January 6 Veterans News

January 6 Veterans News

VetsHQ News UpdateEmbattled Phoenix VA exec: If I were guilty, I’d be fired (Federal Times)
A Veterans Affairs executive on administrative leave over the patient wait time scandal says that if he done anything wrong, the VA would have fired him by now. The statement from Lance Robinson, associate director of the Phoenix VA Health Care System, submitted in written testimony through attorneys on Dec. 28 to the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, contradicts VA’s stated reason for not yet terminating Robinson. Robinson has been on administrative leave for almost two years. In the statement, attorneys from Shaw Bransford & Roth dispute the testimony of VA Under Secretary for Health, Dr. David Shulkin, who testified before the committee on Dec. 14 that the agency had not yet terminated Robinson because the U.S. Attorney’s Office had not cleared witnesses the VA wished to interview related to the case while a criminal investigation was ongoing. Attorneys for Robinson contend that those statements are wrong and that the executive testified multiple times for VA officials on the issue of patient wait times and accusations of whistleblower reprisal made against him. “The fact that the VA has not actually terminated Mr. Robinson is its own admission that he did nothing wrong,” said Julia Perkins, Robinson’s attorney, in a statement. “The VA has spent the last year and a half squandering taxpayer dollars on repeated internal investigations into the same unfounded allegations in an attempt to substantiate a baseless removal action. All this while, Mr. Robinson has been patiently waiting for the truth to come out. But after hearing yet another VA official give inaccurate and misleading information to Congress and to the public about him, Mr. Robinson couldn’t stay quiet any longer.” VA officials were unavailable for comment at the time of publication. Robinson was among several Phoenix VA officials suspended due to an ongoing scandal related to delayed health care for veterans at the Arizona hospital. He, along with two other Phoenix VA executives, was placed on administrative leave in May 2014 while the agency conducted an investigation into any wrongdoing related to the scandal. VA Deputy Chief of Staff Hughes Turner later issued a proposal to fire Robinson on May 30, 2014. As part of U.S. statutes, Robinson was given 30 days prior notice to any firing, during which he could submit written responses to the VA. Robinson submitted responses on June 13, 2014, giving the agency the legal right to remove him no earlier than July 11, 2014. Instead, the VA has kept Robinson on paid administrative leave ever since. Robinson’s attorneys said Department of Justice officials informed him on April 22 that they would decline to prosecute him. Officials from the VA’s inspector general’s office then interviewed Robinson on June 9 and Oct. 21. Perkins said that VA officials have had ample time and testimony from her client to render a decision, and unless it can justify firing Robinson, the agency should allow him to return to work. “The VA’s inaction indicates that it has determined it cannot sustain a charge of misconduct against Mr. Robinson for wait list issues at the Phoenix VA before an independent adjudicator,” she said in the letter. A VA spokesperson said in a statement that the agency will continue to examine the case thoroughly, with the rights of all parties in mind. … Robinson and Health Administration Services Chief Brad Curry remain on paid administrative leave.

GAO: Army should monitor PTSD prescriptions more carefully (Stars and Stripes)
The Army needs to do a better job of monitoring prescriptions to treat post-traumatic stress disorder to ensure soldiers are receiving the proper medications, a government report says. The Government Accountability Office advises that the Defense Department, along with the Army, should more closely track and review prescriptions for PTSD, in line with recommended treatment guidelines it shares with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. Without ongoing monitoring, “the Army may be unable to identify and address prescribing practices that are inconsistent with the guideline and do not have clinical justification,” GAO Health Care Director Debra Draper wrote in the report, which was published Tuesday. Draper’s recommendation comes from a GAO audit of how the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments prescribed drugs for PTSD and mild brain injury. The investigation was based on a provision in the fiscal 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, which directed the GAO to assess continuation of care, particularly for servicemembers with PTSD or mild brain injuries who were making the transition to VA health care. The VA and Defense departments have developed joint guidelines for treating PTSD and mild brain injury, which discourage the use of benzodiazepines — a class of sedatives — and antipsychotic drugs. Both classes of these drugs were once widely prescribed for PTSD, but studies have found that the potential for serious side effects outweighs their effectiveness. The GAO report found that the VA closely tracks prescriptions for PTSD, especially for benzodiazepines and antipsychotics, and is actively working to reduce the numbers of prescriptions for both classes of drugs. At one VA medical clinic, for example, an electronic medical record reminder is activated when a prescription for certain antispsychotics is written for a veteran with PTSD who does not have a diagnosis of severe mental illness. The provider must justify why the medication is needed. The clinic decreased the percentage of veterans with PTSD who had been prescribed antipsychotics by almost half, from 21.8 percent in 2013 to 11.5 percent in 2015. The Army, where the largest number of troops has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, stopped requiring military hospitals to review their prescribing practices for atypical antipsychotics when that policy requirement expired in 2014. But providers and pharmacists interviewed at one Army medical facility said they were continuing these reviews because they identified “higher-than-expected prescription rates” for the medications, the report said. DOD and VA officials say they plan to issue an updated version of the mild brain injury guideline by no later than early 2016. As of November, the Food and Drug Administration had not approved a medication to treat mild brain injury. Both agencies are working toward stocking the same medications to treat mental and sleep disorders and pain, as directed by recent legislation.

Tomah VA counselor arrested on suspicion of sex assault (La Crosse Tribune)
A mental health counselor at the Tomah VA Medical Center has been arrested on suspicion of sexual assault. Charles Davis was arrested by the Tomah VA police and booked into the Monroe County jail Monday and released on a signature bond Tuesday. Referred charges include second-degree sexual assault, failing to ask a patron to report sexual assault, lewd and lascivious behavior, and intentional mistreatment of a vulnerable adult, according to jail staff. He is scheduled to return to court Jan. 25 to face criminal charges. Acting Director Victoria Brahm sent an email to all employees after Davis’ court appearance Tuesday saying, “there has been an unfortunate incident in our medical center. I wanted you to be aware in an effort to be transparent and foster trust.” Brahm said a patient reported “inappropriate behavior” by the unnamed peer support specialist on Thursday. He was removed from clinical duties and placed on “administrative absence.” The VA did not immediately respond to questions about Davis’s training or certifications. The Tomah VA police department is investigating the allegations. The Tomah VA has been plagued with scandals since a story by the Center for Investigative Reporting last year detailed high levels of opioid prescription at the facility, which patients dubbed “Candy Land” because physicians there dispensed prescription painkillers so freely, and a pervasive culture of intimidation and retaliation against employees who spoke out. At least three top officials – including the medical chief of staff and the center’s director – were later fired.

USF president, Veterans Affairs secretary to meet (Tampa Bay Times)
University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft will meet with the head of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to talk about veterans issues. Genshaft has accepted an invitation to meet with VA Secretary Robert McDonald to discuss how to accommodate veterans with mental health issues and criminal records. McDonald sent a letter to Genshaft last month asking to talk about what he called “more work to be done” on that front. “The University of South Florida shares your commitment to the reintegration and education of our veterans,” Genshaft responded. “There is nothing more important to the university, and to me personally, than providing a path to a productive future through education while maintaining a safe environment for all of our students.” Though their correspondence doesn’t mention him, McDonald’s interest in USF was sparked by the case of former U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Clay Allred, who was expelled from the school last year after his 2014 arrest for threatening a Tampa gas station clerk with a rifle and firing shots into the air. Hillsborough Circuit Judge Gregory Holder, a friend of McDonald’s from their time in West Point, presided over Allred’s case in the county’s veterans treatment court and has been pushing USF to re-admit him as an online student so he can finish the 17 credits he needs for a bachelor’s degree. Experts concluded Allred’s alcoholism and crime were connected to his post-traumatic stress disorder from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and a traumatic brain injury he suffered in a stateside car crash. To admit him, though, the university would have to make an exception for the former Green Beret or change its expulsion policy. Allred missed the deadline to appeal his expulsion, rendering it permanent, according to USF’s policy. Genshaft offered to give McDonald a tour of the school’s Office of Veterans Success if he was willing to come to Tampa. The university partners with the VA to offer services through a VetSuccess on Campus program. McDonald sent a brief email in reply. “I would love to visit you on one of my trips to South Florida and learn more about what you have done to be so veteran-friendly,” he wrote. It was unclear Tuesday when the meeting would happen. In his initial letter to Genshaft, sent Dec. 22, McDonald asked to meet “in the next several weeks.” Assistants to Genshaft and McDonald will work to schedule the meeting, USF spokeswoman Lara Wade said.

Indiana veterans bills push for more benefits and services (Herald Times Online)
A new bill aims to help homeless veterans receive state aid, if they do not qualify for federal benefits. House Bill 1057 focuses on improving the lives of homeless Indiana National Guard veterans who do not current qualify for federal benefits. These veterans were placed on active duty service, but did not meet the required length of service to qualify for federal assistance. The bill’s author, Rep. Karlee Macer, D-Indianapolis, wants to use money in the Military Family Relief Fund, which is raised through military veteran license plate sales. “We have over $7 million in the fund now, and over the years, I have grown frustrated about how much money we have sitting there when I know the good people in Indiana that buy those license plates really want to help veterans,” said Macer. “And there are veterans who have needs.” This is not the first time Macer has been frustrated by veteran issues. Before running for office, she worked to coordinate care for retired and senior veterans and their spouses. 15 years later, Macer became “frustrated with the federal benefit, and no one really being able to answer my questions, or willing to follow up with me.” She filed her application to run on the final day to register for the 2012 election. This is her fourth year serving in the House of Representatives. Macer also serves as the ranking minority member of the Veteran Affairs and Public Safety Committee. “Our goal is really to insure that Indiana has no more homeless veterans,” said Macer. She is also working with the chair of the Veterans Affair Committee, Rep. Randy Frye, R-Greensburg, on a bill to improve on the training and tools provided to county service officers in Indiana. A service officer is a point person for veterans regarding information about benefits. Service officers also assist in helping veterans with disability claims, education, and vocational training. Macer is also pushing for a plan to require Marion County to have a service officer. Marion is the only county without a service officer. The post has been vacant for two years. Macer is enthusiastic about support she has received from both Democrats and Republicans. “The veterans deserve a service officer, and they definitely need to make sure they are accessible, because accessibility is so important to veterans,” said Macer.

A PTSD facility turns away veteran’s service dog (Military Times)
Former Army Spc. Kermit Scott was counting the days until Nov. 19, when he was to be admitted to a 30-day in-patient program run by the Veterans Affairs Department in Washington State. Scott has experienced PTSD symptoms such as nightmares, social anxiety and anger since at least 2011 and felt the program, at the VA’s American Lake facility near Seattle, carried the promise of “being like normal.” “I have friends who went through the program and it benefited them to the point where they could go out in public,” the veteran said. But 13 days short of leaving for the program, Scott received a phone call from American Lake saying his service dog, Cooper, was not invited to come along. The veteran, who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and earned a Purple Heart for injuries that include a gunshot wound, toe amputation and blast-related brain injuries, broke down and cried. “It was devastating,” Scott said. “Cooper helps with my stability; he can tell when I’m having tremors and need assistance. He opens up doors, turns on the lights, gets my shoes.” Many VA facilities allow service dogs; in 2014, the department modified its policies to allow trained service dogs into nearly all areas of its facilities and medical centers, as long as they are under the control of their handlers and the animals are trained to perform a task for a person with a disability. But the regulation does not apply to most in-patient treatment programs at VA; directors of the department’s medical centers and clinics have discretion to choose whether a service dog can accompany a veteran to treatment. And in cases of acute inpatient care or inpatient mental health treatment, dogs are allowed only if they are part of a documented treatment plan. “We have to manage the situation, putting the veteran first, and the ability for a local decision to be made by a director gives them the maneuverability to do that,” explained Troy Brown, senior security officer at the Veterans Health Administration. But the department is weighing a change to the policy, publishing a notice in the Federal Register on Nov. 26 seeking public comment about the viability of allowing service dogs to stay on VA property with their veterans “for extended periods of time while the veteran is being treated in a residential treatment setting.” Brown said the VA wants to accommodate veterans who rely on their service animals while being mindful of other patients. … The decision by American Lake came as a surprise, Scott said, because he thought the VA was required to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. But as an executive branch entity, VA is exempt from the ADA, which requires private businesses or most public buildings to give access to service dogs at their facilities. The changes VA made in 2014 to its service dog policies were designed to better align the department with ADA requirements. But VA still reserved the right to decide whether a service dog can accompany a veteran in an acute inpatient setting or residential treatment program. In Scott’s case, the VA Puget Sound Health Care System, which oversees the American Lake facility, exercised that authority. … In a statement to Military Times, VA Puget Sound Health Care System officials said they “had not denied admission to any veteran due to [their] service animal policy.” But they added: “Standard operating procedures for accepting a service animal into the treatment program were not in place due to the myriad accommodations that needed to be addressed. … The admission process has since been altered, according to the statement. The change comes too late for Scott, who found another inpatient program that allows him to bring Cooper along. He will travel to Boise, Idaho, on Jan. 18 to start treatment at another VA facility.

LA County approves $7 million to help homeless — especially women, veterans (Los Angeles Daily News)
The (Los Angeles County) Board of Supervisors Tuesday approved $7 million in funding to help get homeless individuals — particularly women and veterans – – off the street and into housing quickly. Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas recommended transferring $2 million to Housing for Health, a program run by the Department of Health Services that he said has a proven track record of quickly sourcing supportive housing. “It is urgent that we move homeless people, particularly women, off the streets and out of harm’s way as El Niño approaches,” Ridley-Thomas said, adding that women are particularly vulnerable to violence and sexual predators. Ridley-Thomas said an estimated 5,000 homeless women live in the Second District, which he represents. … The $2 million will be shifted from district funds previously allocated to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. Separately, Supervisors Don Knabe and Hilda Solis proposed launching the Home for Heroes program with $5 million. The plan is to serve at least 1,000 homeless veterans over the next 18 months with strategies that include more shelter beds, landlord incentives for housing veterans and grants to cover move-in costs like security deposits. “One of the challenges in housing our homeless vets has been identifying housing for them, even when they had a voucher in hand,” Knabe said. “It was taking vets 90 days or longer to find an apartment.” The board is awaiting recommendations from the Homeless Initiative it established last year, when it committed to spend $101 million on fighting homelessness. A draft set of recommendations is expected Thursday. About $1.2 million of the $5 million approved Tuesday for Home for Heroes will be set aside to pay for recommendations offered by that group, Solis said. “Our veterans, both men and women, have sacrificed so much for our country. They put their lives on the line to protect our country and our freedom that we all cherish so much,” Solis said. “Now, it’s our turn to help them by ensuring they receive the attention they deserve so that they do not end up homeless and forgotten.”

Truck driver cited after driving over veterans’ graves (NBC Chicago)
A truck driver was cited in a Chicago suburb after he allegedly ran his 18-wheel tractor trailer over the graves of at least three veterans at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery Monday. Police said the 43-year-old driver disobeyed “no truck” signs posted at the entrance to the national cemetery off Route 53 in Elwood and drove over three graves, narrowly missing the headstones, authorities said. He was stopped by cemetery staff who notified police. The driver told officers he was traveling to a warehouse located at the nearby intermodal facility. He was cited for disobeying a 5-ton weight limit sign, operating an over-length truck and spilling debris on the roadway. “This is a travesty that demonstrates a complete lack of respect to our veterans when truckers ignore signs, illegally drive through a national veterans cemetery and run over this sacred burial ground,” Elwood Police Chief Fred Hayes said in a statement. “The Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery prides itself on providing solemn, respectful burials for our beloved veterans who gave their time, effort, and, in some cases, their lives for our country. Maintaining respect for our honored veterans is of the utmost importance and in return for their sacrifices, they – at the very least – deserve an undisturbed resting place.” Officials said an investigation into the damage will continue once the ground thaws.