Veterans Affairs says current Choice plan too complicated (Washington Times)
The VA said Wednesday that it wants to consolidate seven different programs that allow veterans to receive care from private doctors, saying that the operations have become too unwieldy as Congress has added more beneficiaries to the rolls. Veterans Affairs Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson said veterans are getting confused by the multiple programs, each with different eligibility rules, and that means some of them aren’t using programs that could help. He said their new plan would make sure that when a veteran seeks care and the VA can’t provide it in a timely manner, they can get it from a private doctor. “It’s all too complicated. Too complicated for veterans, for community providers, and for VA staff as well,” he told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing. Mr. Gibson said the VA would need a “one time” infusion of $421 million to begin fine-tuning the programs, and between $400 million and $600 million a year going forward. But he said the cost could spike if the New Choice Program, as the VA is calling it, proves so popular that it attracts new patients. The plan would clarify patient eligibility requirements, streamline the co-pay and provider billing and reimbursement process and create a good network of private doctors working with the VA, and able to share medical records with the department. Senators questioned the cost, with Sen. Mazie Hirono, Hawaii Democrat, saying $421 million just to design an implementation plan may not be the “best bang for the buck.” And Sen. Dan Sullivan, Alaska Republican, said the VA needs to worry about more fundamental reforms in his state, which lacks a full-service VA hospital. The VA had promised to set up a pilot program for Alaska veterans to see private doctors, but has not made any headway on it. “On behalf of my veterans, I’m pissed,” Mr. Sullivan said. Congress wrote the Choice Program into law last year as a way of helping veterans after the VA was caught shunting many of them onto secret wait lists. Veterans who sign up and who live far from a VA facility or who have waited too long for an appointment can now see a private doctor at government expense. The administration was resistant at first, proposing shifting money away from the program. But in recent weeks it has been more accommodating. The VA plans to put together a list of private doctors in the community that provide services up to the agency’s standard and would partner with the agency to provide care, Dr. David Shulkin, the VA’s undersecretary for health, said. “We want to help guide veterans with the right information, let them see it and then allow them to make the choice,” Mr. Shulkin said. The plan was too vague for veterans service organizations. Roscoe G. Butler, deputy director of the American Legion, said the VA needs to give details rather than just stating its goals. Private doctors also need to understand military culture, and the agency needs to do better in sharing medical records with the private sector, Mr. Butler told the committee. The agency has already begun implementing some parts of its consolidation plan, including releasing updated eligibility requirements for the Choice Program on Tuesday.
Pentagon chief opens all jobs in combat units to women (The Washington Post)
Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said Thursday that he is opening all jobs in in combat units to women, a landmark decision that ends a three-year period of research with a number of firsts for female service members and bitter debate at times about how women should be integrated. The decision opens the military’s most elite units to women who can meet the rigorous requirements for the positions for the first time, including the Navy SEALs, Army Special Forces and other Special Operations Units. It also opens the Marine Corps infantry, a battle-hardened force that many service officials had openly advocated keeping closed to female service members. “There will be no exceptions,” Carter said. “This means that, as long as they qualify and meet the standards, women will now be able to contribute to our mission in ways they could not before.” Carter said that the chiefs of the Army, Navy and Air Force all recommended that all jobs be opened to women. The Marine Corps recommended that certain jobs such as machine gunner be kept closed, but the secretary said that the military is a joint force, and his decision will apply to all services. The decision is nearly three years in the making. In January 2013, the defense secretary at the time, Leon Panetta, announced that he was rescinding a longtime ban on women serving directly in ground combat units, but gave the services until this fall to research the issue. Each service chief provided recommendations in September, and Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reviewed them afterward. Carter told reporters at the Pentagon in September that he would be “very facts-based and analysis-based” once the decision reached him. “I want to see the grounds upon which any actions that we take at the first of the year are going to be made,” Carter said at the time. “That’s the frame under which I’ll be looking at.” The issue has at times opened an uncommonly public rift between senior military leaders. In particular, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus took issue with a Marine Corps study that found that the average woman struggled to keep up with men, according to a number of metrics. The study did not track individual performance, drawing fire from Mabus and others in favor of full integration. Dunford, who served until late September as commandant of the Marine Corps, recommended that the service keep its infantry and at least some reconnaissance units closed to women, Marine officials said. Mabus and Air Force Secretary Deborah James have generally shown support for opening all jobs to women who can meet the same standards as men, while senior Army officials have not disclosed their recommendations.
It’s time to fix the issues plaguing the VA (Washington Examiner)
Commentary by Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.): “Last year, the American people were horrified to learn about the widespread systematic failures within the Veterans Affairs health care system, with many veterans being forced to wait months to see medical providers. Some VA facilities were so grossly mismanaged that veterans died as a result. The scandal was a national disgrace that rightfully cost the then-VA secretary his job, and led to sweeping congressional legislation aimed at improving the delivery and access of care for veterans. Now, Americans are learning that in addition to failures at some VA medical facilities, many veterans are also facing seemingly insurmountable bureaucratic hurdles to simply confirm their eligibility for the benefits they have already earned through their years of service to our nation. This week, the Department of Veterans Affairs confirmed that at least 29,000 American combat veterans are being prevented from obtaining their health care benefits. This crisis was created when the VA, as a result of a computer glitch, failed to process the applications of veterans who did not disclose their income in their application forms. Even though no means test for income exists, the VA marked these applications “pending,” putting the benefit status of the veterans in a state of limbo. To make matters worse, combat veterans have a five-year eligibility window for health care benefits, which begins at the conclusion of their military service. When the VA outright refuses to acknowledge veterans’ applications, the clock still ticks closer to the deadline, putting their health care eligibility in permanent jeopardy. Subsequent congressional requests for the VA to provide a full list of veterans who are on the health care enrollment waiting list have gone unanswered. The VA is an incredibly large and complex organization, and it’s expected that glitches can occur from time to time. What is not expected is what the VA did in response to this instance. Instead of accepting responsibility for the widespread error and working to fix it, VA officials have astonishingly punted the burden of responsibility back to the veterans. The VA decided that during the Thanksgiving holiday week it would send notices to veterans requiring them to resubmit the very same applications that the VA erroneously failed to process in the first place. This is unacceptable, but sadly it is yet another example of an incredibly inefficient bureaucracy that doesn’t always put its patrons — who happen to be America’s best and bravest — first. If the VA were a private company and operated in this manner, it would have already gone out of business. While President Obama has undeniably made major mistakes when it has come to managing the VA, he did recognize the value of having a head of the VA who has substantial business and executive management experience following the revelations of last year’s VA scandal. Hiring former Proctor & Gamble Chairman and CEO Robert McDonald as the secretary of the VA was a positive development. Secretary McDonald has been supportive of my own efforts to design and implement a long-term enterprise transformation strategy that would reduce red-tape and produce significant and sustainable improvements at VA facilities across the nation. Congress inched toward this goal by recently introducing the bipartisan Veterans Health Care Staffing Improvement Act, which would make common-sense changes to staffing policies at the VA to improve the speed and delivery of health care. Unfortunately, it seems that for every two steps we move forward to help fix the issues plaguing the VA, we also manage to take a step back. The VA’s failure to process the applications of 29,000 combat veterans is a glaring reminder that the system remains an unwieldy bureaucracy that continues to fall woefully short in providing world-class care and customer service to our veterans. We can do better, and we must do better. The brave men and women who sacrificed so much in defense of our nation and our freedoms deserve nothing less.”
Student-veteran outreach to mobilize enrollment in VA (The Lantern)
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is making its services more available to student military veterans by bringing a portable outreach unit to the Ohio State University campus. Resembling a bloodmobile, the mobile unit is staffed with nurses, nurse practitioners and volunteers to provide services ranging from medical care and flu shots to mental health screenings. VA is a government-run system that administers benefits and services, such as health care, to assist service members, veterans and their dependents or survivors. “Some soldiers can be in some pretty dire situations of mental health, so the VA has different things set up to help,” said Yannis Hadjiyannis, a current member of the Army Reserve and a fifth-year in molecular genetics. “The VA providing medical assistance to veterans is one of the best things that they can do.” The mobile-outreach unit makes many stops each month and has eight planned in central Ohio for the month of December. The stops include OSU and Columbus State Community College, as well as hospitals in Columbus. The mobile units sent to campus try to accommodate student veterans in an efficient manner that will take less than an hour of their time. “Even with a tight schedule, they have time between class to come here and enroll or just find more information out about it,” said Christine Alley, a clerk of the VA mobile outreach program. These services are free for all veterans with the exception of some co-payments. “Medical care is income-based,” Alley said. “Student veterans do not typically have a large income since they are in school, so now is a great time to enroll.” … Along with medical assistance, the outreach programs can help veterans apply for benefits such as the GI Bill, which provides scholarships for students who served in the military. “The GI Bill covers my student health insurance at Ohio State,” said Dan Corrigan, a second-year in exploration who served as a sergeant in the Marine Corps. “That’s the biggest advantage of being enrolled in the VA.” After enrolling for VA benefits in the mobile unit, student veterans will be contacted regarding their eligibility for assistance programs — such as the GI Bill — via telephone and email. However, some veterans are hesitant to enroll in VA programs because of doubt or lack of knowledge regarding assistance programs. “There are some guys who don’t know about Veterans Affairs,” Corrigan said. “Stopping in an outreach vehicle for a few minutes could really help them out.”
Pa. state-run nursing home for vets fined $11K in injury cover-up (Trib News)
A (Pennsylvania) state-run nursing home for veterans in Scranton was fined $11,375 in a citation by the state Health Department because an employee injured a patient and tried to cover up the incident. The attempted cover-up was one of several violations noted in a report on the Gino J. Merli Veterans Center recently made public. When inspected in September, the facility was operating under a provisional license because of prior violations. The two-day inspection found other problems, including a patient with bed sores and thefts from residents. Joan Nissley, spokeswoman for the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, said the deficiencies have been corrected. A new commandant is overseeing the facility’s operations, she said. “As we work through this transition, we continue to closely monitor the situation at Gino Merli to ensure that we are providing Pennsylvania veterans and their spouses with long-term services in a safe secure and caring environment,” Nissley wrote in response to questions. According to the report, a patient with multiple sclerosis who depended on two aides to get in or out of bed was injured when a single attendant tried to return him to bed. Though records indicate a lift was required to move the patient, the attendant attempted to lift him by hand. The patient’s leg was gashed on the bed frame and required eight stitches to close the wound, the report states. Initially a second aide told facility officials that she assisted with the transfer. After the patient was interviewed a second time, the aide admitted she was not on hand and had lied to cover for her colleague. “The resident firmly stated only one male nurse aide was present during the incident on April 23,” the report states. The two employees were terminated, Nissley said. Inspectors found discrepancies in records for another patient who had “newly hatched larvae” in an ankle wound. Though the problem was noted on Sept. 3, records show it wasn’t until Sept. 8 that an entry was made indicating treatment had been provided five days earlier. Inspectors said the director of nursing “failed to provide an explanation” for the discrepancy. Nissley said health officials later determined the treatment was proper and the patient recovered. Records show two cases in which residents developed bed sores while under the center’s care. Staff were to be retrained about how to avoid and treat such sores, according to the correction plan. Thefts occured at the facility over five months, inspectors found. Though 11 thefts happened, only four were reported to the state as required.
Researchers to conduct nationwide evaluation of Veterans Treatment Courts (UTSA Today)
Richard Hartley, an associate professor and chair with The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) Department of Criminal Justice is to receive $186,157 from a $761K grant awarded to Missouri State University, under the direction of co-investigator Julie Baldwin. The grant is awarded by the U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice (NIJ) to conduct the first multi-site evaluation of Veterans Treatment Courts. Each year, thousands of veterans wind up in the criminal justice system for a variety of reasons. But Veterans Treatment Courts, or VTCs, are designed to help divert eligible military veteran offenders who may grapple with mental health issues, substance abuse or homelessness from the traditional criminal justice system into appropriate treatment services. These services can include counseling and therapy, rehabilitation, and housing. “Generally, Veterans Treatment Courts are meant to address the underlying causes of veterans’ offenses, rather than simply punish the offenders,” Hartley said. “In a way, they can be a point of access to treatment and rehabilitation services for veteran offenders who may be suffering from or dealing with any number of issues.” According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 27 percent of all veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) also deal with substance abuse issues. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, it is estimated that there are more than 700,000 veterans under some form of criminal justice supervision, and since 2004, roughly 80 percent of veterans who are arrested have issues with substance abuse. The first VTC was established in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2008 by the Buffalo Drug and Mental Health Courts to help stem the rising tide of justice involved veterans, and in less than 10 years, the concept has been adopted by hundreds of court systems across the country. Nearly all-50 states now have a VTC program in place to serve their veteran population, but, according to Hartley, the relative newness of these courts means that there’s a lack of research on their long-term impacts. Over the next three years, Hartley and Baldwin will evaluate outcomes from the VTC programs. These outcomes include the effects of VTCs on substance abuse and addiction, mental health and PTSD and whether, overall, there has been a reduction of criminal activity among the VTCs’ veteran population. The researchers will use multiple methods and evaluation tools in order to most accurately reflect the reality of the VTCs’ effects. At the end of the evaluation period, the researchers will submit research and policy recommendations to the NIJ. “Since this will be the first evaluation of Veterans Treatment Courts’ effects across several states, we hope our research will serve to inform future policy, programs and further research on these and other specialized courts,” Hartley said. Hartley is a criminal justice researcher specializing in disparities in sentencing practices, and decision-making in the administration of justice.
Milwaukee VA hospital shows homeless housing plan at public hearing (58 WDJT)
A plan to give more help to homeless veterans is one step closer to becoming reality. The Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center held a public hearing Wednesday on a plan to refurbish some of the old, vacant buildings on the property and make them housing. There are six buildings that would become housing for either those who are already homeless, or are on the verge of becoming homeless. They were used to help the veterans in the early days, and could likely do that all over again. “It’s a win win because, I mean, we are using historic buildings on this campus, we’re honoring President Lincoln’s vow to take care of veterans that he made in 1867,” said Gary Kunich, with the Zablocki VA Medical Center. Under the plan, the six buildings would be transformed and made in to housing that would be occupied by veterans who either don’t have a place to live, or are about to be in that scary situation. “If any organization can come up, or have a viable option where they could come in and help create housing for homeless veterans or veterans who are at risk for homelessness, that’s what it must center on,” Kunich added. The buildings are considered “national treasures” at the Federal level, so there are strict guidelines that builders would have to abide by. At the public hearing Wednesday, a room full of veterans from the Vietnam war and before heard all about the plan. The Department of Veterans Affairs says the units would be offered to veterans first and the developer would have to execute an outreach program with the VA to find any veterans who need housing. If there aren’t any, the units would then go to non-veterans. “The project will have a significant and positive outcome for the 200 to 400 homeless and thousands of at-risk veterans in the Milwaukee area,” said one of the public hearing attendees. Leaders hope to begin reaching out to developers in the next three to four months.
Camp Alpha in Phoenix helps homeless vets get back on their feet (12 News)
In many ways it is what you would expect when you visit a camp. There are tents, cots, chairs and even a fire pit. But this camp is surrounded by houses and businesses, not pine trees and forest. At night you can hear cars driving by as the glow from street lights brightens the campsite. “It’s not typical, that’s for sure,“ said Blake Vance. The camp is in the middle of the Sunnyslope neighborhood on the corner of Hatcher and 15th Avenue. It started about two months ago and has grown into a mini military-type city. “Camp Alpha,” as it is called, was started by the founder to help homeless veterans. “It’s giving back to veterans that gave back to us. We’re fighting for them,” Aaron Pomrenke said. Pomrenke started the camp back in October. He never served in the military but comes from a long line of veterans. “They don’t choose to be here,” he said. “They are here because of circumstances, then the economy falls.” Every night about 12 to 15 people will hunker down and sleep at Camp Alpha. More will come by during the day to get a meal and maybe an extra jacket or blanket for the cold nights on the street. The camp now features almost a dozen tents, including one for food and supplies. “When I’m here, I know I’m safe,” said Eric Sprague. On this night, a fire burns in the middle of the campground. Donated logs are thrown on every hour or so to keep the fire going. Next to the campfire are two young kids putting their hands close to keep warm. At least four kids under the age of 13 are currently staying at the camp. “They saved my family,” Sprague said. “Simply put: they saved my family.” The Iraq war veteran lives at the camp with his fiancée and her 13-year-old son. Before coming here they slept in canals and abandoned buildings. At times they would go days without food. At Camp Alpha they receive three meals and have access to cots, water and other supplies. For the veterans that call Camp Alpha their temporary home as they work to transition back into mainstream society, it is a friendly and familiar environment. The camp is set-up much like ones these veterans lived at overseas. “We don’t want a hand out, but a hand up,” said Blake Vance. The ultimate goal is to get these veterans back to work and back to being able to take care of themselves. Along with the daily necessities, veterans are assisted while at the camp by counselors and outreach specialists. According to Pomrenke most of the veterans are here just a few days while they get emergency assistance. While standing in the middle of the camp a voice from the street could be heard yelling, “Is this the veteran’s camp?” Turns out it was a person stopping to drop off some padded mats to sleep on along with several jackets. The camp is set up in the parking lot of an building that is not currently occupied. The owner told Pomrenke the veterans are welcome as long as the building is empty.
Temporary veterans health clinic to open in West Virginia (The Virginian Pilot)
U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin says a temporary health clinic will open in Greenbrier County to serve veterans in parts of West Virginia and Virginia. The West Virginia Democrat says he learned from the Beckley VA Medical Center that the temporary Veterans Affairs clinic will open by the end of the month at the Rhema Christian Center in Lewisburg until a permanent clinic is established. The Greenbrier Community Based Outpatient Clinic closed in April after air quality tests found formaldehyde levels above the recommended exposure limit. The Maxwelton clinic had been shut three times since June 2014 because of air quality. The clinic served about 2,400 veterans in Greenbrier, Monroe, Pocahontas and Summers counties in West Virginia, and in Alleghany County, Virginia. They currently must travel to Beckley for health care.
High veteran unemployment appears to be in the past, but the push for more hires continues (Los Angeles Times)
Wal-Mart says it met its goal of hiring 100,000 military veterans and has upped its commitment to 250,000. A coalition of more than 200 other companies has scrapped its original objective of hiring 100,000 vets and vowed this month to make a million hires. And a separate campaign by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, called Hire 500,000 Heroes, has surpassed that target and collected promises from more than 2,000 businesses to hire at least 200,000 more veterans or their spouses. Yes, corporate America loves veterans. There’s just one problem: Most of them already have jobs. “They won’t be able to hire a million veterans anytime soon,” Jeffrey Wenger, a public policy expert at the Rand Corp. think tank in Santa Monica, said of the corporate pledges. “There aren’t a million veterans to hire.” High veteran unemployment, once rampant among those returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, appears to be a thing of the past, based on data from the Labor Department. The most recent unemployment rate for veterans who served after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, was 4.6% — essentially the same as the rate for nonveterans. That’s 142,000 recent veterans out of work. An additional 280,000 veterans from other eras are also without jobs. Overall, 3.9% of the 10.8 million veterans in the U.S. labor force were unemployed in October, a rate that economists say is largely attributable to routine turnover in the job market. The corporate hiring campaigns, however, are not declaring victory. They say the unemployment rate in the general population should not be the bar for veterans. “Until every veteran who wants a job is hired, our work is not done,” Ross Brown, head of military and veteran affairs at J.P. Morgan Chase, said in an email. … Federal, state and local government efforts are not letting up either. Veterans continue to get preference for federal jobs, and federal contractors are expected to employ a certain number of veterans.
Florida bill to allow free parking for disabled vets at airports moves forward (Tampa Bay Times)
Legislation requiring Florida airports to give disabled military veterans free parking flew through it’s final committee in the Florida House on Thursday and is lined up to be one of the first bills to pass the House when the Legislature’s next session begins on Jan. 12. On Thursday the House Economic Affairs Committee became the latest committee to give the bill the green light, passing the proposal unanimously. A Senate version also cleared its second of three committee stops earlier this week and has just one stop left before it would head to the floor of the Senate. The two bills aim to fix a gap in another law created in July that was supposed to give veterans with a special disabled license plate free parking in lots run by a county, city or “any agency thereof.” But some airports said the law did not apply to them because they are technically authorities. “Some airports were doing it, but we found that they were doing it only if they had specialized lifts or ramps,” State Rep. Ken Roberson, R-Punta Gorda, said Thursday in explaining to his colleagues why the state needed to pass another law on the topic. “This rectifies that.” Some airports are already changing their policy even before the new bill becomes law. After the Times/Herald reported that a disabled veteran from Sarasota County had been denied free parking at Tampa International Airport, that facility changed its policy and now allows all drivers with a disabled veterans license tag to have free parking. Florida has about 41,000 veterans who have the special disabled veterans license plates, which require a driver to prove they considered 100 percent disabled by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and that they were honorably discharged. The free parking could not be for more than a week and the disabled veteran has to be the driver of the vehicle, Roberson said.