January 25 Veterans News

January 25 Veterans News

VetsHQ News UpdateAfter 14 months, VA names new head for LA healthcare system (KPCC)
Ann R. Brown has been named by the Department of Veterans Affairs as the new permanent director of the troubled Greater Los Angeles Veterans Healthcare System. She is expected to start work in February. Brown, who is expected to travel to L.A. this week along with VA Secretary Bob McDonald, will be based out of the West Los Angeles Veterans Hospital — located on the 388-acre site in Westwood that has been the subject of a federal lawsuit for mismanagement. The Greater Los Angeles regional system has had four interim directors since Donna Beiter left under pressure in December 2014. Beiter was a named defendant in the Valentini v. Shinseki case, which alleged misuse of the 388-acre Westwood site. That case was settled in January 2015 by VA Director Eric Shinseki’s replacement, Bob McDonald, who promised to enact reforms. Brown comes to Los Angeles from Chicago, where she has been the director of the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center since October 2013. … Since 2008, she has lead successively larger VA healthcare systems in multiple locations across the United States. Prior to her assignment in Chicago,  Brown was director of the VA Medical Center in Martinsburg, West Virginia. In Los Angeles, Brown’s responsibilities cover two major ambulatory care centers, a tertiary care facility and nine community-based outpatient clinics, serving more than 88,000 veterans. The operating budget of the facilities under her purview is nearly $1 billion.

Commentary: VA reform should be a priority in 2016 (National Review)
Dan Caldwell, Concerned Veterans for America: Nearly two years after systemic problems within the Department of Veterans Affairs boiled over into a nationwide scandal, veterans continue to struggle with a dysfunctional bureaucracy and long waits for health care and other critical benefits. While most observers agree that the VA seriously needs reform, it’s now more than clear that the impetus for change will not come from the Obama administration. Instead, Obama and his VA secretary, Robert McDonald, have chosen to double down on the VA’s failed government-run health-care system and have sided with the government unions against common-sense civil-service reforms within the VA. While Obama has repeatedly pledged to address the problem and restore accountability to the VA, those pledges have not been honored. Running for president in 2007, Obama was generous with promises to veterans. In a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the candidate urged “comprehensive reform” and promised to build “a 21st century VA to serve our veterans” and to “revamp an overburdened benefits system.” Those are fine goals, but unfortunately, Obama’s idea of reform ultimately consisted of little more than dumping more money into the VA, with next to nothing to show for it. The department budget ballooned, more than doubling over the last decade — a fact the Obama administration routinely trumpets as an achievement. Yet the VA’s performance has only worsened by virtually all measures. The end result of that approach has been predictable. Americans seem to have grown numb to reports of mismanagement, waste, and worse from the VA. Each week brings new reports from around the country: poor and delayed care, backlogged benefit claims, rampant cost overruns, manipulated data, retaliation against whistleblowers — the list goes on.  Within the department, leadership is scarce. Secretary McDonald initially appeared to show promise of leading a turnaround at the second-largest federal department. But, like Obama, he has proved unable or unwilling to address the systemic issues plaguing the VA. Instead, he has become the biggest defender of the VA’s broken bureaucracy. The lack of leadership has only served to empower those who seek to protect the status quo. That’s not only a betrayal of our veterans — it’s also a betrayal of the many dedicated VA employees who are shocked and appalled at the department’s mismanagement. It will surprise no one to learn that the VA is routinely ranked among the worst federal agencies to work for, according to the Partnership for Public Service.   Clearly, the VA is in crisis. So what is to be done? In Washington, it’s often assumed that one should expect little in an administration’s final year (an assumption acknowledged by Obama at the beginning of his last State of the Union speech). A sense of exhaustion sets in, and as the presidential campaign heats up, leaders in Congress may decide to sit back, wait for the dust to settle, and hope for a more favorable climate after the election. But when it comes to VA reform, it would be a grievous mistake to allow 2016 to become another wasted year. Now is the time for Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to force the issue: This is a year when voters will be highly engaged, and the VA perfectly represents the failures of big government. Where should Congress begin? First, the Senate should move without delay to pass the VA Accountability Act, which will make it easier for the VA secretary to terminate poorly performing employees and will enhance protections for whistleblowers. This bill is supported by nearly every major veterans’ organization, including the American Legion and VFW, and the House of Representatives already passed it with a bipartisan majority last summer. Accordingly, there should be no excuse for Majority Leader McConnell not to make this bill a top priority for the first part of the 2016 session. The VA Accountability Act isn’t the only fix the department needs. Congress should also look at deeper reforms of the way the VA delivers health care to our veterans. The VA reform bill passed in 2014 was meant as only a temporary fix, and, unfortunately, many of the reforms in that bill are being undermined by the VA’s own leadership. Accordingly, Congress should look at reforms that would fundamentally change the way the VA delivers health care. For members of Congress, the question is this: When you hit the campaign trail this year to ask voters to send you back to Washington, will you be able to look veterans and their families in the eye and tell them you’ve done everything you can to make the VA work for those who rely on it? We’ll be watching closely for your answer.

New campaign aimed at veterans, service members with TBI (Newberry Observer)
A new campaign is underway to get service members and veterans with brain injuries to seek help. The new initiative is being launched by the Department of Defense and is being led by the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Centers (DVBIC). Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a significant health issue which affects service members and veterans during times of both peace and war. The Defense Department reports more than 330,000 service members have been diagnosed with TBI since 2000, but they know there are some who still need treatment to deal with lasting impacts from their injury. Colonel Sidney Hinds, Director of the DVBIC, says whether the TBI is mild or severe, the cause is clearly defined. “A traumatic brain injury is the result of any blow or jolt to the head that causes an alteration in consciousness or an impairment of memory.” said Hinds. Colonel Hinds is a medical doctor, who is board certified in neurology and nuclear medicine. He says one of the biggest myths about TBI among service members is that they mostly occur in combat zones as the result of a blast. He says the truth is that motor vehicle collisions account for the majority of traumatic brain injuries in the military. … Symptoms of a TBI can be physical, cognitive, and emotional. For veterans and service members, reporting lasting effects of a TBI seems to be a low priority. TBI sufferer Randy Gross says there’s a mentality that the individual can tough it out. … “The problem is that when individuals go so long without actually recognizing the symptoms, you know, the recovery is gonna be that much more difficult.” said Gross. Colonel Hinds says symptoms vary with the severity of the TBI, but in general, lasting effects can be physical, cognitive, and even emotional. The impacts of TBI are felt within each branch of the service and throughout both the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health care systems. In the VA, TBI has become a major focus, second only to recognition of the need for increased resources to provide health care and vocational retraining for individuals with a diagnosis of TBI, as they transition to veteran status. Veterans may sustain TBIs throughout their lifespan, with the largest increase as the veterans enter into their 70s and 80s; these injuries are often caused by falls and result in high levels of disability. Active duty and reserve service members are at increased risk for sustaining a TBI compared to their civilian peers. This is a result of several factors, including the specific demographics of the military; in general, young men between the ages of 18 to 24 are at greatest risk for TBI. Many operational and training activities, which are routine in the military, are physically demanding and even potentially dangerous. Military service members are increasingly deployed to areas where they are at risk for experiencing blast exposures from improvised explosive devices (IEDs), suicide bombers, land mines, mortar rounds and rocket-propelled grenades. These and other combat related activities put our military service members at increased risk for sustaining a TBI. Although recent attention has been intensively focused on combat-related TBI, it should be noted that TBI is not uncommon even in garrison and can occur during usual daily activities. … DVBIC was founded in 1992, largely in response to the first Persian Gulf War, under the name Defense and Veterans Head Injury Program. At that time, its goal was to integrate specialized TBI care, research and education across military and veteran medical care systems. Twenty years later they are a network of 16 centers, operating out of 11 military treatment facilities and five VA poly- trauma hospitals. The specific activities vary at each site and include research, helping service members, veterans and their families find and use the right services for their needs, providing education in military and civilian settings, providing direct care to service members, and assessing TBI injury data.

St. Paul has been found violating state law for hiring veterans (Star Tribune)
For the second time in two years, state officials have found that the city of St. Paul has violated a law that gives veterans a leg-up in being hired for city jobs. As a result, the city could be forced to reopen the positions under dispute and make new hires, even though it already has filled the jobs. Critics say St. Paul may be one of the most persistent offenders in violating the state’s Veterans Preference Act, which awards points to veterans and disabled vets applying for city, county or state government jobs. City officials say they make a significant effort to hire veterans, and even attend job fairs with hopes of attracting them. But, they say, the complexities of the city’s union contracts, civil service rules and the Veterans Preference Act itself have made it difficult to comply with the law. “We are careful to follow veterans preference laws and are in frequent contact with other jurisdictions about how they handle these matters,” said Angela Nalezny, St. Paul’s director of human resources. In the latest case, 48-year-old Erik Stever, an honorably discharged U.S. Coast Guard and Army National Guard veteran, applied for two positions with the city: vehicle mechanic and parking enforcement officer. He passed pass/fail tests for both positions and was interviewed for the jobs, but did not get an offer. St. Paul said it interviewed all veterans who passed the test, which it said is an added benefit beyond the law. But Stever, who now works as a truck driver and aspires to become a police officer, contended the city neglected to add 10 points to his score for his military service, which would have moved him higher up on the list of applicants. Stever, a helicopter mechanic in the military, has a law enforcement degree and is Peace Officer Standards and Training Board-certified. He had been working in temporary positions for both the jobs for which he applied. So he decided to fight City Hall. … To be clear, the law doesn’t guarantee a veteran employment. It provides veterans, disabled veterans and certain spouses of disabled or deceased veterans a limited preference over non-veterans when applying for most Minnesota public employment positions, including jobs with the state, counties, cities and school districts. Veterans who have passing scores on open competitive examinations may claim 10 extra points on a 100-point scale. Disabled veterans may claim 15 extra points. While most disputes are resolved at the local level, a veteran who has been denied any rights related to the hiring or termination process can petition the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for relief. In the past year, the state VA commissioner has received 12 such petitions, including the two from St. Paul. The others were against a variety of counties, cities, school districts and state agencies. Of those 10, seven were settled before a hearing was held. The others were scheduled for hearings. Only the two against St. Paul went to hearings in which violations were found, according to a spokeswoman for the state VA. Stever’s attorney, John Baker, a former Marine who has handled a number of veterans preference cases across the state, said St. Paul sticks out as problematic. Baker also handled the first case in which St. Paul was found in violation: when it failed to give a disabled veteran extra points in applying for a park supervisor job. The city was ordered to reopen the hiring process. … St. Paul’s Nalezny says the city aggressively works to hire veterans, particularly for police and fire positions, accounting for the most job openings in the city. Of the 30 firefighters it has hired from 2014 to 2015, 12 are veterans. In the police department, 15 of the 64 new hires from 2014 to 2015 are veterans. The city doesn’t have figures for how many veterans it has hired overall, but is working to roll out new citywide data next month, Nalezny said. But the two cases where violations were found are disturbing to newly elected City Council Member Jane Prince, who only recently learned about the cases but has been assured corrections are being made. In Stever’s case, the Veterans Affairs commissioner did not specifically order the city to go back and redo the hiring process. But the city said it may need to vacate the original hirings. The city is also in the process of having the individual departments re-examine hiring decisions in light of the ranked scores of the applicants. Nalezny said that as a result of the Stever case, the city is adding preference points and ranking applicants who take pass/fail tests, and is passing those rankings along to the hiring departments. Even though it is not required by the law, she said the city will continue to offer an interview to all veterans who pass a pass/fail test.

Sen. Ernst, Rep. Blum field questions about Veterans Choice program (TH Online)
Iowa Republicans U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst and U.S. Rep. Rod Blum told veterans today they are listening to concerns about the implementation of the Veterans Choice program. The program is intended to allow eligible veterans to receive health care from outside the federal Veterans Affairs system. Blum and Ernst said they support the program, but the roughly 30 people in attendance at the Veterans Freedom Center in Dubuque had mixed reviews. One of those with a disfavorable view was Charlie Brimeyer, the former executive director of the Dubuque County Commission of Veterans Affairs. He praised the care administered at the local VA clinic, and questioned why the program is necessary if facilities are nearby. “Once they do use the choice program, if they have any other insurance it gets charged first and the co-pay needs to be paid — what the hell is that?” Brimeyer said. “What you wrote and what is implemented, somewhere there’s a disconnect.” Ernst said she, as a veteran, noticed the program implementation has been confusing. “My husband and I each received those choice cards in the mail and we were trying to figure out, ‘What the heck?’” Ernst said. “It was very, very confusing, I’ll admit that.” Another veteran shared her story about receiving care but then losing it after the Choice Program implementation. “When I got back in 2013, a few months after I got back I had really smooth scheduling for acupuncture and chiropractic care,” said Dedra Tentis. “I could go in and the chiropractor or acupuncture was reimbursed at $50 a time. “Once the Choice Program took over, they had to have four or five people sign off on approval and then it just dropped,” she said. “For 12 months I had a break in care unless I paid out of pocket.” Blum instructed his district director John Ferland to look into Tentis’ story, as well as the stories of other veterans there. He said he regularly meets with veterans to make sure their care is top notch. “We want to hear from the veterans whenever we’re around them, and we heard from them today, and my district director is going to be following up on their concerns,” Blum said. “We get the feedback and then we get back to Washington, we make the contacts, tell them it’s not how we want it to be.” Ernst said she believes the idea behind the Choice Program is great, but needs better implementation. “I had a veteran that lived in a very rural community, he had to commute 90 minutes each way for a blood draw that could have been done at his local hospital,” Ernst said. “That should never happen. Why can’t we make it simple for our veterans? And I think that was the intention of the law.”

Idaho planning for new veterans home in Post Falls (The Spokesman-Review)
Idaho is moving ahead with plans for a fourth veterans home, in North Idaho, but it likely will be seven to 10 years before it gets the funding approval from the Department of Veterans Affairs. “The current population right now of veterans in North Idaho is worthy of supporting a veterans home,” said Idaho Division of Veterans Services Director Col. David Brasuell, who presented his budget pitch to state lawmakers Friday morning. The state already has been offered 6.1 acres of donated land by the Jacklin family, Brasuell said, though that’s the “bare minimum” needed for a veterans home; he’d like to acquire some additional ground. Total construction cost, not counting land, is estimated at $32 million. The VA will pay 65 percent, with the state providing the rest. With its three existing veterans homes in Boise, Lewiston and Pocatello, Idaho now has beds for 76 percent of the VA-allotted slots for veterans in the state. The reason it could take a decade for Idaho to get the federal money for the home is because other states are far behind. Florida and Texas, which both got funding for new veterans homes this year, have only 30 percent of the beds they need. “They’ve got more veterans than we’ve got population,” Brasuell said. Idaho has been proactive, he said, and has had three veterans homes for more than 20 years. Back when those homes were built, Lewiston and Pocatello had the biggest veteran populations outside the Boise area. But since then, growth in North Idaho has increased its veteran population. … The property proposed for the new veterans home, near Interstate 90 and just east of Buck Knives, is vacant, Brasuell said, as are two additional parcels to the north that could possibly be added. The property has utilities, so it is ready for construction. Idaho’s Veterans Services Division also is preparing to apply for federal funding for a state veterans cemetery in eastern Idaho. Currently, the only state veterans cemetery is in Boise. Staffers have visited 30 potential sites. “The eastern Idaho veterans deserve an appropriate, dignified site to put a veterans cemetery,” Brasuell said. “We want to make sure it’s the right spot.” Overall, the division is due for just a 2.3 percent increase in funding next year under Gov. Butch Otter’s proposed budget. Only about $1 million of that $33 million total would come from state general funds; the rest of the division’s funding comes from either federal funds, a state endowment or receipts, including from Medicaid and private-pay clients who live in the veterans homes. The budget includes spending $200,000 in federal funds next year for a contractor to oversee plans for the fourth veterans home and the second cemetery.

Sumrall, Mississippi VA to hold grand opening (Hattiesburg American)
Over the past three fiscal years, Lamar County added to its ranks 677 veterans, bringing the county’s veteran population to 3,994. Given that number, the county’s two Veterans Affairs offices — one in Oak Grove and the other in Purvis — needed a little help getting veterans in other parts of the county the services they need. “The influx of veterans coming into Lamar County is so big — we have a lot of veterans here — and we want to serve them well,” said Veterans Affairs Officer Joe Ventura, who oversees the Oak Grove Senior and Veteran’s Center on West Fourth Street. “We have a lot of veterans over the age of 65 who cannot come to us, so we wanted to open a new branch so they don’t have to travel a lot.” That mission will be accomplished with the arrival of the Lamar County Veterans Service Office’s new Veteran’s Assistance Office, which will hold its grand opening at 11 a.m. Monday at 19 Center Lane in Sumrall. Guests at the event will include Sumrall Mayor Gerolene Rayborn and the Lamar County Board of Supervisors, with color guards provided by the Armed Forces Top Enlisted Association (Magnolia Chapter 2) under the direction of retired Command Sgt. Maj. Marion Walley. The Commiskey-Wheat Detachment of the Marine Corps League of Hattiesburg and the Veterans of Foreign Wars of Sumrall are the invited military organizations. … The new center, which will be open from 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Mondays, will process Service Connected Disabilities and Non-Service Connected Pensions for veterans over the age of 65, including Housebound and Aid and Attendance Benefits. The office also will provide assistance with filing for VA Death Pension by a widow. Ventura said the Oak Grove office assisted 266 veterans in the fiscal year ending September 2015. During that time, 235 veterans filed for financial assistance, 13 applied for health benefits, 10 widows or widowers filed for Medicaid benefits and nine veterans were provided with VA information. Robertson said the new Sumrall location will help to reach any veterans who may have fallen through the cracks.

Upcoming House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs hearings (The National Law Review)
On Wednesday, January 27, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs will hold a markup to consider legislation, including: H.R. 4063, the Jason Simcakoski PROMISE Act, which seeks to improve the use by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs of opioids in treating veterans, enhance patient advocacy by the Secretary, and increase the availability of complementary and integrative health; and H.R. 1769, the Toxic Exposure Research Act of 2015, which establishes in the Department of Veterans Affairs a national center for research on health conditions of the descendants of veterans exposed to toxic substances.