Appeals judges reverse punishment for senior VA execs (Military Times)
Veterans Affairs officials’ attempt to punish a pair of high-ranking executives over mismanagement issues has been knocked down by appeals judges who ruled the department’s other disciplinary moves have been too inconsistent to justify punishing those two. The news comes a month after Justice Department officials announced they would not charge the two women with any criminal activity, despite accusations from the inspector general the executives manipulated the hiring practice and unjustly pocketed about $400,000 in federal funds. The collection of decisions leaves the women — Diana Rubens, Philadelphia Regional Office director, and Kimberly Graves, a Minnesota regional office director — in their current jobs, despite VA officials’ efforts to demote and relocate them. It also leaves the department with a host of questions surrounding leaders’ promises to restore accountability and integrity within the department. Both appeals rulings found the women had acted improperly in parts of the saga, but said VA leaders did not have standing to make an example of them because of their spotty past accountability efforts. “There is a significant problem created by the inconsistent treatment of a comparable employee,” one ruling stated. “It is undisputed that (other officials in the case) have not been disciplined and, in fact, have been promoted.” Lawmakers seized on the disciplinary reversal as yet another major failure for the department. “Once again, VA’s long and well documented aversion to accountability is creating major problems for the agency,” House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said in a statement. “Today’s decision, along with a similar one last week, provides irrefutable proof of two facts: VA isn’t consistently and fairly holding employees accountable and – contrary to the repeated assertions of department officials – VA leaders do not have the authority they need to swiftly discipline misbehaving employees.” The inspector general report released in late September charged that Rubens and Graves abused their authority within the department to reassign their predecessors to other jobs within VA, then moving into the vacant positions themselves. Investigators said the moves carried with them fewer responsibilities but no salary reductions, plus generous relocation payouts. Graves, who makes nearly $174,000 a year, got more than $129,000 to move from Philadelphia to Minnesota. Rubens, who makes $181,000, received more than $288,000 to move from Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia. Most of that money was tied to home purchasing programs available to relocated federal employees. In response to the report, VA leaders suspended use of the relocation program, and are reviewing broader reimbursement policies. But they strongly criticized the IG report, calling the charges salacious and unfounded. Instead of firing the pair — as multiple lawmakers demanded — they were demoted to non-senior positions across the country. Both appealed, using provisions included in legislation approved by Congress that was designed to speed up the disciplinary process. In this case, it reversed the punishment instead. Congress has repeatedly criticized for infrequent firings within the department, even in the wake of nationwide scandals regarding patient wait times and records manipulations. Last month, VA Secretary Bob McDonald told members of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee that “we have enough authority to fire people” and that dismissing more employees would not improve services throughout the department. But he has also repeatedly promised to punish individuals found guilty of mismanagement and incompetence, a promise that lawmakers have repeatedly called into question.
Senators offer legislation to reduce VA appeals wait time (The Hill)
A bipartisan group of senators is offering legislation aimed at cutting down the amount of time it takes for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to handle a disability claim. Sens. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Dean Heller (R-Nev.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) have introduced legislation to create a five-year pilot program that would serve as a voluntary alternative to the VA’s current appeals process for disability claims. Under their proposal, veterans would be able to file an “express” appeal after the VA hands over a decision on a disability claim, which the lawmakers suggested could cut hundreds of days of wait time out of the current appeals process. Veterans can appeal the VA’s original decision for a myriad of reasons, including disagreeing with the department about the severity of their disability. According to weekly VA data released Monday, the VA’s Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) currently has more than 300,000 appeals pending. A fiscal year 2014 report found that on average it can take more than 1,000 days between the time an appeal is filed and when the Board of Veterans’ Appeals (BVA) makes a decision. Sullivan said that he hopes the Senate legislation will “create a less-bureaucratic appeals express lane” for the VA to handle appeals, adding that it is “astounding” that veterans can wait almost three years for a decision. Casey added that the current timeline is “unacceptable.” “It is crucial that we work to ensure that veterans get timely and accurate decisions on their appeals,” he said. As part of the legislation, if a veteran decided to opt for an “express” appeal but later changed their mind, they would be able to go back to the current appeals process without being negatively impacted. To help save time, the “express” process would skip over a current step in the appeals process when VA officials collect additional evidence after a veteran files an appeal. The legislation comes after lawmakers have pushed the VA for years to reduce the number of pending appeals from veterans. VA Secretary Bob McDonald called for a “simplified appeals process” while testifying before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee last month.
Commentary: Combatting veteran suicide (PostStar)
David J. Shulkin, under secretary for health, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: A national panel of health experts recommended this week that all adults be screened for depression during visits with their primary care providers. That’s welcome news at the Department of Veterans Affairs, where we’ve been screening all veterans in our health care system annually for more than 10 years. The new recommendation, developed by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, should strengthen our collective resolve to address the toll depression and its potentially devastating consequences, especially suicide, are taking on our society. At the VA, our sense of urgency is heightened by the discouraging statistic that America’s veterans are at higher overall risk for suicide than the general public. Veterans suffering from conditions like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia and chronic pain are particularly vulnerable. We are working hard to find solutions to this national tragedy. The VA offers unparalleled clinical mental health care and support services to help veterans who find themselves in crisis and conducts innovative research on suicide prevention. Among our most important statistical findings to date is that veterans who engage in VA care are less likely to take their own lives than those who don’t. This is an encouraging sign that what we are doing to prevent suicide is working, but we must do more. To that end, the VA is sponsoring a national summit on veteran suicide prevention in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday. The summit will bring together VA experts on suicide, veterans and their families, community mental health leaders, and other key partners to focus on how we can all do more to prevent suicide among veterans. Nearly a year ago, the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act was signed into law by President Barack Obama, giving the VA additional authority to expand suicide prevention efforts for veterans in partnership with the community. We have made significant progress on implementing the provisions of this legislation, named after a Marine Corps veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who took his life in 2011. Hunt’s mother and stepfather, Susan and Richard Selke, will be among the speakers at our upcoming summit. Their commitment to improving mental health care for veterans like their son has been inspiring. We know that veteran suicide is a highly complex problem, but our focused research program is constantly uncovering new and better ways to prevent it. A recent VA study was the first to document that sexual trauma during military service increases the risk of suicide. As we learn more about the conditions and experiences that account for increased suicide risk among veterans, we can develop more evidence-based treatments. The VA’s collaborations with the Department of Defense and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to identify veterans in every state’s mortality data has, for the first time, made it possible to make informed statements about suicide risk among veterans by age, gender, period of service and other important factors. The VA is also harnessing the “big data” of our unique, national electronic health record to develop and test new interventions based on that data. Suicide is not always predictable, but it is preventable. As a doctor, I know that when it comes to suicide prevention, there is no substitute for the human connection: sitting down with a veteran; showing genuine concern; taking a military history (rarely done outside the military or VA health systems); asking well-informed questions; and listening to what the veteran has to say. Strong relationships between veterans and those who care about and for them are critical. To help veterans build and maintain meaningful relationships with their care teams, families and communities, we need the support of all Americans. We want everyone to know that each of us can make a difference in the life of a veteran in crisis. Just one small act can make a big difference — it can even save a life. If you are a veteran in crisis, or want to know how you can help one who is, contact the Veterans Crisis Line by calling 1-800-273-8255 and pressing 1, going to veteranscrisisline.net/chat, or sending a text message to 838255. You will receive free, confidential support from highly trained and experienced responders. Our responders are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, and you don’t have to be enrolled in VA health care to get help. We must be vigilant. Our veterans need and deserve the help of every American in preventing suicide. They were there for us when we needed them — now it’s our turn to be there for them when they need us.
Sen. Jim Inhofe blocks nominee to force action at Oklahoma veterans hospitals (News OK)
Sen. Jim Inhofe, angered by a lack of attention to problems at Oklahoma’s veterans hospitals, said Monday he would block Senate consideration of a key nominee for the Department of Veterans Affairs until there is progress. “From the hundreds of cases my office has resolved and the private meetings we’ve had with VA medical staff recently, it is clear that Oklahoma’s VA centers have continued business as usual and are failing to improve care for our veterans,” said Inhofe, R-Tulsa. “It is time for these centers to undergo thorough investigations. I have asked the VA’s Office of Inspector General to do investigations before and am not pleased with their paltry findings that have failed to bring about change.” Inhofe said he had placed a hold on Michael Missal, the nominee to be the inspector general for the VA. Inspectors generals are independent watchdogs tasked with investigating complaints and misconduct at federal departments. The Senate had hoped to move Missal’s nomination on a fast track. Inhofe said Monday he won’t allow a vote until the VA makes a commitment to Oklahomans “that the department will conduct new investigations but with the oversight and partnership of an outside agency that can hold our VA medical centers to the same standards as private hospitals. “The department must commit to me a timeline for these investigations and it must include unannounced visits to the centers and for a thorough examination of the wait time for appointments, accuracy in medical diagnoses, quality of care and after-care, judicious use of private medical care and work environment in the hospital.” Last month, in response to an article in USA Today, the Veterans Health Administration’s Office of the Medical Inspector launched a federal inquiry into allegations that missed diagnoses and poor patient care at the Oklahoma City VA Medical Center resulted in life-altering consequences for a number of veterans. The VA did not respond Monday to a request for comment on Inhofe’s action. In January, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald said problems at the Oklahoma City medical center were “very personal to me” because he had lived there and in Tulsa. McDonald said the situation in Oklahoma City was under investigation, and he declined to speak about the details. He cited a major turnover in leadership and said, “We’ve got more changes to make.” “Oklahoma’s going to be a big focus for us.” Inhofe said Monday he expects to meet soon with McDonald to discuss the Oklahoma City center and other VA facilities in the state.
New program helps homeless veterans find public housing (Citizen.com)
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will provide nearly $12 million to 79 local public housing agencies across the country to provide a permanent home to veterans experiencing homelessness, including in New Hampshire. The supportive housing assistance is provided through the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program which combines rental assistance from HUD with case management and clinical services provided by VA. HUD is providing $6.4 million to 27 local Public Housing Agencies to provide permanent supportive housing to an estimated 821 veterans. These vouchers are being awarded through the HUD-VASH Project-based Voucher Set-Aside competition, announced in June 2015. These vouchers will enable homeless veterans and their families to access affordable housing, with an array of supportive services. HUD is also providing 52 housing agencies with a total of $5.4 million Extraordinary Administrative Fees to support HUD-VASH programs and reduce the amount of time that it takes for a veteran to locate and move into permanent housing. “It’s unacceptable that anyone who wore our nation’s uniform falls into homelessness and even calls the streets their home,” said HUD Secretary Julián Castro. “Although we’ve made tremendous progress in preventing and reducing veteran homelessness, these vouchers continue to build upon our shared mission to end veteran homelessness once and for all.” … In October, HUD and the VA announced a demonstration to offer a permanent home and supportive services to Native American veterans who are experiencing, or at risk of experiencing, homelessness. Through that program, HUD is making available $4 million in grant funding to Indian tribes and Tribally Designated Entities to fund rental assistance and associated administrative fees. HUD and VA anticipate awarding approximately 600 vouchers to Indian Tribes and TDHEs to help house and serve an estimated 600 Native American veterans who are experiencing homelessness, or at the extreme risk of becoming homeless.
Lack of services for about 72,000 Maine veterans (Fox 22 WFVX Bangor)
A Maine agency that helps veterans says they are now significantly underfunded. That’s according to a new report. Underfunded and understaffed. A new report is pushing to expand Maine’s Bureau of Veteran Services. State Representative and Marine Corps Veteran Jared Golden is on the commission that put the report together. “It’s been 14 years of sending troops overseas to Afghanistan and Iraq. In that time we haven’t seen a real significant increase in staff or operating budget.” said Golden . “If we don’t give the bureau of veterans services what they need than we’re going to see continued frustration.” added Golden. “A lot of people were feeling like maybe the resources that are out there for them aren’t kind of evolving to meet their specific needs.” Golden also said, “There were a couple of key issues that we found.” According to the report one of them is a need to use technology more effectively in order to improve communication and outreach with younger veterans. “The Bureau of Veterans Services is still stuck often using paper files.” continued Golden. The report also indicates more money is needed to address veteran homelessness, mental health and problems some have with transportation. Some veterans groups are praising the commission. Durham AMVets commander Chad Burke says, “These items that most don’t know exist are legitimate concerns that have been over looked for years. This is a step in the right direction.” The commission is scheduled to present its findings to the veterans and legal affairs committee Monday morning. Golden also stated, “we’ve provided them a blueprint.” A blueprint golden hopes leads to more funding and possibly new laws. The commission that put together that report includes democrats and republicans. Lawmakers estimate Maine is home to about 140-thousand veterans.
Troubled veterans get new chances in treatment court (The Modesto Bee)
They go halfway around the world to fight in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, and often are held over by popular demand for additional tours of duty. They return, in far too many cases, with traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder and other issues that can lead to dangerous behavior or homelessness. One in six United States military veterans develop a drug addiction and end up in the court system, treated like criminals when in many cases they need psychological or substance abuse treatment. There are more than 700,000 U.S. veterans now in the court system – either in prison, jail, being tried or awaiting trials, according to the nonprofit Justice for Vets organization. The group also claims a 98 percent success rate among the 11,000 veterans who have been through the treatment court so far. Monday, Stanislaus County authorities took a more enlightened approach toward dealing with veterans accused of crimes. The first session of Veterans Treatment Court commenced in Stanislaus County Superior Court. The court is based on similar models elsewhere throughout the nation, and they share a common goal, said Jim Greer of Stanislaus County Veterans Services. “(Vets) can go through a treatment program if they qualify,” Greer said. “It beats going to jail, basically.” A dozen veterans treatment courts existed in California in 2011. Now, there are more than two dozen, with other counties preparing go to that route as well. San Joaquin County’s began in 2014, and found many of the veterans were battling DUI convictions that made it tough to keep their drivers’ licenses, which, in turn, make it difficult to get to work. “It got them into treatment programs and has been a real success,” Greer said. For some veterans, the court might be their last chance to get help and avoid prison terms. Here, the county jail identifies veterans when they are booked. And deputies try to connect them with service providers. But they are still in the system and at the mercy of the court. They have to volunteer for the program, but must qualify through the types of crimes committed and also through an assessment by Department of Veterans Affairs in Palo Alto or the Modesto Vet Center. … It’s a new concept here, and a work in progress, said attorney Del Bohner of Modesto’s Perry & Associates law firm. He represents a client who has four other cases in the system, went AWOL from a prior rehab program and clearly needs to prove to both Distaso and VA outreach specialist Leah Emery that he’s serious about getting help and moving forward in life. “He has serious PTSD and mental issues that make it difficult for him to follow through,” Bohner said. The Veterans Treatment Court, he said, can provide that. Each vet will have a program tailored to his or her specific needs. “He’d rather be in a live-in program,” Bohner said. “But they want him to do outpatient (treatment) to show he has the dedication.” For that veteran and several others, Monday represented the starting point for a different kind of tour of duty. This one isn’t about defending the Constitution or the flag, though. It’s about saving themselves.