January 13 Veterans News

January 13 Veterans News

VetsHQ News UpdateVeterans’ affairs left out of State of the Union (ABC15)
One topic missing in the President’s State of the Union speech Tuesday night was veterans’ affairs and Phoenix VA whistleblower Dr. Katherine Mitchell took note. Dr. Mitchell came forward nearly two years ago alerting federal investigators of a cover up by administrators to hide wait times at the Phoenix VA Hospital. She says since then, changes have happened, the wait time still exists but is drastically shorter. She says the VA is still in crisis and there’s a massive shortage of resources. “People are dying because of the gaps in care,” said Dr. Mitchell. “There’s significant issue with continued whistleblower retaliation.” President Obama did recognize U.S. soldiers in his speech but not what happens after their fight is over. “Our troops are the finest fighting force in the history of the world,” said President Obama. Dr. Mitchell says the President not only left out what she says is one of the most important issues in our country, but he misrepresented it. “He’s the Commander in Chief, he essentially glossed over every issue important to veterans health care by saying we provided more care to veterans,” she said. She’s hopeful the next administration will take a more active and vocal stance in repairing the VA system. “My vision is that the VA healthcare system becomes the premier health care provider in the United States.” Two big developments Tuesday support Dr. Mitchell’s point that the VA has seen continued progress coupled with continued breakdowns. The President’s nomination of a new chief watchdog for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs has been approved. The Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs has approved Washington lawyer Michael Missal to be the VA’s Inspector General. The IG’s office has not had a permanent leader since December 2013. … At the same time, at the Phoenix VA, two top administrators who were put on leave as a result of the wait times scandal are back on the job in a new capacity pending the outcome of a review by the VA of recently obtained evidence to determine what accountability actions may be appropriate.

Report: VA failed to spend $1.9 billion designated for health care (Military Times)
An audit of the Veterans Health Administration’s private health care program books finds the department failed to spend $1.9 billion – or 40 percent – of the $4.8 billion designated for non-VA care in fiscal 2013. Also, from Oct. 1, 2013, through March 31, 2015, medical center administrators overestimated the funds they needed to pay for outside care for veterans by $543 million, leaving that amount unavailable for patient care, according to a new Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General report. … The VA IG said the failure occurred because VA administrators have not provided medical directors with the tools they need to estimate costs and that medical center staff were not required to adjust estimated costs routinely to reflect actual costs. “We recommended that the Under Secretary for Health improve cost estimation tools, update system software to ensure unused funds can be ‘deobligated,’ require facilities to adjust cost estimates … and monitor VA medical facility obligation estimates,” wrote Gary Abe, acting assistant general for audits and evaluations. VA Secretary Robert McDonald asked Congress last year to allow the department to shift money from the Veterans Choice program to other VA programs, saying administrators needed flexibility in spending money on VA and private or community health care. Congress agreed to allow VA to use about $3.3 billion in Choice program funds to cover other account shortfalls. Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee said the audit indicates that the department has a management problem, not a money problem. “If VA’s job was mismanaging money, it would have a near-perfect record of achievement,” Miller said. “Yet despite this and other high-profile budgetary failures, all too often the department’s knee-jerk response to challenges is to ask taxpayers for more money.” A veterans advocacy group that has been pressing for a complete overhaul of the VA health system, including partial privatization, said Tuesday that the IG audit “shows the department is not truly invested in giving veterans more options.” “This report makes clear that in addition to relying on faulty budget projections, the VA failed to provide oversight for the program, to the likely detriment of nearly 80,000 veterans,” Concerned Veterans for America press secretary John Cooper said. In a response to the audit, Under Secretary for Health Dr. David Shulkin said he concurred with the recommendations made by the auditors, and he attached a plan of action.

VA Secretary to visit Boston hospital to tout research into PTSD, TBI (Military.com)
Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald plans to travel to Boston on Friday as part of a White House post-State of the Union messaging effort to promote administration accomplishments over the past seven years and discuss challenges still ahead. In addition to McDonald, the White House will be sending other Cabinet secretaries and senior administration officials on the road for what it calls the “State of the Union Cabinet in Your Community Tour.” “The tour is an opportunity for local residents to interact with, and to hear from, members of the President’s Cabinet about the issues that matter most — from climate change to the health and safety of their communities to educational and economic opportunity,” presidential assistant and cabinet secretary Broderick Johnson wrote in a lengthy White House blog posting on Sunday. In the case of McDonald, he plans to visit the VA Regional Medical Center in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood to highlight the agency’s mental health, post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury research, VA spokeswoman Victoria Dillon said on Monday. The high numbers of troops who suffered head injuries — often from blasts from improvised explosive devices, or IEDs — have prompted the VA to pour more resources into PTSD and TBI research. At the same time, suicides among veterans have increased dramatically over the past decade, with an average of 22 vets taking their lives each day, according to department figures. More than three quarters of wounded veterans are dealing with PTSD, according to an annual survey released in November and sponsored by the Wounded Warrior Project. … The VA Medical Center in Boston is one of four National Centers for Excellence for PTSD.

Senate panel backs lawyer Missal as VA watchdog (Military Times)
The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee has approved the nomination of Washington lawyer Michael Missal to be the new chief watchdog at the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs. President Obama nominated Missal to be the VA’s inspector general in October. Lawmakers from both parties have long sought a permanent inspector general for the VA as the agency struggles to meet veterans’ health care needs and provide timely decisions on benefits. The IG’s office has not had a permanent leader since December 2013. The chairman of the Senate veterans panel, Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, says the top priority of the inspector general must be to “hold bad actors at the VA accountable” for chronic delays for veterans seeking medical care and other problems at the agency.

GAO: Holding VA to time frame on benefits management system will be difficult (FierceHealthIT)
The Department of Veterans Affairs has made progress in implementing its electronic benefits management system, but delays continue to plague the rollout, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office. This is not the GAO’s first report on the system; last year the office criticized defects and a lack of response-time goals for the project. Now, five months after that report’s publication, the GAO notes that 95 percent of records related to veterans’ disability claims are electronic and reside in the system. However, the system does not yet support all disability and pension claims or appeals processing, it says. “While the Under Secretary for Benefits stated in March 2013 that the development of VBMS was expected to be completed in 2015, implementation of functionality to fully support electronic claims processing has been delayed beyond 2015,” the report’s authors write. “In addition, VBA has not yet produced a plan that identifies when the system will be completed. Accordingly, holding VA management accountable for meeting a time frame and for demonstrating progress will be difficult.” There are three areas, according to the report, that need more attention as implementation efforts move forward: determining a “reliable estimate” of cost for the system; establishing goals for system response time; and resolving defects that impede system performance and experience for users. The recommendations are similar to those put forth by the GAO in September, and the VA concurred with those recommendations at that time. In October, VA CIO LaVerne Council laid out an aggressive timeline to change technology efforts within the agency, focused on projects that could be completed within six months, those that would take six to 18 months and those that would take longer.

Extension of Pennsylvania veterans benefits program announced (Ellwood City)
State Rep Jaret Gibbons announced the application deadline for the Persian Gulf Conflict Veterans Benefit Program has been extended to Aug. 31, 2018. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, since 2008, the state has compensated more than 11,500 veterans for their service in the Persian Gulf conflict. Gibbons voted in favor of the law that extended the program. “Extending this program for applicants is the least we can do for the thousands of men and women who had to leave their families, jobs and livelihoods behind to serve our country in the Persian Gulf,” Gibbons said. “We need to make sure that we continue to honor all our veterans.” Gibbons said the bonus pays $75 per month for qualifying, active-duty service members, up to $525 maximum. For personnel who died or whose death was related to illness or injury received in the line of duty in Operations Desert Shield or Desert Storm, there is an additional $5,000 available to the surviving family. Service members who were declared prisoners of war also may be eligible for an additional $5,000.

To qualify for the program, applicants must have:

  • Served with the U.S. Armed Forces, a reserve component of the U.S. Armed Forces or the Pennsylvania National Guard.
  • Served on active duty in the Persian Gulf Theater of Operations between Aug. 2, 1990 and Aug. 31, 1991, and received the Southwest Asia Service Medal.
  • Been a legal resident of Pennsylvania at the time of active duty service.
  • Been discharged from active duty under honorable conditions, if not currently on active duty.
  • Received the Southwest Asia Service Medal.

For more information on how to apply, visit www.persiangulfbonus.pa.gov.

One-time foes aiding veterans (The Journal Gazette)
Two federal lawmakers – and former election foes – from Indiana are pushing separately for improved health care for military veterans. Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-2nd, raised questions Monday about opioid prescription practices of the Department of Veterans Affairs during a meeting of a House task force on heroin abuse. A day later, Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., promoted Veterans Courts by taking the judge who founded Indiana’s first such program to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address. Rather than hand out punishment, Veterans Courts arrange medical and behavioral treatment for veterans charged with criminal offenses but who suffer from mental illness, brain injuries or substance abuse. Donnelly narrowly defeated Walorski in the 2010 election in the South Bend-based House district. He was elected to the Senate in 2012, and she won his House seat the same year. Walorski, a member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said Monday that 2nd District veterans and their families have complained to her and her staff about the ease with which they can obtain powerful painkillers through VA. “They’re coming in with boxes. They’ll have psychotropics, opiates, they’ll have you-name-it in there in a variety of different kinds of boxes and bottles,” Walorski told fellow task force members and witnesses. “And they come in often times with their spouse literally begging and crying for help. They don’t know what to do,” she said in remarks broadcast by C-SPAN. Walorski introduced legislation recently that would require VA facilities to participate in prescription drug databases maintained by states. Two witnesses at the task force meeting said VA and other providers have been slow to embrace non-pharmacological remedies for chronic pain. “I do know one of the problems that people have in the VA is that the old guard sometimes don’t want to go through the process of learning those therapies, to provide those therapies,” said Dr. Jessica Peirce, associate director of treatment services at the Johns Hopkins Behavioral Pharmacology Research Unit. “They are difficult therapies to provide and difficult therapies to undergo, and so it is easier to write a prescription” for painkilling drugs, Peirce said. Donnelly and his State of the Union guest, Floyd County Superior Court Judge Maria Granger of New Albany, said Tuesday that they, too, have concerns about VA prescription practices. “We are going to continue to work with the VA to try and reduce and reduce and reduce the number of opioid-based prescriptions, because the opioid-based prescription can be so powerful and so dangerous,” Donnelly, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a conference call with reporters. He added that he wants opioid prescriptions cut “across the board” in health care. Granger said, “We have talked with our VA hospital at length about this concern.” She said her Veterans Court contacts VA physicians about veterans who go through the court. “We make sure all the VA doctors are alerted, that they are just as involved and that we know that (veterans) are not receiving an outside provider prescription so that we can manage their treatment more effectively,” Granger said. Granger started the state’s first Veterans Court in 2011. Today there are 15 in Indiana, including in Allen and Noble counties, with nine more planned, including in Whitley County. “We aim for the root of the problem, and we focus on changing behaviors,” Granger said. “The result is a therapeutic outcome rather than a legal outcome that you typically see in courts.”

Alaska VA expands partnership with TriWest Healthcare Alliance (Your Alaska Link)
TriWest Healthcare Alliance is a national organization, which helps the Department of Veterans Affairs implement health benefits for Veterans across the United States. “Working alongside the VA, TriWest has come to understand that there is a different footprint required here for Alaska,” said Hal R. Blair who is the Senior Deputy Program Manager for TriWest Healthcare Alliance. On Tuesday, the Alaska VA Healthcare System announced six members of TriWest will now be working alongside employees at the Alaska VA. “Here in Alaska it’s all about relationships and having staff based in the Lower 48 trying to address issues with both Veterans and providers in Alaska, just is not optimal and so having that staff here locally, where Veterans can come in and visit, explain their concerns, have our staff be focused on those concerns, working with the Alaska VA staff to resolve those concerns will make all the difference in the world,” Blair said. Two of the six TriWest members will help with veteran and integrated care. “The purpose of these individuals is to have the face to face contact with us to be able to look at what is the issue for that particular Veteran or that Choice Provider and then how can we work through those issues together, we’ll be able to see in each other’s systems, which will be very helpful,” said Linda Boyle who is a Interim Director for the Alaska VA Healthcare System. “Our total intent is to make sure that our staff is available to support the VA as they support Veterans,” said Blair. The Alaska VA says this new advanced partnership with TriWest is a result from feedback from Alaska Veterans through their Town Hall events.