December 31 Veterans News

December 31 Veterans News

VetsHQ News UpdateJustice Department shuts down 46 investigations into VA wait time scandal (Washington Examiner)
Justice Department officials have declined to pursue dozens of criminal investigations into employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs who allegedly participated in a national effort to cover up long delays in care by creating fake patient waiting lists. As of Dec. 3, the Justice Department has refused to pursue any charges in 46 of 55 cases referred by the VA’s own inspector general. Nine cases are still pending, according to a letter from Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, to Attorney General Loretta Lynch that was obtained by the Washington Examiner. Despite the widespread attention VA officials have received for manipulating patient wait times, the Justice Department has acknowledged opening just one criminal investigation into a practice that took place at 110 VA facilities across the country. FBI Director James Comey told Congress last year that the law enforcement agency’s Phoenix office had opened a criminal probe of allegations made against officials at the Phoenix VA hospital. … Although the Justice Department appears to have taken minimal, if any, action against VA employees accused by the agency’s watchdog of criminal wrongdoing, VA leaders are now attempting to blame their own inability to discipline employees on non-existent Justice Department investigations. Undersecretary David Shulkin repeated a VA argument to this effect earlier this month when he told Congress the VA could not punish Phoenix VA employees, despite overwhelming evidence they had retaliated against whistleblowers and covered up wrongdoing, because the agency was waiting on the Justice Department to wrap up its own probe. During a Dec. 14 hearing before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Shulkin testified that the Justice Department was blocking VA officials from interviewing a pair of witnesses who have been on paid leave for more than a year. But an email from an official in the VA’s Office of Inspector General to the House VA Committee suggested Shulkin’s reasoning was false. “These statements are not accurate,” the IG staffer wrote in the email to congressional investigators, which was obtained by the Examiner. “As of January 2015, the VA OIG did not place any restrictions on VA conducting its own investigation,” the email continued. What’s more, the VA sent a letter to the inspector general in November blaming its supposed inability to discipline Phoenix officials on “our lack of success in securing requested evidence from your office over the last several months.” The watchdog attorney pointed out that the VA had not actually asked the inspector general for any records since an exchange in January, during which the watchdog’s office had provided a batch of documents, according to an email from the inspector general’s counselor to the VA official. The VA never responded. … For all of the VA’s promises to improve accountability at the agency in the wake of the national wait-time scandal, only three officials were ever fired for their role in the massive cover-up.

VA misdiagnosed 50 brain injured veterans (KARE11)
The Veterans Administration has been using unqualified medical personnel to do examinations – and deny benefits – for traumatic brain injuries (TBI) at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center, according to records obtained during a KARE 11 News investigation. VA data from a new Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) filed by KARE 11 revealed the number of veterans affected. Instead of being examined by a TBI specialist, records reveal 321 cases in which a veteran was examined by a doctor VA policy shows was not qualified to diagnose traumatic brain injuries. To date, the Minneapolis, VA has re-examined 181 of those veterans and determined the unqualified doctors made quite a few mistakes. In 50 cases, an exam by a TBI specialist revealed the veterans did in fact have brain injuries and should be getting treatment and benefits previously denied. “I wrote a check for my life saying hey I’m here to serve my country now it’s your turn to take care of me,” said U.S. Navy veteran Anton Welke. “Give me the medical attention I need.” Welke is one of the Minnesota veterans now receiving the TBI treatment and benefits he was denied for three years after an unqualified doctor in the Minneapolis VA’s Compensation and Pension unit misdiagnosed him. After a blow to the head while serving on an aircraft carrier, Anton received a TBI exam in 2012 by a doctor in the Compensation and Pension Department at the Minneapolis VA. Records show Dr. Wanda Blaylark did not do any “neuropsychological testing” and diagnosed Anton as not having a TBI. “Literally the doctor that did it, she was like, ‘Oh where did you get hit in the head?’ I pointed to it, she ran her fingers a little bit like this, she says, ‘Oh I guess I don’t see the scar,” Anton recalls. After KARE 11 began investigating in early 2015, the VA began notifying veterans like Anton they were eligible for a new TBI exam with a specialist. Anton and 49 other veterans who received the new exams have now been positively diagnosed which opens a number of doors for them to receive treatment.

Organization serves female veterans of all branches (The Tampa Tribune)
Military women have served the United States since the American Revolution and share a unique sisterhood. They’re not exactly like their civilian counterparts. They must go where the job dictates, can be deployed around the globe and move more often. Overseas, they may face frightening situations in which the threat of injury or death is the norm. Their service is not always recognized, even by their male colleagues. “Sometimes people will thank a man accompanying a woman veteran for his service while not acknowledging her service,” said Navy veteran Jouay Koppari of Valrico, president of the Military Women of Tampa Bay Unit 55. “Even members of veterans’ organizations often usher women veterans to the women’s auxiliary rather than welcoming them in their organization.” Women of the various branches of the U.S. Armed Forces created individual associations to help with their unique veterans’ issues. For instance, in 1979, WAVES National was founded to support women who served in the U.S. Navy. Recently, however, the number of members in several of these organizations have waned. By early 2014, there were only eight women in the Tampa Bay WAVES Unit 55, which was chartered in 1988. To meet the need for camaraderie and combat their dwindling numbers, in November 2014, WAVES National opened its units to women of all U.S. Armed Services branches and changed its name to Military Women Across the Nation (MWAN). … “The decision to adopt the name Military Women Across the Nation (MWAN) was [because] the acronym WAVES is associated with World War II Navy women veterans and is of little or no appeal to women veterans of today,” said Brandon resident Jeannette Green. “We hope the organization will appeal to women veterans of all services and all conflicts, especially today’s female veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.” The purpose of the Military Women Across the Nation is “to encourage patriotism, loyalty to God, country and family; perpetuate the honorable history of women in the military services; strive to support morale and assist all women veterans in need; seek opportunities for locating, communicating and associating with former military service women of Florida; and support other veterans organizations through community service and volunteerism,” Green said. “We are here to help and serve all military women — veterans and those currently serving — and advocate for them,” said Riverview resident Catherine Gerolimatos, unit treasurer.

New York mayor touts milestone in helping city’s homeless veterans (New York Post)
Mayor de Blasio said the city hit a milestone Wednesday toward eradicating homelessness among military veterans — even as NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton took to the airwaves to identify street dwellers as a source of unease about public safety. On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Bratton said the perception of a rise in crime, despite an overall decrease, stemmed largely from media attention on the homeless. “There is no denying that there is a sense of unease at the moment, largely because of the homeless situation with street people,” he said. “The amount of crime committed by that population is minimal, but it attracts a lot of attention because, oftentimes, it involves a mentally unstable individual.” Later Wednesday, de Blasio said the city had earned recognition from the feds for effectively ending chronic homelessness among veterans. The designation by the US Interagency Council on Homelessness means the city has the services in place to quickly get long-term homeless veterans with disabilities into permanent housing. Still, the achievement falls short of the mayor’s publicly stated goal of ending veteran homelessness by the end of 2015. City officials said they’ve reduced the veteran homeless population from 1,558 in January down to 760 in December. Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, called the milestone a “step forward.” “Chronic homelessness is important, but it’s a small percentage of the homeless veterans,” he said. “Nobody should be spiking the ball.”

VA Gets $233M from Congress for EHR upgrade with conditions (Health Data Management)
Congress has provided $233 million in its final fiscal year 2016 omnibus bill for continued modernization of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ VistA electronic health record system. However, the appropriation—signed into law by President Obama—comes with restrictions. The EHR enhancement effort, called the VistA Evolution program, calls for the addition of an Enterprise Health Management Platform (eHMP)—a set of new modular-based components—to replace the Computerized Patient Record System, which is the existing user interface that clinicians use while delivering care. Among other capabilities, the new eHMP platform will enable the VA to meet many of the 2014 Edition Meaningful Use certification criteria for HIT components. However, legislative language restricts the use of congressional funding until VA demonstrates functional improvements in the interoperability of the system to seamlessly exchange veterans’ medical data among the VA, Department of Defense and the private sector. Not more than 25 percent of the funds can be obligated or spent until the VA Secretary submits a report to both House and Senate appropriations committees providing specifics on the scope and functionality of projects within the VistA Evolution program, including proposed changes to the program as well as the milestones and timeline associated with achieving interoperability. Lawmakers are particularly interested in the definition being used for interoperability between DoD and VA EHR systems, the metrics to measure the extent of interoperability, and the progress toward developing and implementing all components and levels of interoperability including semantic interoperability. Although DoD and VA have committed to achieving interoperability between their separate EHR systems, the two departments continue to miss important deadlines and have yet to establish outcome-oriented goals and metrics for measuring their progress toward interoperable EHRs, according to an August 2015 audit by the Government Accountability Office. According to GAO, DoD and VA missed an Oct. 1, 2014, deadline established by Congress in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2014 to certify that all healthcare data in their systems complied with national standards and were computable in real time. Auditors also revealed that a number of key activities in the departments’ system modernization plans will be implemented beyond Dec. 31, 2016, the deadline established in the NDAA for DoD and VA to deploy modernized EHR software to support clinicians while ensuring full standards-based interoperability.

Feds to pay for some disabled veterans’ assisted living (ctpost)
The federal government will pay for disabled veterans now residing in assisted-living facilities, under a bill passed by Congress in December. But the measure doesn’t cover veterans who may move to such places in the future. Disabled veterans living at retirement homes, including those at Seacrest Retirement Center in West Haven, HighVue Manor in Hamden, and Mattatuck Health Care in Waterbury, were told in 2013 by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that coverage of their housing was a mistake and would end. The coverage began in 2010. U.S. Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro obtained extensions for the Connecticut veterans who sought her help and she proposed the language in the bill approved that ensured their coverage would continue. Residential care facilities affected by the legislation serve veterans who can’t live independently, but don’t need the skilled nursing care of nursing homes. The facilities generally provide services such as, housing, food, housekeeping and supervision of medicines. The bill approved states that “ending equitable relief for veterans who were deemed eligible for benefits in error would place an unfair burden on veterans and their families.” It also notes that the “VA is working to implement new systems and protocols to eliminate instances of administrative error.” Lewis Bower, owner of Seacrest, said that the 2013 notice affected 23 of his residents. As a result, he said, “they got scared” and 17 moved out, some to nursing homes. The six who stayed received extensions of their VA contracts with the help of DeLauro, a New Haven Democrat. Some said they would have been homeless otherwise. “After serving our nation, no veteran should ever have to worry about not receiving care, especially in retirement when additional health issues may arise,” DeLauro said. “Forcing these veterans to lose their benefits because of an error that was not their fault would have been wrong, and in some cases, may not have been in the best interest of their mental or physical well-being,” she said. Bower expressed gratitude for the approved bill. “We at Seacrest are forever indebted to the veterans that have served our country, and we are privileged to provide them care.” DeLauro has introduced the Veterans Residential Care Choice Act that would allow the VA to pay for eligible veterans who move to assisted-living facilities. She said she would continue to push for its passage. The measure is co-sponsored by Connecticut’s four other House members: Reps. Joseph Courtney, Elizabeth Esty, James Himes, and John Larson.

1 in 10 nurses at D.C.-area VA hospitals have left since January (NBC Washington)
Nurses are departing the Washington D.C.-area’s VA medical center in droves, according to federal personnel records obtained by News4. About 10 percent of nurses working in the Washington D.C., Martinsburg, West Virginia and Baltimore medical facilities of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs have resigned or retired since January. A retirement bubble is hitting the Martinsburg Medical Center in particular. The facility, which treats veterans from Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia, saw a spike in nursing retirements in 2015, those records show. Almost 13 percent of its nurses left in 2015, most of them to retirements, according to the records. That was the highest rate in four years at all three facilities. The agency, in a statement to News 4, said it is being impacted by a nationwide nursing shortage and competition from higher-paying private hospital nursing jobs. “As the nation’s largest integrated health care delivery system, (the VA’s) workforce challenges mirror those of the health care industry as a whole,” an agency spokesman said. Thor Wold, a Virginia veteran of the Iraq War, said he has noticed the turnover of nurses at the Washington D.C. VA Medical Center on Irving Street. “Any time you have a high turnover rate, you lose something in continuity,” Wold said. “It’s never going to be the same as the nurse you’re used to seeing.” The turnover of nursing staff, which is impacting veterans medical centers nationwide, is happening a particularly inopportune time for the Department of Veterans Affairs. The number of patient visits and aging veterans is quickly rising. A review of agency staffing levels by the Government Accountability Office had flagged nursing retirements and resignations as a future risk. The Government Accountability Office report said, “(The VA) projects that approximately 40,000 new RNs will be needed through FY 2018 to maintain adequate staffing levels, including replacing retired nurses, to meet veterans’ needs.” Critics of the agency said recent scandals inside the VA are hurting its recruitment of nurses. “The Department of Veterans Affairs is an agency where proven incompetence, corruption and whistleblower retaliation are routinely tolerated,” Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Florida) said. “This sad fact is contributing to all of the department’s most serious problems, including VA’s struggles to fill open positions for doctors, nurses and other health care professionals.” A VA spokesman said the agency is using “nontraditional” recruitment tools to lure new nurses to its workforce. The agency is offering to repay the student loans of nurses and offering relocation bonuses to those who move to work at a VA medical center or office. The nurses themselves, meanwhile, say the career is exhausting — but rewarding. Susan George, a senior nurse at the Martinsburg Medical Center, retired late in 2015. “There’s fatigue to being a nurse, but there’s also satisfaction to being a nurse,” George said. “It gives you good experiences and adds to your life and career.”