December 29 Veterans News

December 29 Veterans News

VetsHQ News UpdateUS Attorney declines prosecution of former VA execs (Stars and Stripes)
Federal prosecutors have decided not to press criminal charges against two former executives at the Department of Veterans Affairs who were accused of manipulating the agency’s hiring system for their own gain. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia said Thursday it has declined a referral from the VA inspector general for criminal prosecution of Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves. The inspector general said in a report this fall that Rubens and Graves forced lower-ranking regional managers to accept job transfers against their will. Rubens and Graves then stepped into the vacant positions themselves, keeping their pay while reducing their responsibilities. Rubens had been earning $181,497 as director of the Philadelphia regional office for the Veterans Benefits Administration, while Graves earned $173,949 as leader of the St. Paul, Minnesota, regional office. Before taking the regional jobs, Rubens was a deputy undersecretary at the VA’s Washington headquarters, while Graves was director of VBA’s 14-state North Atlantic Region. Rubens and Graves were accused of obtaining more than $400,000 in questionable moving expenses through a relocation program for VA executives, the inspector general’s report said. The U.S. Attorney’s office said it has “referred the matter to the VA for any administrative action that is deemed appropriate.” Rubens and Graves were demoted in November, but their demotions were rescinded this month after a paperwork mix-up. The VA has said it will reissue the demotions after the problem is resolved.

VA gets more money, oversight in 2016 (Federal News Radio)
The Department of Veterans Affairs is starting the new fiscal year with an extra $6 billion in discretionary spending, but that additional cash comes with strings. Out of the $1.1 trillion spending bill passed by Congress earlier this month, $71.4 billion has been earmarked for VA to improve (among other things) its electronic health records, reduce the backlog of disability claims and continue construction projects — provided the department loops in lawmakers. Either the VA Secretary or chief information officer must submit plans to both the House and Senate appropriations committees for projects related to “information technology systems development, modernization, and enhancement,” according to the spending bill’s text. And if a project’s cost goes up or down by more than $1 million, a request for a funding transfer must be made to those committees. There’s nearly a dozen instructions VA must follow if it plans on using available funding to improve the Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture (VistA) electronic health record. Not more than 25 percent of the funding can be obligated or spent, according to the legislation, until a report is provided to both appropriations committees detailing everything from changes in the “scope or functionality of projects within the VistA Evolution program” to a timeline of scheduled milestones to “any changes to the governance structure for the VistA Evolution program and its chain of decision-making authority.” … According to the spending bill, $2.7 billion — $173 million more than fiscal 2015 — was set aside for the Veterans Benefits Administration, with an emphasis on reducing the backlog of disability claims. In a November fact sheet provided by the White House, the backlog of disability claims that are older than 125 days currently stands at roughly 76,000 claims, an 88 percent drop from the March 2013 peak of 611,000 claims. The money in part will fund nearly 800 more staff members to handle the backlog and appeals. Within the spending bill is language directing the VA Secretary to submit a quarterly report to both appropriations committees that includes:

  • The average time to complete a disability compensation claim
  • The number of claims pending more than 125 days, disaggregated by initial and supplemental claims
  • Error rates
  • Any corrective action taken within the quarter to address poor performance
  • Training programs undertaken
  • The number and results of Quality Review Team audits

VA says claims backlog is better, but is never going away (Military Times)
The Veterans Affairs Department’s backlog of disability claims will finish 2015 near its lowest level in six years, but still will not come close to the publicly promised goal of zero. VA officials this week said the backlog sits at just under 75,000 cases, down by nearly half from when the department began publicly tracking the figure in 2009, and down by 88 percent from its peak of nearly 612,000 cases in the spring of 2013. It’s a remarkable turnaround for an agency that in the early part of this decade routinely took ridicule from critics for the ever-growing backlog totals, and saw the overall number of claims spike as it worked to make internal improvements. Since 2012, more than 940,000 new veterans have been added to VA’s compensation lists. But for years, White House and VA leaders have publicly targeted 2015 as the year they would eliminate the backlog, comprised of first-time claims pending for more than four months. And that goal may never be reached. In a statement this week, VA officials said some claims will always require more than 125 days to process, “for a number of complex reasons.” Those include shifting schedules for medical exams, additional entitlement issues, and discovery of new evidence during processing that can bolster a veteran’s case. “VA’s legal duty to assist veterans in fully developing their claims is an obligation we take seriously and will not rush,” the statement said. “VA employees are dedicated to getting veterans the benefits they have earned as quickly and accurately as possible.” Veterans Benefits Administration officials have estimated that about 10 percent of new claims coming into the system may fall into those categories. With the current inventory, that translates into a rolling list of about 40,000 backlogged claims. The department has cleared more than 530,000 overdue claims from its caseload in about 2.5 years, thanks to a series of process updates, computer upgrades and years of mandatory overtime for claims workers. … Outside critics also have expressed concern that the effort to clear the delayed first-time claims has led to an increase in the backlog of appeals on claims, where cases routinely languish for three years or more. The appeals caseload has risen by about 75,000 since spring 2013, to just over 325,000 pending cases today. But VA officials insist the percentage of total claims that wind up in appeals has remained steady in recent years, and the recent rise is connected to the greater number of claims being filed by veterans, not problems with processing first-time cases. Department leaders have promised to address the appeals problems in coming years, while also remaining focused on the first-time claims delays. “While complete elimination of the backlog may not be achievable under our current processing systems and procedures, we know there is still more that we can do,” they said in their statement.

Study ties insurgency phase of Iraq War to higher PTSD rates (EurekAlert)
Guerilla tactics such as suicide attacks and roadside bombs may trigger more posttraumatic stress than conventional warfare, suggests a Veterans Affairs study of 738 men and women who served in Iraq. The findings appeared online Dec. 14, 2015, in the journal Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. The study authors are with the Behavioral Science Division of the National Center for PTSD, based at the VA Boston Healthcare System, and with Boston University School of Medicine. They identified three distinct phases of the Iraq War, based on previous reports. Then they analyzed whether veterans who fought during the insurgency phase, during which more guerilla-style tactics were used, were more likely to develop PTSD than those who deployed during the initial invasion phase of the war, or the more recent surge phase. The study found that among the men — about half the overall group — the insurgency-phase veterans were more than twice as likely to have a diagnosis of PTSD, compared with those who served in either of the other two phases. The finding held true even after the researchers adjusted for a range of other demographic and deployment-related risk factors. The trend was not seen among the women in the sample, although the authors aren’t sure why. Citing other research, they say there may be a somewhat different mix of factors that influence PTSD among women service members and veterans. The team, led by Dr. Jonathan Green, writes that on the whole, the study suggests that enemy combat tactics may be under-appreciated in understanding what drives PTSD. They note that “assessment of the nature of combat may be useful in research and in clinical settings.” They write, also, that the relatively high rates of PTSD among Vietnam War veterans may be explained, at least in part, by looking at the type of enemy tactics those troops faced. The researchers compare that war, on the whole, to the insurgency phase of the Iraq conflict. Previous studies that aimed to compare PTSD rates between wars — say, Iraq and Vietnam — didn’t allow researchers to control for shifting generational norms and differing social and political climates. As such, Green’s team focused their analysis only on the Iraq War. Still, they acknowledge there were factors they didn’t control for that could affect PTSD rates, such as the intensity of combat or social or political factors that changed even during the course of the Iraq War.

Oregon veterans’ information possibly compromised (KOIN6)
The Oregon Department of Veterans’ Affairs revealed Monday that the personal information of nearly 1,000 former service members in the state may have been compromised. There is an ongoing investigation into the matter, but preliminary results show someone unauthorized to handle veterans’ information had access to 967 DD214’s, or Certificates of Release or Discharge from Active Duty. The ODVA says there is no evidence to suggest the information has been misused. Because the compromised documents include personal information like social security numbers, dates of birth, home addresses and full names, the ODVA says it is treating the case with critical importance. Impacted veterans have been notified of the breach via mail. They have been offered free credit monitoring services for a full year. “Beyond the more immediate investigation and response for our veterans that are impacted, I have also asked our leadership team for a broader review of our policies and internal controls around veterans’ confidentiality and privacy,” ODVA Director Cameron Smith said in a press release.

Using horses to heal wounded veterans (
Tough problems require innovative solutions, especially when the old way of doing things isn’t working. And there is more than ample evidence that the VA has totally botched treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), two of the signature wounds of the ears in Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s why Horses Spirits Healing Inc. (HSHI) in Billings, Montana uses horses to help heal veterans who are suffering from psychological trauma such as PTSD and TBI or physical disabilities such as amputations or spinal cord injuries. Horses Spirits Healing Inc. (HSHI) was established in 2014 as a 501(c)3 by the owners of the Intermountain Equestrian Center to expand their scope of equine sports and education to include Equestrian Assisted Activities and Therapy (EAAT) for returning military personnel. Assisted Activities and Therapy activities includes activities such as therapeutic riding, mounted or ground activities, grooming and stable management, shows, parades, demonstrations. HSHI services Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming. But the staff at Horses Spirits Healing aren’t the only ones using horses to help people suffering from psychological trauma or physical disabilities. For example, the staff at the Ironwood Residential Treatment Center in Morrill, Maine uses horses as a therapeutic tool to help teens deal with deeper emotional issues. In Middleburg, Florida, the mother and daughter team of Marianne and Rebecca Davenport, own and operating Hope Therapy, and since 2001 they have been making a difference in the lives of troubled individuals with the help of highly trained horses and caring volunteers. If it is happening in Maine and in Florida, it should be possible to spread the concept nationwide of using horses to help heal veterans. It should be fairly easy to use these existing programs as a model to create similar programs for veterans programs in the same local area. The expertise is there. It is just a matter of applying that therapeutic expertise to veterans as well as non-veterans. … According to Horses Spirits Healing, some veterans find it calming just to groom a horse, while other veterans enjoy the horse’s gentle gait, and other veterans rehabilitate through physical activities like moving hay bales. It is this simple, non-judgmental interaction that helps alleviate combat wounds, both seen and unseen.

Alexandria VA names new director (The Town Talk)
The Alexandria Veterans Affairs Health Care System has a new director. The Department of Veterans Affairs announced the appointment of Peter Dancy Monday. Dancy has held several leadership positions  in major medical centers within the VA and in the private sector, according to a release. “We are excited to bring Mr. Dancy on board as the new director of the Alexandria VA Health Care System,” said Fernando O. Rivera, FACHE, South Central VA Health Care Interim Network Director. “His sound leadership qualities and proven experience will be valuable assets for the facility, the employees and volunteers, and most importantly, for the veterans we are honored to serve,” Dancy served for 22 years as a U.S. Army Medical Service Corps Officer.  He received his Bachelor degree in Accounting from Morehouse College at Atlanta, Ga., Master’s degree in Business Administration from St. Mary’s University at San Antonio, Texas, and a second Master’s degree in Health Administration from Baylor University at Waco, Texas. Dancy is a board certified health care executive with the American College of Healthcare Executives, has served as a surveyor with the Accreditation Association for Ambulatory Health Care and as a preceptor with the Baylor University Graduate Program in Health Administration. The Alexandria system serves 23 parishes. Its main medical center in Pineville serves a potential veteran population of more than 100,000 and an active patient roster of more tha 37,000. It also operates community based outpatient clinics in Jennings, Lafayette, Natchitoches, Lake Charles and Fort Polk, Louisiana.

New director named to oversee VA Sunshine Healthcare Network (Tampa Tribune)
The Department of Veterans Affairs Sunshine Healthcare Network, which oversees VA health services in Florida, southern Georgia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, has a new director. Miguel H. LaPuz has been named network director and will oversee delivery of health care to nearly 600,000 veterans and an operating budget of $4.7 billion, according to a VA media release. “We are excited to bring Dr. LaPuz on board as the new director of the VA Sunshine Healthcare Network,” said Ms. Janet Murphy, acting deputy under secretary for health operations and management, in a statement. “His sound leadership qualities and proven experience will be valuable assets for the health care network, the employees and volunteers, and most importantly, for the veterans we are honored to serve. LaPuz had been director at the VA Medical Center in Salem, Va., since 2011. He was responsible for the medical center’s administrative and clinical operations and supervises executive team members, and is responsible for meeting performance measures and quality of care, according to the VA. “His implementation of VA Central Office and network directives and policies has re-engineered clinical and administrative operations to meet budgetary constraints while expanding operating inpatient beds and outpatient services,” the VA stated in a release. The VA Sunshine Healthcare Network, also known as Veterans Integrated Service Network (VISN 8) is based in St. Petersburg and encompasses seven health care systems that include eight large medical centers, 57 outpatient clinics, and seven community living centers. The network serves 1.5 million reterans in 79 counties spanning 63,400 square miles in Florida, southern Georgia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.