teresa Gilbert was an Army civilian infection control analyst at Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. In early 2014, she reported lax infection control policies to a hospital accreditation group, according to the OSC, an independent federal investigative agency that specialized in whistleblower protection. Specifically, Gilbert told the Joint Commission that the hospital had not addressed long-standing problems with unsterilized instruments, failure to disinfect medical devices, and supervisors who lacked the requisite training and education in infection control. An OSC investigation found Gilbert’s supervisors subsequently barred her from any participation in improving infection control at the hospital. When she made further reports to the commission as well as to the Army Surgeon’s General office, her hours were cut, and she was reprimanded for being absent without leave for missing the hours her boss had removed from her schedule, according to the OSC. Later, Gilbert received a notice that she had been recommended for removal for accessing a patient’s medical information, which the OSC investigation found to be bogus. Gilbert’s reporting eventually led to Womack chief Col. Steven J. Brewster being removed from his position and disciplinary action against several other staffers. The Army and Gilbert reached a settlement that includes a monetary settlement and removal of negative information from her employment records. Terms of the settlement are confidential.
Study on closure of VA hospital in Hot Springs released (The Washington Times)
Shuttering a Veterans Affairs hospital in Hot Springs and moving its services to Rapid City would be the cheapest option among six under consideration for revamping care in the Black Hills region, according to a much-anticipated federal study released Wednesday. The 780-page Environmental Impact Study by the Department of Veterans Affairs considered six options for changes to the facilities in Hot Springs and Rapid City as part of an effort ongoing since 2011 by the VA Black Hills Health Care System to reconfigure its services. The study found that closing the historic Battle Mountain Sanitarium, which the VA has said is its preferred option, would have an estimated 30-year cost of over $148.5 million, the lowest of the six. Taking no action would come with a more than $215 million price tag over the same time period. But Sandra Horsman, the director for the VA in the Black Hills, stressed that the VA wouldn’t base its decision in costs, but in the quality of care provided to veterans. “The primary reason for any selection of any of the alternatives is to ensure that we have safe and high-quality health care for veterans,” said Horsman. “It’s really not cost. Cost is certainly in the overall assessment, but our first and foremost concerns are the safety and the quality of care that we are providing to the veterans.”