January 20 Veterans News

January 20 Veterans News

VetsHQ News UpdateVA strikes against Hill assertions over corrupt agency (The Washington Post)
When two members of Congress took a shot at the Department of Veterans Affairs in an op-ed last week, management decided it was not going to duck and cover. Rather than issue another string of VA mea culpas, as the agency has appropriately done for the cover-up of excessive patient wait times, Deputy Secretary Sloan D. Gibson is punching back. Gibson defended the VA in an interview with the Federal Diary, as he rejected the perception of unpunished corrupt employees failing to serve those who sacrificed for the nation. “Did we find instances of misconduct? Yes we did,” he said. “Did we hold people accountable? Yes we did. Was there widespread corruption across the department? Actually, no there wasn’t.” That will bring little comfort to the parade of agency whistleblowers who have complained of management retaliation after they reported misconduct. Nor is it likely to sway members of Congress from both parties who have criticized the department for phony appointment records that made it appear veterans received service more promptly than they did. And it certainly will not appease the vets who had long waits for health care. While Gibson acknowledged problems, he sought to place them in a less critical light – poor training, instead of rampant wrongdoing, as Sen. Jerry Moran, from Kansas, and Rep. Jeff Miller, from Florida, both Republicans, did in their article. The headline on the Wall Street Journal piece accuses VA leadership of “chronic indifference” toward the scandal that severely damaged the agency’s reputation. Moran and Miller are on their chambers’ VA committees, with Miller chairing the House panel. Miller, in particular, has been key in exposing the cover-up and reprisals against whistleblowers during a relentless series of hearings. His sessions and those in the Senate were instrumental in running the previous VA secretary, Eric K. Shinseki, out of office. At the same time, veterans have generally praised the care the VA provides, once they get it. Noting the time passed since July 2014, when current Secretary Bob McDonald promised to transform the VA during his confirmation hearing, the authors charged “VA’s culture of indifference persists, and the climate of accountability Mr. McDonald promised is nowhere in sight… “It is now clear that the VA’s most-serious problems are rooted in its leaders’ routine and pervasive refusal to seriously discipline those who have engaged in proven incompetence, corruption and malfeasance.” Miller’s and Moran’s first complaint says “110 VA medical facilities across the country maintained secret lists to hide long waits for care,” leading to the firing of three low-level workers, but no senior executives. Gibson said information on those cases was sent to the department’s inspector general’s (IG) office, which so far has provided reports and evidence on 77 of them. In only six of those facilities did the IG find intentional misconduct, according to Gibson. Last month, he told Miller’s committee the department later substantiated misuse of scheduling data at four other locations and is looking at evidence of two more. One thing is clear. The op-ed authors and VA officials clearly view the same situation differently. VA officials counter the elected officials’ statement that no senior executives were fired by saying four “have been removed from Federal service” and five others retired or resigned before they were fired. Two other senior executives were demoted. The VA does not say, however, if these people were involved with manipulating wait lists. Also, Miller’s office pointed to an IG statement in December that said it “did substantiate some type of scheduling issue ranging from outright data manipulation to intentionally game the system to simply not following VA policies and procedures” in 52 of the 77 cases. Gibson rejects the statement that 110 facilities maintained secret waiting lists. “That’s been repeated over and over and over again,” he said during the interview, exasperation in his voice. “What happens, after it has been repeated so many times it becomes the truth. “It is simply not the truth.” With innuendo, rumor and “outright erroneous assertions,” the court of public opinion has convicted the department and its employees, he continued with increasing passion. “It’s frankly wrong.” It is the veterans, who “listen to all this crap,” who are hurt most by it, he added, because they might decide not to seek health care they need at the VA. Twenty-eight employees have been implicated in scheduling improprieties and all have been subject to disciplinary actions, from reprimand to removal, according to Gibson. To speed that process, Gibson said the VA will no longer wait for the inspector general’s office to finish its investigations. “We’re done waiting,” he told the House committee. “Where we can collect relevant evidence more quickly and effectively with VA resources, we will do so. Then, where evidence warrants disciplinary action, we’ll take action.” Instead of placing employees under investigation on administrative leave, they will be given other duties. Miller has repeatedly criticized the department for not firing senior executives. He spearheaded the law that facilitates their termination process by sharply undermining their workplace due process rights. Gibson said efforts that single out a particular agency “are inappropriate” and create problems in attracting and retaining top talent, senior executives who can go to other agencies and have the full set of rights and protections generally available to federal employees. The House has an answer for that disparity – slash rights for all senior executives. Legislation advanced last week by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee would spread “expedited removal” across the government’s senior executive workforce. Miller and Moran complained that incompetent and corrupt VA employees get a “free pass.” Now Congress is moving to make adequate and fair due process for all senior executives a thing of the past.

Concerned Veterans for America restructures after leader quits (Military Times)
The head of Concerned Veterans for America — a key voice on the GOP presidential campaign trail — quietly resigned earlier this month, forcing a leadership reorganization for the group just weeks before the first primaries. Pete Hegseth had been president and chief executive officer of CVA since July 2012, helping group quickly to become a prominent voice among congressional Republicans, although officials have long insisted their goal is to build a bipartisan consensus on Veterans Affairs reform. Hegseth served as an Army National Guard major and deployed to both Iraq and Cuba during his 11-year career. He has also worked as a Fox news contributor and as an organizer on numerous conservative campaigns, making him a sometimes controversial figure on Capitol Hill. Both Hegseth and CVA officials said his decision to step down was mutual, dismissing rumors of a rift between the former CEO and the group’s financial backers. Hegseth said he’ll be releasing a book in early May and pursuing advocacy work broader than just VA issues. “Sometimes it just makes sense to make a transition,” he said. “I’m grateful to have had this opportunity, and I’ll still be fighting on these issues.” In a statement, CVA staff said the resignation will allow both sides to “focus on core priorities.” “CVA recognizes and appreciates the accomplishments of Pete as CEO,” the statement said. “He provided strong leadership during the growth of CVA as an influential organization on many fronts. CVA thanks Pete for his many contributions and we wish him well in all future endeavors.” CVA officials have repeatedly declined to discuss funding sources and trustee information for the group, but numerous news reports have linked the group to the Koch brothers network of conservative activist organizations. That link has sharpened Democratic attacks on the group, which has been harshly critical of the White House’s handling of problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs. In recent months, CVA officials have held a series of town halls to discuss their reform proposals, which have sometimes doubled as campaign events for Republican presidential hopefuls. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and business leader Carly Fiorina have all discussed their veterans and foreign policy plans at CVA forums in early primary states. Group officials said the leadership changes won’t disrupt those plans. Chief Operating Officer Jae Pak will also assume the role as president of CVA. Peter Gaytan, a former executive director of the American Legion and executive vice president at the Wounded Warrior Project, will take over as the group’s communications director.

Defense Department settles suit over discharge upgrades (WNPR)
Almost two years ago, advocates filed a class action lawsuit against the Department of Defense seeking records for how often veterans with “other than honorable” or “bad” discharges applied for discharge upgrades due to their PTSD diagnoses. Now the DOD will be turning over that information. Last week, the U.S. District Court in Connecticut approved a settlement which requires the Department of Defense to disclose on a quarterly basis the number of applications each military branch receives when a veteran is seeking a discharge upgrade and the outcome of each. This is important because veterans without honorable discharges don’t get service connected benefits like health care and disability compensation. The Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School represented the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Vietnam Veterans of America and the National Veterans Council for Legal Redress. The VVA said that thousands of Vietnam veterans were wrongfully discharged because they suffered from PTSD, at a time when the disorder was not medically accepted. Michael Wishnie is the Director of Yale’s Veterans Legal Services Clinic. In a statement, he said the settlement will allow the public to know whether the DOD is fulfilling its obligations under what’s known as the Hagel memo. In 2014, then Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel issued a directive that required military record correction boards to give “liberal consideration” to veterans with PTSD who were seeking discharge upgrades. The settlement will also require the DOD to reach out to veterans who may now be eligible for service connected benefits.

VA employee whistleblower disclosures skyrocketed last year (Government Executive)
When Bob McDonald was sworn in as secretary of the Veterans Affairs Department, one of his first promises was to protect the employees who aimed to shed a light on waste or wrongdoing within the agency. “At VA, we take whistleblower complaints seriously and will not tolerate retaliation against those who raise issues which may enable VA to better serve veterans,” McDonald said in September 2014, shortly after being sworn in as secretary. … Now in year two of his tenure, McDonald appears to have succeeded at least in creating a culture in which whistleblowers feel comfortable reporting inappropriate behavior. While whistleblower disclosures have climbed in recent years, they skyrocketed in fiscal 2015. The uptick, according the Office of Special Counsel, a small, independent agency tasked with protecting whistleblowers and federal employees from improper personnel actions, has been driven in large part due to an onslaught of new cases from VA. OSC received 755 whistleblower disclosures in fiscal 2015, a whopping 56 percent increase over the previous year. The agency received nearly 2,000 disclosures from employees across government last fiscal year, a 27 percent surge from fiscal 2014. The numbers are staggering, and to some represent a reality far different than the one McDonald describes when he depicts a department well on its way to fixing the widespread, systemic shortcomings that have embroiled the VA since they were unveiled — by whistleblowers — in 2014. “This uptick in VA whistleblower cases proves that instances of misconduct and retaliation are still all too common within the department,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, “which is why our committee will remain vigilant in our oversight of VA…” VA’s contribution to OSC’s workload has not just come from whistleblowers. Employees at the department filed 1,400 claims of prohibited personnel practices last fiscal year, a 41 percent increase over 2014. Miller said his concern lies largely with VA’s retaliation against whistleblowers, an area in which OSC has also focused. Eight of every 10 favorable actions OSC won for federal employees last year involved reprisal. … To others, the growth of whistleblower and other cases at OSC does not necessarily reflect a proportional escalation of malfeasance in government, but instead a renewed culture in which employees feel safer calling out problems at their agencies. The numbers support that theory; since 2011… total cases at OSC have increased by 52 percent. OSC attributes this to the precedent set in recent years. Even as OSC’s workload has increased, the success rate for those bringing cases to the agency has picked up even more rapidly. It resolved 278 cases favorably for employees in fiscal 2015, a nearly 60 percent increase over the previous year, and a more than 800 percent increase since fiscal 2008. The spike in cases has not been easy for OSC, an agency of about 140 employees, to handle. Congress increased its budget in the recent omnibus spending bill by 5 percent to $24.1 million, but the agency said that boost does not keep pace with inflation or the inundation of new cases. Schwellenbach said the agency plans to hire more staffers to take on the backlog of cases, which has ballooned in recent years but remained stagnant in fiscal 2015. About 2,000 cases were still outstanding at the beginning of October, and OSC has warned Congress that number could grow even with the funding increase. While the caseload has doubled since 2008, the OSC budget has increased just 31 percent in the same timeframe.

Arizona fire department joins pilot veteran health program (JEMS)
The Chandler Fire, Health & Medical (CFHM) Department is collaborating with the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Healthcare System on an innovative six month pilot project that both organizations hope will not only improve healthcare outcomes for thousands of area veterans, but also serve as a model program for fire departments around the nation. The new Community Involvement and Intervention Project is bringing CFHM and Veterans Administration (VA) medical resources together to help ensure Chandler veterans are receiving timely and appropriate healthcare, including proactive scheduling of follow-up medical services. The pilot project was approved by Chandler Mayor Jay Tibshraeny and the City Council on Monday, Dec. 7, and CFHM Community Paramedics began visiting veterans and facilitating care with Phoenix VA Healthcare staff the next morning. … Many of the emergency medical calls that CFHM personnel respond to each day involve patients who are military veterans. These calls vary from serious medical situations and behavior related issues to calls that are less serious in nature. During this pilot program, CFHM first responders will screen patients to identify those who are veterans and then help start the process to connect them to VA medical services and benefits. Part of the veteran’s follow up treatment during this pilot program will involve in-home visits from specially trained CFHM Community Paramedics who will assess the health care needs of the patient during a telehealth medical appointment with a VA nurse practitioner via mobile tablets. The inclusion of telemedicine is one of the unique aspects of the program. It places advanced teleconferencing technology into the hands of the paramedics who are visiting the patient, and enables face-to-face communication with the healthcare professionals at the VA. … Chandler Fire Health & Medical Department’s progressive approach to service delivery, willingness to innovate, and existing Community Paramedicine program made it an ideal partner for the Phoenix VA Healthcare System. Chandler uses two, two-person Community Paramedic crews that focus on providing services to individuals who have chronic medical needs that often result in numerous visits to the hospital emergency room. By being proactive and targeting certain patients for more attentive short term intervention, Community Paramedics can help these patients manage their healthcare needs while potentially reducing their medical costs, and decreasing the frequency of 9-1-1 calls and ER visits.

Cyber intrusion attempts targeting VA continue to increase (Fierce Government IT)
Intrusion attempts targeting the Veterans Affairs Department continued to trend upward in recent months, according to the VA’s information security monthly activity report to Congress. The VA blocked 181,188,372 intrusion attempts in December, an increase of more than 1 percent over November and more than 5 percent over October. The number of suspicious or malicious emails the VA blocked also increased month-over-month. The 100,778,911 instances in that category for December was a more than 17 percent increase over the 85,614,081 in November. The VA also reported that the number of pieces of malware it blocked and contained decreased month-over-month. The agency stopped 546,969,366 instances of malware in December, compared with 621,526,267 in November, from infecting the most internal levels of its systems, from personnel devices to data centers and servers. The agency once again reported that none of its medical devices underwent remediation efforts due to a digital infection. Meanwhile, data-handling mistakes created by personnel stayed about even month-over-month. Lost and stolen devices stayed exactly even at 47 in both December and November, while lost PIV cards saw a slight decrease and mishandled and mis-mailed incidents saw slight increases. In total, the VA’s missteps throughout the month affected 394 veterans, leading to 181 notifications and 213 credit protection services offered.

Veterans court coming to Texas county (Weatherford Democrat)
Treatment options for veterans could expand if the Parker County Veteran Service Office’s  advocacy for a Veterans Court is successful. The Veterans Court is a program that offers a rehabilitation program focusing on substance and alcohol abuse for veterans in trouble with the law. Those mental health and substance abuse treatments are offered as alternatives to incarceration. The funding is provided through the Department of Veterans Affairs which would provide the counseling with specialists who have the ability to come from the Metroplex area, said John Hale, Parker County Veteran Services Officer. Those who successfully complete the program can have their their record expunged. “It’s almost like probation , the judge is sitting there saying ‘hey here’s this lady from the VA, you have to go there, you will sign up, you will sign off on a case plan,’” he said. The program was first started in Buffalo, N.Y. in 2008, which based its model off of other mental health-based and substance abuse programs. Texas, Florida and California are the three states with veteran populations of more than one million people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Texas has an estimated 1.6 million veterans, according to the 2010 census figures. Since mental health and substance abuse can be related, the program focuses on both issues. Substance abuse in veterans can be a separate issue, but is also linked to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in which substance abuse may be used as a coping mechanism, according to the Department of Veteran Affairs. Overall, the military has a lower illicit drug use rate compared to the rest of the American population, but heavy alcohol use and prescription drug abuse are increasingly prevalent, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Eligible veterans who have received a clinical diagnosis of substance abuse or mental health disorder would be referred to the program. Most veterans who are referred have typically been charged with committing non-violent crimes and misdemeanors. Under the Parker County program, felons would not be eligible for the program, Hale said. While substance abuse and mental health would be the focus, Hale said that the misdemeanors could possibly range from marriage problems to child support issues. “There are all types of reasons to get a misdemeanor,” he said. Hale recalls veterans having a drug problem as early back as the Vietnam War. “It started building over there, because it was so easy to get, especially cocaine related stuff and heroin,” he said. Counseling sessions and treatment programs would be mandatory for the affected individual, who would have to successfully complete the program.

BlackBerry bags $20M contract with VA (Value Walk)
BlackBerry now has a $20 million contract with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for its communication platform, thanks to its subsidiary AtHoc. This contract marks another win for the crisis communication platform the Canadian firm acquired with the purchase of California-based AtHoc last year. The contract supports the Veterans Affairs’ Notification System and Personnel Accountability System by extending protection to more than 600,000 VA personnel. The system, known as VA-PAS, is usable in day-to-day operations as well as in crisis situations. It is capable of collecting information about the department’s personnel and coordinating a response. It is designed to provide real-time statuses of all users and make immediate reports available to VA leadership with details about the status of all employees. All responses are captured in the system, which automates the processes for real-time corrective action for those who need it, and at the same time, it also monitors the status of those capable of working during a crisis. The VA has been using the system continuously for the past four years. It used it during the National Level Exercises, day-to-day operational VA events, and real world events such as Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and the Washington D.C. Navy Yard shooting in 2013. It was possible for the VA to communicate with employees and deliver up-to-the-minute information to them about VA operational status during each of these events.