Veterans’ group mad as hell as VA secretary defends bonuses (The Daily Caller)
By trying to justify millions in bonuses for VA employees involved in scandal, VA Secretary Robert McDonald is defending the indefensible, a veterans’ group said Wednesday. For 2014, employees received a total of $140 million in performance awards. Almost 50 percent of the 340,000 workers at the VA took home bonuses. The sheer number of employees awarded has raised questions about low-bar performance standards. Regardless, McDonald was quick to justify the bonuses in an op-ed in USA Today. First, the bonuses covered the time period of October 2013 to September 2014, meaning that they are not based on current scandals. Second, bonuses play a large role in retaining talent. Third, the huge majority of the 156,000 workers who did receive bonuses definitely put veterans first. Concerned Veterans for America CEO Pete Hegseth argued that McDonald’s op-ed indicates just how out of touch he is with problems at the department. “Despite consistently complaining that the VA is in the midst of a ‘resource crisis,’ he rushes to the editorial pages of a major newspaper to defend the VA’s handing out more than $140 million in incentives to nearly 50 percent of VA employees, including individuals who knowingly overprescribed medication to veterans, oversaw massive cost and time overruns of VA facilities, and created a culture of fear among subordinates,” Hegseth wrote in a statement. “If Sec. McDonald is truly committed to our veterans and not pleasing entrenched bureaucrats, he should devote his time to reforming the bonus system rather than crafting op-eds that defend the indefensible,” Hegseth added.
VA comes around on Choice Card program (The Washington Times)
The VA on Wednesday finally embraced the Choice Card program Congress created in the wake of last year’s waiting list scandal, but said it will need some changes to clean up a convoluted bureaucracy and make the program sustainable for the long run. The Choice Cards were meant to give veterans who’d waited too long for appointments or who lived too far from Veterans Affairs clinics the chance to see private doctors, at government expense. The VA had initially resisted the program, saying it took resources away from its core mission — but on Wednesday said it wanted to see the cards become a firm part of the way the VA handles business. “These efforts won’t just improve the way we do community care — they will make community care part of the fabric of VA care, making VA a truly integrated health care system,” Sloan Gibson, deputy secretary of the VA, told the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. His plan would clarify patient eligibility requirements, streamline the co-pay and provider billing and reimbursement process, create a “high-performing network” of private doctors who work with the VA and improve how the agency shares medical records with non-VA doctors. Mr. Gibson said the VA would need a “one time” budget of $421 million for the upcoming fiscal year to start fine-tuning the integrated health care system. The effort will then cost between $400 to $600 million every year, according to VA figures, but could be costlier if the improvements in the program attract new patients who want to participate in it. Some Democrats have warned that the choice program is the first step toward privatizing the VA, but committee Chairman Jeff Miller, Florida Republican, said private doctors would “supplement, not supplant” VA doctors. He said in-house VA care will continue to grow, though some VA facilities not operating at full potential might be shut down. “I don’t really think we need to say that this is non-VA care,” Rep. Brad Wenstrup, Ohio Republican, said. “I think we should shift away from calling it non-VA care but extending VA care.”
VA IG nominee promises to focus on accountability (Military Times)
The nominee to take over the long-vacant inspector general post at the Veterans Affairs Department promised that if confirmed, he would make management accountability and whistleblower protection his top priorities. “This is a particularly critical time for VA as it attempts to rebuild the trust and confidence it has lost from our veterans, Congress, veterans service organizations and the American public,” said attorney Mike Missal, who previously worked as senior counsel on a number of federal and congressional investigations. “The need to eliminate waste, fraud and abuse and to promote efficiency and integrity at VA may never have been greater.” That message was warmly received by senators, who warned Missal that he would be filling a key oversight role for an agency still trying to come to terms with scandals from early 2014. “We have a very serious problem at VA,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman “It’s an organization that has had people indicted, administrators fired … cost overruns, difficulties in management, delayed benefits, and quite frankly an administration whose response is spotty at best. “It has become obvious to me there is a culture of manipulation at VA that needs to be ended.” Senators gave no indication during the hearing that Missal’s nomination will face any opposition. If confirmed, he’ll be the first permanent IG for the department in nearly two years, a gap that earned the White House harsh criticism from several lawmakers.
Veterans in Pennsylvania still wary of VA, study shows (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald renewed his apology Wednesday for a fatal Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in Allegheny County, vowing to make the nation’s largest hospital system more transparent, efficient and responsive. His pledge coincided with research findings that suggest less than half of southwestern Pennsylvania veterans are happy with the VA and other services meant for them. Survey participants clocked a 38 percent satisfaction rate that’s similar to national trends, but analysts found that distrust in the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System remains especially sharp, in part because of the outbreak tied to six veteran deaths in 2011 and 2012. “This is really a tragedy. We can’t change what happened in the past, but we can learn from our past mistakes,” Mr. McDonald said in a media briefing at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown. He is scheduled to speak there today as part of the National Veterans Small Business engagement, a three-day summit to help veteran-owned businesses win federal contracts. Mr. McDonald’s apology — made “to the families who lost loved ones and to those who lost confidence in the health care here” — marks at least his second in Pittsburgh since July, when he visited during a VFW convention. A VA spokesman said he expected Mr. McDonald would meet this week with some relatives of outbreak victims, although it wasn’t immediately clear how many. Judy Nicklas, whose father-in-law, William Nicklas, 87, of Hampton, died during the outbreak, said she had yet to sit down with the secretary, whose appointment the Senate confirmed in July 2014. She said she had reached him by phone. “I think he’s the one who has to talk to us. I think he’s the one who owes us an explanation still,” Mrs. Nicklas said. The outbreak sickened at least 22 patients at VA campuses in O’Hara and Oakland, where waterborne Legionella bacteria contaminated the plumbing. Internal investigations found workers failed to follow protocols designed to contain the infection risk. The VA has since toughened those standards and brought on new leadership in Pittsburgh. Still, the research released Wednesday by the Downtown-based Heinz Endowments indicates the fallout lingers. The outbreak and veterans’ historical wariness about the Pittsburgh VA have diminished trust in the system, said Phillip Carter, co-author of the study at the nonprofit Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C. “There doesn’t seem to be a great deal of connective tissue between the VA and the community in the area,” Mr. Carter said.
Has veteran homelessness really ended in Virginia? (WTVR-Richmond)
When Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced the end of veteran homeless in Virginia last week, Nancy Gefvert of Blue Star Families of Richmond felt the governor missed a large sector of the homeless veteran population. The Blue Star mother attended the ceremony and said that some veterans are still homeless, which in her view is clearly evident by the homeless services that are still in place to cater to them. Gefvert was left wondering what the announcement really meant for homeless veterans and how Virginia will handle their homelessness in the future. “The speech was a starting point, but I think some things were overlooked,” said Gefvert. “I think the governor and the secretary overlooked a huge population that is not being served.” Gefvert is not alone in her assessment. Others feel the announcement rang hollow, and that the governor is being presumptuous in declaring an end to veteran homelessness. Julie Serfass, who volunteers with several local veteran’s charities, is one of those skeptics. “I spend one night a month feeding homeless veterans and on November 4, there were dozens,” Serfass said in an interview last week. “Just today, Veterans Exchange Club held an event in Henrico feeding homeless veterans, and there was another event in Fredericksburg … If we’ve solved veteran homelessness, nobody sent these guys the memo.” Much of the controversy comes from the technicality that this is not a complete end to veteran homelessness, but what federal and state leaders term a “functional” end to homelessness. During his speech the governor explained that “functional zero” does not mean that there will be no homeless veterans, but that there is now system in place to make their experience “rare, non-recurring and brief.”
Ruling: Former Phoenix VA boss may keep her bonus (AZCentral.com)
The Department of Veterans Affairs cannot rescind a bonus paid to former Phoenix VA hospital Director Sharon Helman shortly before she was fired last year for misconduct, according to a ruling by an administrative judge. The VA had moved to take back $9,080 awarded to Helman, claiming the bonus and a pay raise were issued by mistake. But judge Alan Caramella, in a Sept. 16 decision, sanctioned the VA for failing to produce key evidence and ruled Helman may keep the extra cash she received for meeting fiscal 2013 performance goals. Helman’s incentive pay and the judicial ruling are being spotlighted by some members of Congress who support legislation that would give the VA secretary increased authority to revoke bonuses, especially where awards are based on false employee evaluations. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, described the bonus program as a prime example of the department’s “blatant ineptitude and fiscal irresponsibility.” “While touting its bonus program as a way to attract and retain the best and brightest, VA continually pays thousands in taxpayer-funded bonuses to employees with proven records of incompetence and corruption year after year,” he added in a written statement to The Arizona Republic. Miller noted that the VA is not endorsing HR 280, a measure that passed the House and is awaiting a Senate vote. “VA’s indifference regarding this serious problem is another disturbing reminder that until its leaders commit to supporting real accountability — something they have refused to do thus far — efforts to reform the department are doomed to fail.”
VA plans national network to spur innovation (FedScoop)
The Department of Veterans Affairs and its employees have pioneered some of the most notable innovations in medical history over the past half century — implantable pacemakers, nicotine patches and the first successful liver transplants, to name a few. Now, to continue driving those types of medical breakthroughs, the VA has launched the Innovators Network. Described as “a community of VA employees who are actively engaged in work that is moving the agency forward,” VA’s Innovators Network is meant to spur collaboration among VA personnel, “no matter the distance,” Secretary Bob McDonald wrote in a little noticed blog post about the launch Monday. “VA needs to continue to increase its ability to rapidly respond to Veterans’ needs and to deliver the best possible experience for Veterans. We can accomplish this by developing a culture of innovation,” McDonald said. “The innovation we aim for is a framework — a mode of operating, a toolset — through which we can constantly find, test, and create better ways to deliver services to our customers.” Currently, the department is piloting the program at eight of its medical facilities across the country, including the Boston, Atlanta and Milwaukee VA medical centers. “Innovation specialists” will head up each pilot location’s development of “a culture of innovation,” according to the program’s website. The Innovators Network resembles the IDEA Lab at the Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of Personnel Management’s Innovation Lab — efforts to support federal staff with resources and connections to like-minded colleagues across the country when they have innovative ideas that might not necessarily fall under their job description but nevertheless they are passionate about and want to implement. VA employees will have the opportunity to apply for small amounts of special funding for their projects through the network’s Spark-Seed-Spread Innovation Funding Program. Much like the HHS and OPM programs, the Innovators Network also employs human-centered design — a methodology that primarily focuses on users’ needs to shape outcomes — as a guiding principle.
Military, veterans charities split $1.5 million donation (Military Times)
Cathy Cook personally sees the impact of her work with a charity that provides donations of all sorts of equipment and tools to veterans. Sometimes, when veterans are notified about what they will receive, they are moved to tears, said Cook, executive director of Work Vessels for Veterans, one of 29 military and veterans organizations that received a combined $1.5 million in donations from Newman’s Own Foundation. She recalls notifying Army veteran Mickey Clayton that she would receive an all-terrain vehicle with special accessories to use on her sheep ranch in Oregon. Because of a leg injury sustained in Iraq, Clayton is unable to ride a horse. “I have a hard time getting out to the farthest pastures or around the ranch to do routine things like round up animals, bring in sick or newborn calves and lambs, or check fence lines for regular upkeep,” Clayton wrote in her request for assistance. Cook said that when Clayton was told about the ATV donation, the veteran responded: “You have no idea what a difference this will make in my life.” Work Vessels for Veterans received $30,000 from Newman’s Own Foundation this year, and has received a total of $100,000 over the last two years. The organizations receiving grants provide a wide variety of services, such as physical and mental rehabilitation, career development, entrepreneurship, education and housing. Some organizations focus on female veterans.
VA will pilot a veteran reimbursement program in Montana (KULR-Billings)
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has selected Montana to conduct a pilot program that is intended to speed the processing of veterans’ claims for benefits. The program, known as Digits to Digits or D2D, will allow selected Veteran’s Services Organizations to submit electronic claims directly to the VA. An agreement between the VA and the Montana Veterans Affairs Division will allow MVAD to submit veteran benefit claim products directly into the VA’s claims processing system. This will result in more rapidly processed claim products, meaning that veterans will typically receive their benefits more quickly than with existing processes. “Montana was selected for this pilot program due to the MVAD’s recognized superior level of production and competence,” said Joe Foster, MVAD Administrator. “Our veterans service officers are highly trained and we have the requisite IT infrastructure to make this transition.” Currently, MVAD is responsible for over 75% of the Montana-based veteran benefit claim products submitted into the Fort Harrison VA Center. By selecting organizations that have a proven record of long-term success in submitting electronic-based claim products rather than paper claims, the VA not only expects speedier veteran access to benefits; but also – as a pilot state – “lessons learned” that will benefit all the states when the program is eventually rolled-out nationally. “Any program that streamlines the process for veterans to receive their hard-earned benefits is one I fully support,” said Governor Steve Bullock. “I also recognize the work of the MVAD staff to be selected to test this new program before it is introduced to the rest of the nation.” The pilot program agreement is scheduled to be finalized late November and put in to operation by mid-December.
Florida-based charitable group for vets banned in Texas (WFLX-West Palm Beach)
A Florida-based charitable group meant to assist veterans has been banned from Texas after most donations ended up out of state. Attorney General Ken Paxton says the Veterans Support Organization agreed to stop soliciting donations in Texas and will pay $250,000 in penalties. The settlement announced Wednesday in Austin also requires the Veterans Support Organization to pay $275,000 to help needy Texas veterans. Texas in March 2014 sued the organization and several of its directors. Investigators say the group raised more than $2.5 million in Texas from 2010 to 2012, but most of the funds were diverted to Florida and Rhode Island, where the organization was incorporated. Donors were told their contributions would benefit veterans in Texas.
Former Birmingham VA hospital union president sentenced in $92k embezzlement (AL.com)
The former president of an employees union at Birmingham’s Veterans Affairs Hospital has been sentenced to six months in prison, plus six months home detention, for embezzling more than $92,000 from the local union chapter, federal authorities announced. Stephanie Hicks, 44, of Birmingham,was sentenced Tuesday by U.S. District Judge Karon O. Bowdre, according to a statement from U.S. Attorney Joyce White Vance, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Office of Inspector General, Special Agent in Charge Monty Stokes, and U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Labor-Management Standards, Investigator Hollis Lindley Jr. Hicks had pleaded guilty in June to bank fraud and forgery. Bowdre ordered Hicks to pay $92,000 in restitution to the American Federation of Government Employees, Local 2207, AFL-CIO, as part of her sentence, according to the statement. Hicks must report to prison Jan. 12. Hicks was elected president of Local 2207 at the Birmingham VA Hospital in July 2007 and served until July 2013 when members elected a new president, according to the statement. The local chapter collects dues biweekly from its more than 440 members. During Hicks’ tenure, the local maintained the money in two bank accounts — a general operating account and a legal fund account, first at Wachovia Bank and, following a merger, at Wells Fargo Bank, according to the statement.