October 8 Veterans News

October 8 Veterans News

Veterans news updateMcDonald rejects VA’s failing grade audit (The Washington Times)
VA Secretary Robert McDonald disputed an audit’s conclusions that his department needs a “systemwide reworking,” saying Wednesday that he’s already fixed many of the problems and what he really needs is a bigger budget and more flexibility to move that money around. The $68 million independent audit, released last month, said the Department of Veterans Affairs could become a world-class health system if it had better leadership, cut through a bloated bureaucracy and figured out its facilities budget. But Mr. McDonald, who took over as top leader last year after his predecessor was ousted, said more money would help solve most of the remaining issues. “The only way forward, if we really want to serve veterans, is for Congress to provide VA with sufficient resources to meet the requirements Congress has set,” Mr. McDonald told the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. His comments are the latest salvo in what’s become a battle over the fate of the VA, which has been damaged by repeated scandals of bad budgeting and secret wait lists that left veterans struggling for care, as clinic officials collected bonuses for making scheduling targets. Watchdogs and Republicans in Congress say the VA needs a massive shake-up to get beyond those problems, but the administration insisted it’s already on the right path, and said Congress is ignoring those improvements. “Maybe someday you could hold a hearing on its progress,” Mr. McDonald said. “I’d welcome that.” But Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, Florida Republican, said Congress has already given the VA a lot of leeway, such as an emergency injection of money this year for a facility in Denver that’s $1 billion over budget. Mr. Miller called that project a “screwup.” Last month’s independent audit also suggested the Veterans Health Administration, the VA’s medical arm, should consider focusing on specialized care such as amputations, traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, Hepatitis C and other such ailments instead of trying to handle all types of general health.

Health care reforms already under way, VA insists (Military Times)
Congressional critics say Department of Veterans Affairs health offerings need to be overhauled. VA’s leader insists that work is already underway. In a tense, at times confrontational hearing Wednesday, VA Secretary Bob McDonald responded to a new congressionally mandated report calling for drastic changes throughout the system, citing “shortfalls in overall accountability, role clarity, personal ownership, internal communication and proactive problem-solving.” Lawmakers called the scathing report an indictment of systemic problems throughout the department. But McDonald called it an important recognition of the types of reform he has been implementing for the last year. “Nobody has wanted to talk about this transformation,” he told members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “Everyone wanted to talk about problems of the past.” Those included a nationwide scandal involving VA patient care delays and accountability among department health officials, issues that the report indicates are linked to larger problems of cumbersome bureaucracy and mismanagement throughout VA. Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., called the findings a blueprint “to transform the broken VA health care system of today into one that our nation’s veterans can finally be proud to call their own.” Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., said it showed “a culture of silence” and “a leadership crisis” at the department. McDonald bristled at those comments but acknowledged leadership has been a lingering weak point for the agency, one he has worked to correct with a host of changes among top department officials and repeated emphasis at all VA offices on customer service and veterans’ needs.

McDonald pans proposed VA Governance Board; says that’s Congress’s job (Military.com)
Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald on Wednesday pushed back strongly against a recommendation that Congress establish a governance board to shape VA policy and plans, insulate VA leaders from direct politic interaction and ensure that performance measures are met. “I believe this is the role of this committee and of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, working collaboratively with the VA and me,” McDonald told the house Veterans Affairs Committee on Wednesday. “All we need to do is have your support and work together.” The 4,000-page assessment cost $68 million, McDonald pointed out, and found many of the same issues and problems that he learned about by visiting facilities and meeting with VA employees and patients across the country after he became VA secretary, he said. “We’re on track with many of the same things [found in the assessment],” he said. “I appreciate the depth of the analysis – I cannot do that myself – but many of these things are already underway and we are seeing the results.” The results include 17 million more completed veteran patient appointments over the last year than before, the addition of nearly 2 million more square feet of VA space, 1,400 new health care providers and more than 3,000 new nurses, he said. In addition to the disconnect in resources and demand that McDonald seized on in his remarks, the assessment also found problems with bureaucracy, inconsistent policies and procedures and leadership and staffing challenges. The problems are rooted in four areas: governance, operations, data tools and leadership, he said, and will require an “integrated systems approach” successfully transform VA for the long run. In addition to setting up a governance committee to oversee VA, the assessment also recommends developing a patient-centered operations model that factor in local autonomy and appropriate standardization; deploying a standardized and common set of data and tools for transparency, learning, and evidence-based decisions; stabilizing, growing and empowering leaders by galvanizing them around clear priorities and ensuring a healthy culture of collaboration, ownership and accountability.

Nation owes fair care to veterans used as guinea pigs (Charleston Post & Courier)
Opinion: “For decades, thousands of U.S. soldiers took the military up on an offer that was hard to refuse: a few days off from the drudgery of base life in exchange for letting scientists run them through a few safety tests. Those who accepted, however, were in for an appalling surprise. From just after World War I into the 1970s, soldiers and sailors were exposed to mustard gas, experimental nerve-agent antidotes and other toxic substances, all without their knowledge. Now the survivors want to know exactly what the military did to them. They want medical care. Yet the Pentagon seems intent on treating them like malingerers trying to get out of KP duty. At least 70,000 troops are covered by a class-action suit claiming that these experiments caused cancers, emphysema and other serious illnesses. What they want seems understandable: to be told exactly what substances they were given and how risky they were, to be relieved of any confidentiality agreements they signed during the testing, and to receive care for any conditions that resulted. The Pentagon and Justice Department continue to fight this effort, in part on the grounds that the military had tried unsuccessfully to reach out to them over the years. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in California sided with the survivors, ordering the military to release the information and telling the Army, rather than the overburdened Department of Veterans Affairs, to treat their conditions. But that order did not end the travesty. The Pentagon is asking for a rehearing. It’s true that it will be hard to prove that any illnesses or deaths were the direct result of the tests. Even so, many of these men suffered through horrific experiences. For that alone, they deserve a day in court and compensation.”

Women veterans have higher success rate for suicide because of gun use (The Washington Post)
Women veterans who try to take their own lives are often successful at a far higher rate than their female non-veteran counterparts because of one reason: They use guns. Female veterans die by suicide at nearly six times the rate of female civilians, such an alarming number that mental health experts at the Department of Veterans Affairs say the agency is reaching out to  former service women to talk about gun safety. Their suicide rate is also surprising because men generally are far more likely than women to die by suicide. “One reason is that female veterans are more comfortable with firearms — it’s part of the culture,” said Caitlin Thompson, VA’s deputy director for suicide prevention. VA hospitals and clinics are  offering free gun locks and education at every VA to ensure firearm safety, Thompson said. VA experts are also studying the many reasons why female veterans have such a higher risk for suicide attempts. One of those triggers, Thompson said, is sexual assault during military service, along with past traumatic experiences. The suicide risk is highest in veterans age 18 to 29. In that age group, female veterans were nearly 12 times more likely than other women to take their lives, Thompson said. Veterans and their family members and friends can connect with VA responders 24 hours a day, seven days a week, by calling the toll-free hotline (800) 273-8255, and then pressing 1. There’s also a women Veterans Call Center: 1-855-VA-WOMEN (1-855-829-6636).

Afghan vets react to U.S. bombing of hospital in Kunduz (PRI.org)
It’s a black mark on the US operation in Afghanistan, which enters its 15th year and has seen tens of thousands of US troops deployed. We asked some of them, members of the World’s community of veterans, if what’s happening in Kunduz caused them to regret their service there. Unsurprisingly, they were divided. One veteran said “I feel like the whole effort in Afghanistan was futile.” “I served in Kunduz from 2011 to 2013. We worked very hard to build connections and bring peace to the entire province. To see it lost is a little disheartening,” said another. Another said “My only regret is that we left the job unfinished. There was instability when we arrived and when we left. Unfortunately we soldiers do not make the decisions in war.” And another: “I’m very disgusted. I can’t believe we would violate the Geneva accords so blatantly. I don’t regret my service, but I’d like to see those responsible put on trial.” “No regrets. Fog of War. It was accident and a way to fix our processes and do better. We did good when I was there. I feel honor about my service for this country.” “I installed communication equipment all over Afghanistan @ provincial police headquarters, specifically to aid in getting assistance from surrounding areas to defend their regions from the Taliban. I have been to bases, spent hours traveling, hundreds of days away from my family– to read news about how we are losing those same regions.  It is very sad and tragic but most of us veterans saw this coming many years ago.”
“No, I’m proud of my service and I know it was worth it,” says 36-year-old Graham Pulliam who served as a Marine in both Iraq and Afghanistan. “If my national leadership can’t accomplish the simple task of developing a coherent and actionable strategy then I’ll bank on the seeds we planted: the Afghan Soldiers we lived and patrolled with and the villagers and children we helped.” Pulliam says his war experience was largely shaped by an ETT, an Embedded Training Team mission. “We were 4 service members embedded with an Afghan Army company, and we lived with those guys so it was a very formative experience that shaped my whole outlook on the war.” Pulliam says that he’s well aware that key areas of Afghanistan that he fought to secure were retaken by Taliban. But he says, “We won’t know what we left behind until years down the road. I think the Afghan soldiers that we patrolled with, you know what did they learn from my Marines? I think of the kids we interacted with. What did seeing somebody that just wanted to make sure they were healthy and could go to school, what seed did that plant? I’m not naive enough to say that’s the only force at work in that country because it’s extremely complex but I think that something could come from that.”

Pilot program launched at Alaska VA aims to fix Choice program (Alaska Dispatch News)
A pilot program has launched within the Alaska Veterans Affairs Healthcare System that aims to revert the process of scheduling medical appointments to how it was before the implementation of the Choice Program, the office of Sen. Dan Sullivan said Wednesday. Alaska veterans who want to schedule appointments will no longer have their calls routed to Outside employees of TriWest Healthcare Alliance, the Arizona-based company hired to run the massive nationwide Choice Program, said Mike Anderson, Sullivan’s press secretary. Instead, veterans will speak directly with Alaska VA staff like they used to do, Anderson said. “Senator Sullivan has heard from numerous Alaskan vets who would like to see things ‘go back to the way they were before choice,’” Anderson said in an email. “Senator Sullivan is hopeful that this change will improve upon what Alaska used to have, and in the end give veterans more choices over their healthcare.” The announcement of the pilot program came Tuesday at a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing, Anderson said. In a video clip of the meeting, Dr. Thomas Lynch, a VA assistant deputy undersecretary, said the pilot program will roll out in two phases. First, TriWest will dedicate staff to work virtually with the Alaska VA. That has already been done, he said. By mid-November, the company will station seven of its staffers in Alaska. “They are moving as quickly as possible. They want this almost as bad as you do,” Lynch said to Sullivan at the hearing. Sullivan interjected. “I doubt it,” Sullivan said. He then added, “No, maybe they do and that’s great.” The announcement follows a Senate committee field hearing held by Sullivan in Eagle River in August. At the meeting, veterans and health officials lambasted the Choice Program, which was supposed to increase health care access and was partly modeled on the state’s system. But some said the new program only tangled Alaska’s health care system and added another bureaucratic layer to getting appointments scheduled and bills paid.

Idaho’s Defense Fund will cover veteran’s legal fees (KREM-Spokane)
Idaho’s top elected officials have approved using the state’s Constitutional Defense Fund to pay $70,000 in legal fees to the U.S. Navy Veteran who successfully fought for permission to be buried with the ashes of her late wife in a state veterans cemetery. Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, and Attorney General Lawrence Wasden unanimously voted Wednesday to use the fund to cover the costs. The fund’s balance is now roughly $320,000. Madelynn Taylor had previously been denied having her ashes interred with Jean Mixner because of Idaho’s ban on same-sex marriage. However, the ban was lifted Oct. 15 after courts determined it was unconstitutional. A federal court later granted a permanent injunction barring the state from ever preventing the two from being interred together. The Constitutional Defense Fund was created in 1995 to defend the state’s legal rights against the federal government.