VA botches demotions of execs who misused authority for personal gain (Military.com)
The Department of Veterans Affairs refueled outrage Thursday over its light handling of two corrupt senior executives when the agency acknowledged that it had botched its disciplinary actions against the two officials, forcing the VA to rescind their demotions and start the punishment and appeals process again. The agency announced last month that it was demoting and transferring Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves after an investigation determined that both women had manipulated the hiring system to carve out their jobs of choice and collect huge relocation bonuses meant to entice employees to take hard-to-fill jobs. Rubens and Graves received more than $400,000 in total relocation bonuses. Lawmakers, veterans advocates and other watchdog groups lambasted the agency for not firing the women and for not recouping the money they received through their scheming. On Thursday, the VA issued a statement saying that during the processing of the demotions, an administrative error had occurred and one of the five binders of evidence had inadvertently been omitted from paperwork provided to the two women. “Not only is it impossible to fire employees at the VA, but they cannot even effectively demote employees for just cause,” Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said in a statement. “This highlights yet again the desperate need for accountability reform at the VA,” he said, adding that the agency “has so far either been incapable of or unwilling to adequately hold bad actors appropriately accountable.” The department had to rescind and reissue the proposed demotions to allow the women an opportunity to respond to the omitted evidence, the VA statement said, adding to the cascade of dismay over the VA’s handling of the case. “It seems VA’s incompetence knows no bounds,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R- Fla., who chairs the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. “By now, it’s clear to nearly every objective observer that VA’s top officials don’t know how to properly discipline employees. What remains unclear, however, is whether they are even interested in doing so.” The VA Inspector General’s office issued a report in September finding that Rubens and Graves had “inappropriately used their positions of authority for personal and financial benefit” by arranging the transfer of subordinates whose jobs they wanted and then volunteering for the vacancies. … After their demotions were announced Nov. 20, Graves and Rubens were reassigned. Both women appealed their demotions and their transfers were stayed pending the outcome. It was during the review of the appeals that VA counsel discovered the administrative error. The department is reinitiating the demotions, the VA statement said. Once that paperwork is in, Graves and Rubens will have five business days to respond to the additional evidence before a decision is made on their demotions. If the demotions stand, the women can reinitiate their appeals, the VA said.
VA problems continue despite public pressure, IG reports say (Washignton Times)
In the wake of backlash against the Department of Veterans Affairs for not cracking down hard enough on employee accountability, its watchdog group released three new reports this week that demonstrate continuing problems at VA hospitals. The VA inspector general’s office released reports on hospitals in Ohio, Maryland and Virginia that showed evidence of mismanagement and staff training problems. The first report, released Tuesday, evaluated the VA medical center in Cleveland, Ohio, and found some staff were not trained in how to issue barcode identifiers for patient files, and the hospital attributed it to “difficulties that contract employees have ‘getting into the system’ for basic matters like background and fingerprinting and issuance of personal identity verification badges, pagers, or lockers.” Until such contract employees were fully integrated into the VA system, they had no access to equipment, computers or training. In the process, “some staff shared test operator identifications and improperly entered patient identifiers,” the IG report concluded, so the laboratory staff in the hospital were unable to match the correct lab results with the correct patient files. Staff were also found to have not been trained in facility policy and procedure, but were performing tests on patients. The second report, also released Tuesday, evaluated the mental health residential rehabilitation program at the Baltimore VA hospital. The IG’s office found that staff at the Baltimore clinic had not been documenting significant clinical events in patients’ electronic health records, including “pertinent facts, findings, and observations about a patient’s health history, past and present illnesses, examinations, tests, treatments, and outcomes,” leaving some patients with incomplete records. The third evaluation was of the Salem, Virginia VA medical center, and the IG report found that half of the inspected areas of the hospital “did not have medications awaiting destruction stored separately from those available for administration.” Medication is also supposed to have an expiration date posted on the vial, and in half of the hospital’s inspected areas, the watchdog group found that vials were labeled with incorrect expiration dates. The hospital also had 10 independent practitioners working with patients, all of whom had “non-allowed” information in their files. The IG also found that equipment needed replacing — three of seven units had damaged wheelchairs — and a third of the clinics failed to properly disinfect equipment between patients.
Veterans’ jobless rate falls to seven-year low in November (Military Times)
Another month, another record low for veterans unemployment. The overall veterans jobless rate fell to a seven-year low in November and the rate for veterans from the Iraq- and Afghanistan-war era dropped below last month’s record-low mark, according to data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on Friday. The news continues a positive trend in veterans employment, one that has seen even younger veterans finding jobs at a quicker pace than their civilian peers. In fall of 2014, the unemployment rate for that group was significantly higher than national jobless rates but has been below the U.S. average for three consecutive months now. Overall veterans unemployment has been consistently below national rates for nearly six years. The 3.6 percent rate BLS found in November is the lowest monthly mark since October 2007, and reflects about 390,000 veterans unable to find work last month. The rate for the youngest veterans was 4.2 percent, the lowest since BLS began tracking those numbers in 2008. Officials have warned that the monthly veterans numbers are subject to fluctuations, due to smaller estimates than the national numbers. Still, over the last few years veterans have seen a steady drop in unemployment rates, thanks to an improving economy and targeted government programs designed to ease the transition from the military. Iraq and Afghanistan veterans make up nearly 29 percent of the 10.4 million veterans in the U.S. workforce, the largest of any era. About 492,000 of those are younger women, who represent about 41 percent of all female veterans in the workforce. Nationally, the overall unemployment rate in November was 5 percent, unchanged from the previous month. BLS officials estimated the economy added about 211,000 jobs in November, but just under 8 million Americans still struggled to find work.
What the female vets in Congress think about women in combat (The Atlantic)
You know who never doubted that women could serve in combat jobs? Women who’ve actually served in combat jobs. “I didn’t lose my legs in a bar fight,” said Tammy Duckworth, one of the first Army women to fly combat missions during the Iraq War, after the Pentagon announced Thursday that it would open all combat roles in every branch of the U.S. armed forces to women starting on January 1. “Of course women can serve in combat.” Duckworth is one of four women currently in Congress who have served in the military. The Democratic representative from Illinois lost both her legs and sustained damage to her right arm in 2004 when her helicopter was shot down by insurgents. She retired from the Army National Guard last year after 23 years. The Pentagon’s policy shift came after a two-year-long review of jobs in the U.S. Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Special Operations Command that were only open to men. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Thursday he believes the U.S. can’t build a “force of the future” by excluding half of the country’s population. About 10 percent of military positions, or 220,000 jobs, remain closed to women until the new policy takes effect. Duckworth serves on the powerful House Armed Services Committee, along with Martha McSally, a Republican from Arizona, and Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat from Hawaii. McSally is a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and has logged over 300 combat flying hours. She was the first woman in U.S. history to fly a combat aircraft into enemy territory, in Iraq in 1995. “It’s about damn time,” McSally said in a statement Thursday about the Pentagon’s decision. “We are a country that looks at people as individuals, not groups. We select the best man for the job, even if it’s a woman.” Gabbard completed two tours in Iraq as a medical operations specialist between 2004 and 2009, and currently serves as a major in the Hawaii Army National Guard. She said the Defense Department “is finally catching up to the reality of the ways women have been contributing and serving our country. This change is long overdue,” Gabbard said in a statement. Joni Ernst, the Senate’s only female veteran, praised the policy change on Thursday, but included a caveat often cited by critics of integrating women into combat roles. “I support providing women the opportunity to serve in any capacity, as long as standards are not lowered and it enhances our combat effectiveness,” she said in a statement. Ernst, a Republican from Iowa, retired from the Iowa Army National Guard as a lieutenant colonel just a few days ago after serving for 23 years.
Risk of death nearly doubled for Vietnam veterans with PTSD (Fox News)
Higher than average death rates among Vietnam War veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) suggest that combat trauma may still be affecting veterans’ health even decades after the war, according to a new study. U.S. veterans of the Vietnam War followed from the 1980s to 2011 were almost twice as likely to die during that period if they had PTSD compared to those without the disorder. The findings can inform healthcare for Vietnam veterans, now mostly in their 60s and older, and prevention efforts for the next generation of soldiers, the study team writes in the American Journal of Epidemiology. “The study offers really valuable empirical information that can help us better understand how to care for our Vietnam veterans . . . and also more recent veterans,” said study author Nida Corry, of Abt Associates in Durham, North Carolina. PTSD can develop after a person has been through a traumatic event like combat, child abuse or sexual abuse, terrorism attacks and other disasters, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Symptoms can include flashbacks, avoiding reminders of the traumatic events, changes in beliefs and activities and being overly alert, according to the VA. A study published earlier this year estimated that more than 1 in 10 Vietnam war zone veterans still have PTSD or some symptoms of the disorder. Previous studies have also suggested that Vietnam vets – especially those who served in the war zone – are at increased risk of death, and that the added risk may be related to PTSD. However, those studies were often limited, according to the authors of the current study. For the current study, the researchers from Abt Associates, New York University in New York City and other organizations analyzed information collected from 1987 to 2011 on nearly 2,400 Vietnam veterans, including 1,632 who served in the combat theater, which included Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
VA Pittsburgh confirms tuberculosis case, notifies 400 vets (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
The Veterans Affairs Pittsburgh Healthcare System is alerting 400 people after a patient came down with tuberculosis. VA officials would not identify the patient, citing confidentiality standards, but said the person is responding well to antibiotics and isn’t hospitalized. Infection risks are low for other veterans who may have been near the person recently at VA facilities, said Brooke Decker, the VA Pittsburgh infection prevention director. Still, she said Wednesday, the VA sent notifications this week to encourage such bystanders to undergo tuberculosis screening as a precaution. The VA is offering the test at no charge to letter recipients. “This is not a disease that happens quickly. Anybody exposed to this patient is not likely to be having any symptoms at this point,” Dr. Decker said. The VA Pittsburgh system last saw a case of tuberculosis, a bacterial infection, in 2012. VA clinicians diagnosed the latest patient Nov. 17. Dr. Decker said it took “a lot of legwork” to identify people who may have been exposed to that person at the VA. The patient had visited VA facilities in Monaca and Oakland since September but probably did not pick up the bacteria from the federal health system, she said. “There’s no indication that any of the diagnosed cases of TB that we see were acquired in our [facilities]. Generally, these people were exposed many, many years before — even decades,” Dr. Decker said. Doctors said tuberculosis becomes contagious only in its active, symptom-producing stage, which generally follows a latent, or quiet, phase. Active tuberculosis can bring prolonged or painful coughing, fatigue, fevers and night sweats, among other symptoms. The bacteria often attack the lungs but can go after any part of the body, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “When you have a patient with active TB and coughing, they can be highly infectious,” said Karen Hacker, the Allegheny County health director. She said the county logged 20 active cases last year and 15 in 2013. The latest case at the VA will not be included in Allegheny County numbers because the patient is not a county resident. The VA declined to identify the person’s home county. It’s offering a hotline at 412-360-1199.
VA officials say Pikes Peak region in Colorado a ‘role model’ for nation (ColoradoSprings.com)
Department of Veterans Affairs officials held up the Pikes Peak region as “a role model” for the nation Thursday, citing the close partnerships between local groups that offer help for veterans. The federal agency remains troubled here, with one-third of Colorado Springs veterans waiting a month or more for care. But Danny Pummill, the agency’s acting undersecretary, said local groups are helping fill in when his agency falls short. “You guys have broken the code – it is working the way it’s supposed to work,” Pummill said during a town hall meeting at the Norris-Penrose Event Center. Colorado Springs is a testbed for VA efforts to better coordinate services with local governments and nonprofits through its new program “MyVA Pikes Peak region.” The agency hopes the program can help veterans get care and benefits faster. Pummill pointed to local programs to help treat PTSD, get veterans jobs and help veterans navigate the tangled VA benefits process. “None of this would have happened if it was up to the federal government to do it,” Pummill said. Veterans at the meeting, through written questions, pounded the VA over long waiting times – among the nation’s longest. Natalie Merckens, the VA’s associate health care director for eastern Colorado, said the VA is trying to cut the waits. Now, according to a VA report, veterans wait an average of 34 days in Colorado Springs for a primary care visit, 45 days for specialty care and nearly two weeks for mental health care. Merckens said the VA hopes to cut waits by opening the doors of its West Fillmore Street clinic six days a week. “We will have Saturday clinics and make sure we get anyone with a clinical need that’s critical in to see a doctor,” she said. The VA also loosened rules for the Choice Program that allows some veterans to get care from civilian doctors. “To my knowledge no veteran has expired due to a delay in health care,” Merckens told the Colorado Springs crowd of nearly 100. Bob McLaughlin, co-chairman of the local MyVA committee, said the VA’s troubles show that local help is needed. The government can’t do it alone. The private sector has to step up,” McLaughlin said. McLaughlin, who runs the Mount Carmel Center for Excellence in Colorado Springs, said the first goal of his nonprofit and the MyVA program is to make sure the federal agency, veterans and veterans organization are speaking the same language. McLaughlin estimated that 70 percent of the issues veterans face with the VA involve miscommunication. “Our focus primarily for this initiative is communication,” he said. Kate Hatten, the other co-chair of the committee, said her nonprofit, the Peak Military Care Network, is working to get local care providers to fill in for veterans who face VA delays and gaps in the federal system. “The Peak Military Care Network is really trying to connect the dots,” she said. But fixing VA woes in the Pikes Peak region will take more than help from the community, the agency admits. Delays for care at the Colorado Springs clinic have quadrupled in one year. In November 2014, about 8 percent of local veterans waited more than a month for care, and more than 32 percent of veterans wait more than a month now. The VA has blamed workforce problems on the delays and launched a hiring initiative early in 2015 to get more doctors and nurses. Merckens said the VA faces a lot of competition for doctors and nurses in Colorado. Hatten said the MyVA Pikes Peak region will give the community a voice to address VA woes. “The best way to address it is through collaboration,” she said.
Armed patient took nurse hostage on 8th floor of Denver VA hospital (Denver7)
An armed patient took a nurse hostage at Denver’s Veterans Affairs Medical Center Thursday morning. It happened on the 8th floor of the medical center at 1055 Clermont Street, which is near 9th Avenue and Colorado Boulevard. A man took a female nurse hostage around 8:15 a.m., Nicole Alberico, spokeswoman for the hospital, told Denver7. Alberico confirmed the suspect is a male patient who had an appointment at the medical center Thursday morning. The patient had a gun. “VA police acted quickly, subdued the suspect and the weapon,” Alberico said. “Staff and employees reacted quickly, as trained, and were able to keep themselves and other patients out of the scene.” The situation lasted about 15 minutes. No shots were fired. The nurse is doing as well as can be expected, Alberico said. No injuries were reported.
Veterans hope to transform empty space at Seattle VA hospital into healing garden (KIRO7)
In about six months, veterans hope to transform an empty space at the VA hospital in Seattle into a healing garden. “It will be like a meditation garden,” veteran Cyril Miller said. “That’s what we are trying to provide here.” Miller is one of the vets spearheading the project. He’s been going to the hospital for more than 25 years. “Right now we got over a 100,000 people coming into the building,” Miller added. “There is no quiet corner in the building where you can just sit.” It’s a project that has been blossoming for 11 years now. On Wednesday, supporters of the garden celebrated a big moment when they presented a $40,000 check to Daniel Winterbottom from University of Washington’s Department of Landscape Architecture. Winterbottom will work with his students to design and build the garden. Veterans, their families and VA staff will be invited to participate in the design process. “What I envision is this will be a retreat, almost like monastery within the VA for veterans to seek respite, re-energize, be with family, friends,” Winterbottom explained. “This is the gift that will keep the healing for years to come,” Miller said. The group still needs to raise another $35,000. The garden should be complete next May.
Fundraising begins to build veterans cemetery in Montana (Bozeman Daily Chronicle)
Conversations on how to create a veterans cemetery in Bozeman began a decade ago with area vets wondering what it would take to make one here. Now that dream is officially on its way to becoming a reality. The valley’s veterans groups have started fundraising efforts after creating a nonprofit organization and receiving authorization to create the Southwest Montana Veterans Cemetery within Bozeman’s Sunset Hills Cemetery. “Helena’s a long ways away,” said Belgrade Legion Post Cmdr. Hank Adams, referring to the Montana State Veterans Cemetery at Fort Harrison in the state capital. “We said, ‘Why can’t we do that here?’ and make it easier for them.” The Veterans Alliance of Southwest Montana hopes to initially raise $150,000 to build a small service shelter and the first columbarium to hold urns. So far, there is $10,255 in the bank, thanks in large part to a $10,000 donation from the local chapter of Vietnam Vets of America. Burial in the Southwest Montana Veterans Cemetery will be paid for by death benefits from the Veterans Administration, meaning families won’t have to spend any of their own money to include their loved ones in the cemetery. “The family members left behind won’t have to worry about coming up with $1,000 to put them somewhere,” said Len Albright, zone commander for the American Legion of Montana. In addition to the service shelter and the columbariums, the veterans cemetery will also have areas for four-by-four plots that will have uniformed government-issued headstones. While Sunset Hills has areas specifically for veterans, Adams and Albright said the graves are scattered throughout the cemetery and have varying headstones. Sunset Hills is the perfect place for the cemetery’s location because it already includes two memorial walls — a replica Vietnam Memorial and the All Veterans Memorial Wall — and the area becomes a focal point of veterans events over Memorial Day and Veterans Day. “We’re trying to bring it all together,” Albright said. While the cemetery has been a long time in the making, Adams and Albright said they have received tremendous support from local and state politicians as well as Montana’s Congressional delegation. There is no specific timeline as to when the veterans would like to break ground on the new cemetery. However, Albright said, “the sooner the better.”