Doctor at Senate hearing: ‘Not much has changed’ at Phoenix VA (AZCentral.com)
Arizona Republican Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake used a Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs field hearing Monday to promote a “universal Choice Card” that would allow all military veterans to get subsidized health care outside the VA system. The hearing at Gilbert Town Hall reviewed a nearly two-year saga of mismanagement and delayed medical care in the Department of Veterans Affairs, with testimony from embittered patients and a Phoenix whistleblower who helped expose the nationwide problem. McCain, Flake and Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Ala., who presided over the session, repeatedly expressed frustration with the VA’s failure to reduce wait times, as well as a perceived lack of accountability nearly two years since the crisis erupted. David Shulkin, under secretary for health, said the VA has dramatically increased staff and reformed its scheduling system, but he admitted that “our overall wait times are probably not going to go down” because more veterans are enrolling for care. McCain said that problem reflects “an urgent call to make the Choice Cards universal.” The Choice Cards, authorized last year in a $16.3 billion VA reform measure, allow veterans who face appointment delays over 30 days, or who live more than 40 miles from a Veterans Affairs facility, to obtain private medical care at the government’s expense. McCain and some other members of Congress are proposing to eliminate restrictions so all veterans may use the cards. It is unclear what impact that would have on the massive Veterans Health Administration, or what the cost would be to taxpayers. … Dr. Darren Deering, chief of staff at the Phoenix VA Medical Center, was scheduled to testify Monday, but his appearance was canceled after members of the Senate committee learned an internal VA probe found Deering culpable for whistleblower reprisal. The Office of Administrative Review report said Deering retaliated against Dr. Katherine Mitchell, who also was on the witness list. Mitchell testified Monday that “not much has changed” at the Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center since she and others exposed falsified wait times and corrupt management practices in early 2014. She said triage nursing practices in the Emergency Department remain dangerous and are so “grossly inadequate” that she would not seek treatment there.
VA hospital takes down veterans’ Christmas decorations (KENS-San Antonio)
Do you say Merry Christmas? Or Happy Holidays? Should either phrase be considered offensive to anyone? A local Vietnam vet says no. But she also says that didn’t stop the Audie Murphy VA Hospital in San Antonio from taking down traditional Christmas decorations in an effort to be politically correct. For 33 years, Vietnam Veteran Ethel Holloway has been putting up Christmas decorations in the 1C unit of the VA hospital, paid for with her own money. Last Friday she was told someone found some of the decorations offensive, so they were taken down, and thrown out. “They ruined our decorations. They threw them out,” Holloway said. One of the decorations, put up in November, was complete with Santa in a sleigh pulled by reindeer, but a few days ago part of it was taken down. “They have Santa and the sleigh but ‘Merry Christmas’ is gone,” Holloway said. She had plenty of examples, including one decoration that she says used to say, “Be Merry.” It didn’t say that anymore. According to Holloway, they took the “Merry” and left the “be.” Neighbor and long-time friend, Grace Martinez, helped Holloway and her husband put the decorations up, and was disappointed too. “They literally took pieces from the middle of a whole train set, because the middle said ‘Merry Christmas,’ and the caboose and the engine were okay, so they left those two and took out the middle part,” Martinez said. The hospital released a statement: VA greatly appreciates holiday donations and volunteerism by students and organizations on behalf of Veterans of all faiths and backgrounds. We continue to accept religious cards and Christmas carols for our patients who celebrate Christmas, as we do for Veterans who celebrate religious holidays of all faiths. In this particular case, we received a number of complaints about the decorations being overly religious and offensive. Veterans entered the military to protect our freedoms, including the freedom to practice a religion of our choice. At VA, it is our duty to uphold and respect the honor and sacrifice of all Veterans, from all faiths and backgrounds.
Editorial: Replace VA facilities with health insurance (Des Moines Register)
“Candidates should start running this idea up the flagpole: Closing or selling these government facilities and providing health insurance to veterans. With an insurance card in hand, they could go wherever they wanted — or was closest — and use their taxpayer-funded insurance to pay for care. They could avoid navigating a government bureaucracy and securing permission to go to a doctor down the street. Such a transformation makes sense for veterans and the rest of the country. Taxpayers fund VA clinics they cannot access themselves and reimburse many vets to travel to them. The VA siphons medical professionals from a private sector already strapped for workers. When surgeons, psychiatrists and social workers become government employees, they abandon the health system 300 million non-veterans rely on. In the aftermath of this country fighting two international wars, thousands of veterans will need care going forward. This care must be accessible to veterans and the cost must be sustainable for taxpayers. What’s going on right now is neither.”
Problems at Minnesota VA are getting attention in Washington (KMSP-Minneapolis)
Iraq War veteran Jose Zamora wanted to see if he could schedule an appointment with his primary care provider, but every time he arranged a visit, it would end up being changed. What Zamora didn’t tell the scheduling office is he already knew the appointment was never going to happen. His provider informed him she was no longer available to see patients. But the VA, he says, never disclosed it and instead kept rebooking his visit. “Why would you hinder my health, instead of saying ‘Here’s the thing, she’s not going to be back,’” Zamora said. Zamora wonders if what happened to him is a deliberate effort by the VA to cover up staffing shortages that threaten to compromise health care for veterans. Another vet who was a patient of the same provider as Zamora shared a similar scheduling story with the Fox 9 Investigators. “Those are the types of stories that just make me livid,” said Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.). In fact, it prompted the congressman to send a letter to VA headquarters in Washington, asking the Office of Inspector General to take a deeper look at what we uncovered. In an audio of a 2009 medical staff meeting, you can hear doctors warning managers that the system in St. Cloud is dangerously overloaded with patients. They accuse management of hiding the fact that doctors are treating way more patients than is safe by creating so called “ghost panels.” The doctors believe management was purposely assigning patients to “ghost panels” to make it appear on paper that the rest of the staff’s workload wasn’t so outrageous. “That sounds like what happened to me a couple times,” Zamora said. A spokesman for the St. Cloud VA says “there are no ghost panels” there. He says Zamora’s experience of being rescheduled 3 times over 4 months “was due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control.”
TRICARE announces premium hike (Military.com)
TRICARE Health Plan officials have announced the 2016 premiums for TRICARE Young Adult Prime and Standard options covering beneficiaries 23 to 26 years old. These premiums are adjusted on an annual basis and go into effect Jan. 1. For 2016, the monthly premium for TYA Prime is $306 per month, and TYA Standard is $228 per month. Lower-cost plans may be available depending on income and residence, and assistance with paying premiums may be available. Beneficiaries may also qualify for Medicaid. Go to www.healthcare.gov to evaluate eligibility and options. Open enrollment for the Health Insurance Marketplace begins Nov. 1 and runs through Jan. 31. For more information, visit the TRICARE Young Adult website.
New Phoenix VA director starts position, hopes to regain vets’ trust (KJZZ-Phoenix)
The new permanent director of Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care System started Monday. Deborah Amdur will be the first permanent director in more than a year and a half after the agency was shaken by a scandal about delays in patient care. Since 2014, the agency has had three interim directors. Amdur comes to Phoenix from the White River Junction VA Medical Center in Vermont, where she was the medical center director. One of her first goals will be to regain trust of veterans and change the culture, she said. “It is extremely important that we create a culture of psychological safety,” she said. “Where staff and veterans feel comfortable to raise issues and we take positive action to make changes.” Another top priority is improving the Veterans Choice Program. The program, which was created last year, allows vets who live more than 40 miles away from a VA facility or have been waiting more than a month for an appointment to get care outside the system. “We really have to continue to work at our partnership with TriWest and the Choice Program,” she said. “Clearly the facility alone cannot meet all of the access needs and care needs of veterans in this area.” The Phoenix VA serves more than 80,000 veterans.
900,000 wreaths placed on veterans’ graves (USA Today)
As families put up Christmas trees and hang festive wreaths outside their homes, one movement is remembering fallen soldiers by organizing communities to lay more than 900,000 wreaths on military graves across the country. “It’s tremendous; there’s a lot of help involved. We have 320 trucks from about 150 volunteer truck companies,” said Rob Worcester, logistics director for Wreaths Across America, which became a non-profit in 2007. The endeavor began in 1992 as a pilgrimage by Maine businessman Morrill Worcester to deliver 5,000 wreaths to Arlington National Cemetery. The yearly community-building ceremony, which pays respect to those who have given their lives for the country, took place Saturday at more than 1,000 veteran cemeteries nationwide and 25 cemeteries overseas — but not without help. Saturday was also the culmination of a week’s veteran events along the original Maine-to-Arlington, Va., path. “One part of Wreaths Across America day is an honor convoy that goes directly to Arlington (Cemetery). The 12-truck convoy takes six days (with) stops at schools, veterans’ homes and other community centers,” said Worcester. The wreaths have become central for fundraising efforts of groups like local VFW branches and Boy Scout troops.
Two Mass. women mailing 317,000 holiday cards to vets, troops overseas (Boston.com)
Many soldiers overseas are about to receive holiday cards thanks to two local women. Norwood, Mass., native Emily Spencer and Foxborough’s Lauren Eliopoulos each founded their own nonprofit, Heartillery and Hero Helpers, respectively, that focus on providing support for current and veteran members of the military, according to CBS Boston. The duo paired up for their third annual card drive, the “Mission: Holiday Cards” campaign, and have received 317,000 holiday cards, according to a Facebook post. pencer and Eliopoulos told Patch.com that there were so many cards this year they had to ask Saint Timothy’s Church in Norwood to assist with storage. Half the cards will go to service members overseas while the other half will be delivered to the veteran’s medical facility Fisher House in West Roxbury, Patch.com reported.