October 9 Veterans News

October 9 Veterans News

Veterans news updateUniversity of Phoenix barred from recruiting on military bases (The Wall Street Journal)
The Department of Defense on Thursday placed the University of Phoenix system on probation, barring the for-profit school giant from recruiting on military bases and preventing troops from using federal money for classes. The Defense Department provided few details on the move, but the university system has been subjected to scrutiny by the department and Congress for months. In June, Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) sent a letter to Defense Secretary Ash Carter requesting an investigation into, among other things, the school’s recruitment efforts on bases. The university system, with some 200,000 enrolled civilian and military students, is a major provider of classes to active duty troops, reservists and National Guardsmen, and provides on-campus and distance learning. “The institution will not be authorized access to DoD installations for the purposes of participating in any recruitment-type activities,” said Dawn Bilodeau, chief of the Defense Department’s Voluntary Education program. “Further, no new or transfer students at the institution will be permitted to receive DoD tuition assistance.” Last year, California briefly banned a campus of the university, which is a subsidiary of Apollo Education Group Inc., from enrolling veterans in its programs, alleging the school had enrolled too high a percentage of students receiving federal funding. The ban was soon lifted after the school was deemed to be in compliance. The current probation doesn’t affect veteran enrollment and troops currently enrolled will be allowed to continue receiving funds. “The University intends to continue its cooperation with federal and state agencies to respond to their requests,” said University of Phoenix President Tim Slottow in a statement late Thursday. “University representatives have been working closely with DoD leaders and we all expected a different response from DoD.” He said the university will fight the decision, but will comply with the order. “At this time, the university will not accept new students who wish to use tuition assistance program funds,” Mr. Slottow said. On Friday morning, Apollo filed an 8-K form with the Securities and Exchange Commission saying the Defense Department told the company Wednesday of the probationary status and that the department is considering terminating its relationship with Apollo. According to the filing, the Defense Department found fault with Apollo’s sponsorship of events on bases without proper approval. The department also based the probation action on U.S. Federal Trade Commission demands for information about University of Phoenix marketing and advertising techniques. The probation is also based, according to the SEC filing, on a California Attorney General’s office subpoena in August questioning the university’s marketing techniques.

VA spent $6.3 million on sculptures, fountains for hospitals. Should they have? (The Washington Post)
There’s a $483,000 rock sculpture that’s layered into cubes outside the mental health center at the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Palo Alto, Calif., that’s meant to evoke “a sense of transformation, rebuilding and self-investigation,” according to designers. It’s part of a renovated $1.3 million courtyard. There’s an art installation on the side of a parking garage that displays quotes by Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt in Morse code, at a cost of $285,000. It lights up. In what’s turning into the latest fight over VA spending, Congress this month is criticizing and questioning the overwhelmed and understaffed Department of Veterans Affairs for spending millions on art work on its hospital campuses. Altogether, VA Palo Alto Health Care System has spent at least $6.3 million on art and consulting services. The costs come to $4,190,356 at the Palo Alto Medical Center, $1,879,521 at the Monterey Health Care Center and $280,000 in other budgeted projects. There’s a long history of the federal government spending millions on art at federal buildings. The GSA Art in Architecture Program oversees the commissioning of artworks for new federal buildings nationwide. Its Web site says that “these artworks enhance the civic meaning of federal architecture and showcase the vibrancy of American visual arts. Together, the art and architecture of federal buildings create a lasting cultural legacy for the people of the United States.” Congress has only recently cracked down on the amount they spend on oil paintings of themselves and agency heads with the “Eliminate Government-funded Oil-painting Act,” passed in 2013 after media outlets reported that more than $200,000 had been spent on oil portraits of congressional lawmakers and agency heads. A 2008 Washington Post analysis of 30 portrait projects found that the costs ranged from $7,500 to nearly $50,000 apiece and that most of the contracts were awarded with no competitive bidding process. Separately, a Washington Times report said the federal government spent $180,000 in 2011 on portraits, including paintings of non-Cabinet officials, such as former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson and Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, that cost at least $40,000 apiece. But the debate over the price of art in VA hospitals comes as Republicans in Congress have stepped up scrutiny of the scandal-tainted agency’s spending, with problems that include covering up patient wait times for veterans seeking care to the troubled $1. 7 billion Denver hospital project that exploded in price from an initial estimate of $328 million.

VA Secretary McDonald admits ‘We have a leadership crisis’ (Daily Caller)
Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald admitted at a hearing Wednesday that the department is suffering from a leadership crisis. During the House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing, GOP Rep. Tim Huelskamp directly asked McDonald, “There is a culture of silence. Do you disagree with that?” “Last September there were people unwilling to speak up,” McDonald responded. “That’s why I’ve been to over 200 facilities.” “Do you disagree with the assessment that there is a culture of silence?” Huelskamp repeated, and upon disagreement from McDonald, he added, “You’re in the midst of a leadership crisis.” “I am in the midst of a leadership crisis,” McDonald admitted. “That’s why I’ve brought on new leadership.” That admission was delivered in a tense exchange between Huelskamp and McDonald during a hearing on a massive, 4,000-page independent assessment of the Veterans Health Administration (VHA). The assessment showed that Kaiser Permanente, another health care provider, is incomparably more efficient than the VHA. Kaiser has 114,000 fewer employees, yet provides care for 3.3 million more patients. In terms of the number of appointments per day, VHA providers only see 10-12. Other providers can see nearly 24. The report castigated the department and called for a system-wide reworking of VHA.” It stems from issues such as patients reporting significantly less favorable experiences at VA facilities, compared to non-VA facilities. Then there’s the problem of a culture of silence. “Nobody feels safe, including us,” a VA medical center leader said in the report. “How am I supposed to role model psychological safety when I don’t feel safe myself?” According to McDonald, there are five ways out of the crisis. The first is to get the right leaders in place. The second is that the department has to be clear on what culture it wants, and it has to discipline retaliation against whistleblowers. Third, McDonald said the department has been working with special counsel to ensure that 45 whistleblowers receive restitution. Fourth, the Office of Special Counsel has certified the VA for doing the training necessary to improve on working with whistleblowers. And finally, McDonald underscored the need for town hall meetings.

VA Secretary to the Hill: The reforms you seek are here (Stars & Stripes)
VA Secretary Bob McDonald told the House Veterans Affairs Committee Wednesday that a $68 million, 4000-page study of VA health care it ordered last year and accepted last month uncovers the same weaknesses and solutions McDonald and his policy team have been tackling for months. The “Independent Assessment” of the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) by outside industry and government health experts makes 188 recommendations.  Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), committee chairman, touted it as a blueprint for reforming the beleaguered VA health care system. McDonald praised the depth of the analyses but said the problems identified echo those McDonald testified to last year before launching a series of reforms to improve access and quality of health care.  The new report might have real value, McDonald suggested, if it spurs lawmakers to recognize that VA health care transformation is well underway. “I think this is the most important hearing that we’ve had since I’ve become secretary because it’s the first hearing that we’ve had on the transformation of VA,” McDonald told the committee. McDonald perhaps intended no sarcasm.  But his comments followed some scathing opening remarks by Miller about the VA.  The chairman advised colleagues they would soon hear McDonald “repeat a lot of the same talking points we have heard in the past” rather than present a plan to implement any of the assessment’s recommendations. Miller also was upset that McDonald has criticized the House-passed VA budget for fiscal 2016 saying it represented a cut to the administration’s request and that more than 70,000 veterans would be denied needed care. Both are untrue, Miller said. “In fact, the VA budget that the House has proposed represents an increase in VA’s discretionary budget and would continue the trend of budget increases that have led to a more than a 70 percent increase in the bottom line over the last six years,” Miller said. McDonald was called to testify alongside executives who led the fresh assessment of VHA, the 138th such study on VHA library shelves.  It confirms “for the most part” the same problems McDonald said he identified after becoming VA secretary in July 2014 following a patient wait-time scandal that had rocked the VA health care system.  McDonald did use part of the independent assessment to criticize the House-passed VA budget, saying it cut VA construction dollars by half and shorted health care budgets as patient demand continues to increase. One aspect of the assessment deserving special emphasis, he said, is “the misalignment of requirements and resources” it found. “We know now that the access crisis of 2014 was mostly a matter of growing demand for VA healthcare overwhelming our capacity,” McDonald said.

VA looking to find, close gaps in its customer experience with vets (Federal News Radio)
The Veterans Affairs Department’s ongoing goal to provide world class customer service always begins with a simple premise: understand the veterans experience first and foremost. To that end, VA is giving hospitals, clinics and other parts of the agency a new framework to map out its customer service experience to figure out where the gaps exist and close them. “Our goal is to make it a trusted life-long relationship. When we are working with our veterans it has to be viewed as a relational and not a transactional experience with our veterans,” said Tom Allin, VA’s chief veterans experience officer, at the ACT-IAC Customer Service Summit in Washington Oct. 7. “It’s the purpose that guides the behavior and has them doing the right thing rather than just doing things right. For the veterans experience team, our function is to create a seamless end-to-end journey across administrations, across offices, but the purpose is to create trusted life-long relationships.” Allin said the framework will give VA employees a different perspective or lens for how they view their role in working with veterans. “If you are talking to 340,000 employees how do you have a common understanding of the goal and what it is we are trying to achieve? It’s been very difficult for me in terms of experience and how you describe the experience,” he said. He said Secretary Bob McDonald and other senior executives have reviewed this new approach and liked what they saw. Allin said several VA organizations are just beginning to use the framework to improve the experience of the veterans they serve. The framework breaks the customer experience in three stages—borrowed from the theater industry. Click the headline link to read more.

Ernst pushes for expansion of telehealth care for veterans (KCRG-Cedar Rapids)
Elderly, disabled and rural veterans would have more access to health care if Congress approves legislation proposed by Sen. Joni Ernst to remove barriers to the expansion of telehealth services by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The Veterans E-Health & Telemedicine Support Act (VETS), which the Iowa Republican is introducing with Hawaii Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono, “moves us one step closer to achieving more affordable, patient-centered health care” beyond the walls of a VA facility. Sen. Chuck Grassley also is a co-sponsor. Telehealth care is an innovative approach to meeting the needs of 225,000 Iowa veterans and more than 21 million veterans nationwide, “including the invisible struggles of mental health care,” Ernst, a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard, said in her weekly conference call with reporters. Telehealth care is not new to the VA. Veterans’ use of telehealth services increased 18 percent in fiscal 2014 and 12 percent of veterans received some of their care through telehealth services, Ernst said. However, she said there are barriers that make it difficult and, in some cases, costly for veterans because they have to travel to a VA facility to use those services. Under current law, the VA may only waive the state license requirement for telehealth services if both the patient and physician are located in a federally owned facility, she explained. In addition, the VA may only perform at-home telehealth care when the patient and physician are located in the same state. “These barriers are a deterrent for disabled or rural veterans who are seeking treatment from a physician in another state, in some cases forcing veterans to travel great lengths to a federal facility before receiving telehealth services by camera or phone,” Ernst said. Her bill would allow VA health professionals to practice telemedicine across state lines if they are qualified and practice within the scope of their authorized federal duties. Expanding the use of telehealth services could reduce veterans’ health care-related costs by an average of $2,000 a year, Ernst said.

Orlando VA embracing LGBT veterans (The Orlando Sentinel)
About seven years ago, when Navy veteran Mark Cady told a nurse at the Orlando VA he was gay, she was surprised. “She said, ‘You’re the first person who’s told me that,'” recalled Cady, who is founder and executive director of Out and Proud Veterans of America. The VA has come a long way since then, as policies have changed in the military and civilian world, from the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” to the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of marriage equality. “The veterans are now feeling more comfortable coming out, because it’s openly discussed,” said Keri Griffin, a social worker at the Orlando VA, who has been leading the charge in making the Orlando VA a safe and welcoming place for LGBT veterans. About five years ago, after noticing the absence of services specific to LGBT veterans, Griffin created a support group, which meets twice a month.  Sometimes as many as a dozen men and women gather in a room at a VA satellite office and talk about a wide range of issues – from dealing with prejudice to their experiences with different providers, their transition, to PTSD and couples’ therapy. Some simply sit there quietly, and some share their good news, as Clare did recently by finally beginning her hormone therapy to transition to a woman. Clare, a retired Air Force veteran, has been married for nearly three decades. But after years of donning dresses in hiding, she finally decided to come out to her primary-care doctor, who referred her to Griffin. “I finally decided I gotta do this,” said Clare, who didn’t want to use her last name because she still holds a job as a man. Clare’s wife has asked for a divorce and her brothers still don’t know about her transition. “But life goes on,” she said. “As hard as it’s been – and it’s going to get harder – I feel liberated now. Keri told me you can’t worry about what others think.” Griffin is helping create a transgender care team at Orlando VA, consisting of primary care providers, an endocrinologist, a psychiatrist and pharmacist. “The idea is that as more transgender people feel comfortable coming forward, we want to have a point of contact so that their care would be smoother,” said Griffin.

Head of Louisiana Veterans Affairs steps down amid investigation (The Baton Rouge Advocate)
Dual investigations into conditions at nursing homes for veterans apparently led the Cabinet-level head of the state Department of Veterans Affairs to step down late Thursday. David LaCerte refused comment late Thursday on his resignation as secretary. Gov. Bobby Jindal’s press office says the Inspector General’s Office is investigating and referred all questions to Inspector General Stephen Street. He did not respond to a call seeking comment. Jindal’s office issued a news release that says Jindal’s executive counsel, Thomas Enright, has been named to serve as interim secretary until the end of the administration in early January. The agency helps veterans and their families with health care, education, disability benefits, long-term care and burial honors. The department was established in 1944 and rose to Cabinet level in 2003. Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera said his office is investigating the department’s handling of all five nursing homes for veterans. He said the Inspector General’s Office is looking at similar matters, but he did not know what. Purpera said his auditors interviewed LaCerte Thursday morning, but he was surprised by LaCerte’s resignation. A report was issued in August. The issue came up again at the Legislative Audit Advisory Council on Sept. 23. Purpera said his office was continuing its probe. The veterans homes are in Jackson, a suburb of Baton Rouge; Reserve, in the River Parishes; Jennings, in Acadiana; Bossier City; and Monroe, in the northern part of the state. Complaints had been lodged by residents and family members at all the homes to the U.S., Department of Veterans Affairs and to the state Department of Health and Hospitals. Many of the incidents violated regulations. The complaints ranged from the staff at the Louisiana War Home, in Jackson, knowing that residents were drinking and driving to the point that one intoxicated resident had to be rushed to the emergency room after falling, to a report of a nurse not following up on a resident’s complaint of being molested.

Veteran-made ‘Range 15’ zombie flick launches filming (Military Times)
Is that Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell getting tackled by the “Jump to Conclusions” guy from “Office Space”? Yes. Yes, it is. And is that Jim O’Heir from “Parks and Recreation” licking a dude’s nipple on a hospital gurney? Uh, yeah. And could that be an undead William Shatner asking to be kicked just a little harder? Yep. That’s exactly what that is. It can only mean one thing: The boys from the Ranger Up and Article 15 online T-shirt shops are making good on their promise to create exactly the kind of post-apocalyptic zombie comedy war movie they’d want to see. And they hope you do, too. “If you like the kind of stuff we do at Article 15, you’re going to love this movie,” said former Army Ranger and Article 15 president Mat Best, who plays himself in the flick, as filming got underway in Los Angeles this week. To be sure, this movie — with a script full of irreverent, dark, and decidedly anti-PC humor — won’t be for everyone. Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Meyer, one of the first “all-American badasses” to sign up for the film, backed out of the project. He appeared prominently in the production’s crowdfunding campaign that raised nearly $1 million to make the film. Like many in the ensemble cast, he was to have a small, but key, role. Ranger Up founder Nick Palmisciano, who is starring in the movie, says Meyer decided to pass on the project about three weeks ago. “I can’t speak for him, but we have nothing but respect for him,” Palmisciano said. “He gave us plenty of time to make adjustments to the script.” In an interview with the Daily Beast last year, Meyer said he was considering an eventual run for political office. When reached by phone, he said political ambitions weren’t part of his decision to leave “Article 15” and declined to say more. “Things happen,” Best said. “He was a man about it, had his reasons, and if that brings happiness in his life, then he should go for it.” And the show is certainly going on without him, with a long list of prominent veterans and actors alike. Among them are Medal of Honor recipients Leroy Petry and Clint Romesha, plus kickass Special Forces operator and MMA fighter Tim Kennedy. Dale Dye — a Marine Corps Vietnam combat veteran-turned-actor and military adviser on productions ranging from “Platoon” and “Saving Private Ryan” to “Starship Troopers” — plays the president of the United States.