February 22 Veterans News

February 22 Veterans News

VetsHQ News UpdateVA will let embattled executives keep their jobs (Military Times)
A pair of senior Veterans Affairs executives at the center of a months-long scandal over the department’s internal promotion system and relocation expenses will keep their regional director jobs, after two failed attempts from VA officials to reassign them elsewhere. Diana Rubens, Philadelphia Regional Office director, and Kimberly Graves, director of the St. Paul, Minn., regional office, have faced harsh criticism since an inspector general report last fall accused them of pocketing more than $400,000 in moving costs for questionable job moves. Lawmakers have repeatedly accused the pair of gaming the promotion system for personal gain, at the expense of veterans care. VA leaders have criticized the two only for “judgement errors” in how they handled the job moves, and supported both as reliable and responsible executives. Still, in December and January, officials moved to discipline and reassign the women to other positions across the country. The Merit Systems Protection Board rejected that attempt, and on Monday VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson in a statement said the pair would be allowed to continue their careers in Minnesota and Pennsylvania. “Allegations of unethical behavior in the Inspector General report were not supported by any of the evidence I reviewed,” Gibson said. “These errors in judgment took place before [the two] assumed their director positions, and the disciplinary actions do not diminish the confidence VA leadership has in [their] abilities … to manage their offices, lead their employees, and provide benefits to veterans. “The employees of those offices deserve high performing directors supporting their efforts. I have confidence that the employees of the Philadelphia and St. Paul Regional Offices … will continue their efforts to ensure all veterans receive the benefits they have earned and deserved.” Gibson said he did take disciplinary actions against the two executives, but did not immediately elaborate on what that entails. VA officials promised to brief media Monday afternoon. This is likely to inflame tempers on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers have accused VA leaders of not doing enough to hold department officials accountable for mistakes, missteps and malfeasance. Department officials and lawmakers are discussing new legislation that could make it easier to discipline and fire VA executives by removing appeals options on such job actions, but that proposal has received strong resistance from groups representing the senior workers. VA Secretary Bob McDonald is expected to appear before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Tuesday morning to discuss the department’s fiscal 2017 budget request, and is likely to face questioning about the decisions in the Rubens and Graves cases.

Senator: Fire VA’s mental health director after suicide hotline failures (Fox 13)
In the wake of a scathing report about failures in the Department of Veterans Affairs suicide hotline, Sen. Mark Kirk is demanding that the VA fire its director of mental health. “The horrific revelations contained in the recently released VA (Office of the Inspector General) investigative report include repeated instances of the VA ignoring veterans’ needs for suicide assistance,” Kirk wrote in a letter to VA Secretary Robert McDonald. Kirk, an Illinois Republican, cited his position as chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee that oversees funding for the VA in calling for the firing of Mary Schohn. As CNN reported last week, the inspector general’s report found suicide hotline calls being placed on hold or sent to backup call centers, and some calls were even forwarded to a voice mail system. Kirk’s letter says the recent OIG report is one of several warnings in recent years highlighting failure in mental health treatment for veterans. … Kirk’s letter urges McDonald to take immediate action, concluding, “There can be no higher order within the VA than taking seriously the suicide rates of our service men and women when they return from the battlefield. Use the authority you have to demonstrate that repeated failure at the VA is unacceptable by firing Dr. Schohn.” The hotline at the center of the disturbing new report is the Veterans Crisis Line, or VCL, based in Canandaigua, New York. … But it turns out the suicide hotline itself was in trouble, and not helping some veterans in their worst time of need, according to the report. The VA Office of Inspector General of Healthcare Inspections began investigating the crisis call center last year after complaints by veterans that they were placed on hold, or transferred to voice mail, or not given appropriate help when most in need. The Office of Special Counsel also received complaints, prompting the IG to further investigate. Investigators determined that during busy times at the center, veterans would get redirected to a backup center, or sent to voice mail and sometimes never got a return call, the report said. The report also raised concerns about staff training. … Ironically, the call center was part of an overall VA plan to address the staggering problem of veteran suicides. According to the report, 20% of those who kill themselves are veterans. … The hotline began running in July of 2007 and runs 24/7. Numbers show demand for the services is high. Staff at the center field hundreds of thousands of calls a year. The report shows that in fiscal year 2013-2014, the center saw a 30% uptick in calls, from 287,070 in 2013 to 374,053 in 2014. During that same period, the backup center staff saw an increase of 112% in call volume. The IG office also said it had identified “gaps” in a “quality assurance process” at the crisis call center. “These gaps included an insufficient number of required staff supervision reviews, inconsistent tracking and resolution of VCL quality assurance issues, and a lack of collection and analysis of backup center data, including incomplete caller outcome or disposition information from backup center staff.” … Officials at the VA said Thursday they were well aware of the report and its findings and said that efforts have been underway for a year to make improvements.

Lawmakers push to link veterans’ COLA with Social Security (Military Times)
Veterans always get the same annual cost-of-living increase as Social Security recipients. But there’s no guarantee that will continue. That’s why lawmakers are again pushing for new legislation that would permanently tie together the two rate increases, and thus avoiding a potential payout hiccup if congressional politics stalls what is normally routine business. Earlier this month, House lawmakers adopted the so-called “American Heroes COLA Act,” which would provide an automatic cost-of-living adjust for veterans benefits such as disability compensation, payouts for dependents, and other Veterans Affairs living allowances. Under current law, those annual increases are automatic for Social Security benefits, determined by the executive branch without intervention from Congress. But veterans benefits fall into a different category, one that requires lawmaker intervention each year to become law. “The current process leaves veterans and their families, who depend on these benefits to make ends meet, in limbo until Washington actually passes legislation,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Ralph Abraham, a Louisiana Republican. This legislation would “end this uncertainty and … enable VA beneficiaries to better plan for their financial future.” The current process hasn’t resulted in problematic cost-of-living adjustments for veterans. In the last few decades, only one year — 2000 — saw uneven increases for Social Security recipients and veterans, and that came as a result of a rounding difference between the two rates. But Abraham and other lawmakers point out that congressional infighting in recent years has sidelined other legislation assumed routine, including the budget fights which resulted in the 2013 partial government shutdown. By making the veteran benefits increases automatic, that political turmoil is no longer an obstacle. Veterans groups have supported similar efforts in the past, and offered backing for ways to make the COLA process simpler for veterans’ families. But proposals to solve the problem have stalled over questions about how to tie the rates together or whether to use other COLA calculations for veterans benefits. Officials from the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees have been discussing an omnibus veterans reform measure to bring before both chambers later this spring, with the COLA fix among the issues under consideration. Last year, neither veterans nor Social Security recipients saw an increase in their payouts, with federal officials citing a drop in consumer prices as evidence that an increase was not needed. The bill would not affect adjustments for military retirement pay, which are calculated through other methods.

Michigan veterans agency head out after scathing audit (Detroit Free Press)
The state announced Friday that Jeff Barnes, a former campaign manager to Gov. Rick Snyder, resigned as director of the Michigan Veteran Affairs Agency after a scathing audit cited staffing shortages and mishandling of abuse complaints at the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans. Snyder said in a news release the audit findings are “deeply troubling” and that veterans deserve the best care that the state can provide. Snyder said he accepted the resignation of Barnes, who headed the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency, which oversees the Michigan Veteran Health System that supervises the home. James Robert Redford of East Grand Rapids, Snyder’s chief legal counsel, has been named interim director. Barnes, who managed Snyder’s first campaign for governor in 2010, will be reassigned under Major General Gregory J. Vadnais, adjutant general and director of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, which oversees the veterans agency, Snyder said. “Jeff is passionate about helping his fellow veterans,” Snyder said. “I know he is as troubled by these findings as I am. A new leadership team is in place, which I am relying on to address the audit.” The report said the contractor the state hired to provide nursing aides starting in 2013, J2S Group, did not meet staffing requirements 81% of the time during four sampled months. Staffing provided by the contractor was as much as 22 staff members short on a single day, the report said. Though the home required a daily average of 125.9 staff members, the contractor provided an average of 121.3 staff members, the auditor’s report said. Residents at the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans and their families deserve higher standards of care,  Snyder said Friday, and changes are being made to address concerns released in a report Friday by the Office of the Auditor General. The audit, released on Friday but reported on by the Free Press on Thursday, focused on medical administration, member care documentation, handling of complaints and financial management. It also addressed ongoing staffing shortages and non-narcotic pharmaceutical controls. “I want to assure families that their veterans are getting improved quality of care. We have made major changes since October, including replacing top leadership who were not doing their jobs properly,” Vadnais said in the release. “I apologize to any veterans that their quality of care was below standard. These findings are unacceptable, and we’re committed to fixing the problems highlighted in the report.” Vadnais said the new leadership has already started making changes to improve the home’s care and financial practices. … Barnes served nearly 10 years as an Armored Cavalry Officer in the U.S. Army, including tours in Korea and the Balkans, and two tours in Iraq. Redford served 28 years in the U.S. Navy and retired as a Captain in 2012.  He was a military trial judge for five years in the U.S. Navy Reserves and had three tours as a commanding officer, of the Navy Reserve Trial Judiciary, the Reserve Navy Legal Service Office and the civil litigation unit in Washington, D.C.

Agent Orange catching up to Vietnam vets (Messenger-Inquirer)
Snow fell outside the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 696 as its members held their monthly meeting Feb. 9. Although attendance was down, most of those present were Vietnam veterans receiving some percentage of disability benefits from their exposure to Agent Orange — a herbicide sprayed by the United States military during the Vietnam War from 1961 to 1971. Among them were Billy Milan, Lou Drawdy and Terry Stinson. They were like thousands of other Vietnam vets who returned home unaware that they had been exposed to the same toxic dioxin that was meant to combat their enemies — the Viet Cong guerrillas and the North Vietnamese Army, known as “Charlie” to U.S. forces. Now, decades later, Agent Orange is catching up with Vietnam veterans, leading to debilitating and deadly health problems that range from heart disease to various forms of cancer. The three men said they were proud veterans but, like many of their comrades, struggle with their Vietnam experience because they live every day with a multitude of illnesses stemming from Agent Orange exposure. “It was bad enough that you were over there, and Charlie didn’t like you,” said Drawdy, 73, who served as a Marine and whose diabetes has been attributed to Agent Orange. “… Then you find that all of the hazards that you were exposed to, that maybe, the U.S. government didn’t like you.” Stinson, 64, served in Vietnam from 1970 to 1971 as an Air Force aircraft mechanic, working and flying on planes that sprayed Agent Orange. … Milan, 73, served several tours in Vietnam as part of the Army’s Special Forces, 173rd and 101st Infantry Divisions. His first tour was in 1962 and his last in 1971. It wasn’t until 1991 that Congress passed the Agent Orange Act that gave the Department of Veterans Affairs the power to declare certain health conditions as “presumptive” to dioxin exposure. … The VA, however, doesn’t have an accurate count of how many Vietnam veterans suffer from Agent Orange exposure. “I can’t get the Agent Orange statistics because it’s not a general diagnosis,” said Beth Lamb, Marion, Illinois VA public affairs spokeswoman. In Daviess County, there is no shortage of Vietnam veterans who are either suffering or dying from exposure to the herbicide. John Yates used to be involved with local veterans organizations such as the VFW, but his health has declined to the point that he rarely leaves his Cedar Hills home. He now draws 100 percent disability benefits from his service-connected congestive heart failure and diabetes. He served in Vietnam as a Navy hospital corpsman with the Third Marine Division from 1968 to 1969. “I was out in the bush all the time,” Yates, 71, recalled. “…I slept on the ground and drank from the streams. The Agent Orange was all over.” … Agent Orange — named for the color of the metal drums in which the chemical was stored — was the main herbicide the U.S. Air Force used to reduce the jungle canopies as part of “Operation Ranch Hand.” An estimated 19 million gallons were sprayed over 20 percent of Vietnam in an attempt to uncover roads and trails used by the Viet Cong.

Learn more about Agent Orange

VA to spend $1.7 million on Boston area hospital repairs (Boston Globe)
The Veterans Affairs hospital in Jamaica Plain (Boston) will reopen Monday for limited care more than a week after three major water pipes burst in two hospital buildings forcing the facility’s closure. Vincent Ng, director of the VA Boston Healthcare System, said it will take workers two to three months to fully repair the damage caused by the burst pipes on Valentine’s Day and it will cost $1.7 million to renovate and repair the facility. No one was injured during the water breaks, and because the facility only treats day patients, no veterans had to be moved from the hospital. Up to 1,000 veterans use the hospital each weekday for outpatient day surgery, urgent care, and clinical visits to their doctors. Since last week, those patients have been referred to the VA’s hospitals in West Roxbury and Brockton. Last Sunday, as frigid temperatures swept through the region, a sprinkler pipe burst in the lobby of the ambulatory care building, where the surgery and urgent care units are located. Later that day, pipes began to burst on the upper wings of the main hospital, pushing water down to the lower floors and flooding 147 examining rooms and administrative offices. Since then, hundreds of workers have brought in fans and air-purifying machines to clean the hospital, with most of the damage occurring in the main hospital. Ng said much of the work had been completed in the ambulatory care center, and most of the center’s clinics will open next week. “There is no mold,” he said. The urgent care center is expected to open by Thursday and the surgery center will also reopen next week, said Jeffrey Krockta, chief engineer at the hospital. Ng also said that the VA plans to set up temporary clinics in a 30-room building on the hospital campus that had been used as a hotel for patients’ families. In addition, he said four mobile medical units had been brought to the hospital for use by doctors to treat patients. Repairs to the hospital’s wings will take longer. As workers in white suits and air-pollution masks roamed the hospital’s near-empty hallways on Friday, Krockta outlined a work plan that will take place in stages. “The contamination has been contained, but in order to return the hospital to service we need to segregate the areas that need a longer time to rebuild from the areas that are unaffected,” Krockta said. Krockta’s first priority is to finish the cleanup from the water damage, which occurred in 144 pipes in the hospital. He said all of the water had been pumped out of the buildings. But since water streamed through the main corridor that connects the hospital’s wings, workers must first complete an air-quality check in the hallway. After that is finished, patients can visit two other hospital wings that were not affected by the flooding. Since the pipes burst, the hospital’s 1,400 employees have been working in other VA facilities in West Roxbury, Boston, Brockton, Lowell, Quincy, Framingham, and Plymouth.

Ohio veterans banding together in support of legal marijuana (Cleveland Scene)
After serving in the U.S. Navy for 10 years, Shane O’Neil left the service in 2009 with a lower spine injury and confirmed PTSD. In between and during fits of insomnia, his life was wracked with anxiety and pain. His story is not unique. Treatment from the Veterans Administration clinic brought opiates, amphetamines, benzodiazepines and SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) into his life in massive quantities. At his peak, O’Neil was downing 1,400 pills each month. “I was taking 30-some pills everyday,” O’Neil says. “And this was just for the four conditions I was treating. All the other pills were for the constipation, the anxiety, the loss of sleep, the involuntary movements, all the side effects from all these drugs.” Like much of the U.S. veteran population — a demographic poisoned with alarmingly high suicide rates, to the tune of an estimated 40 suicides each day — O’Neil transformed into an opiate addict and, in his words, “a raging alcoholic.” The nightmare at home was settling in. When O’Neil returned to the VA for help — treatment for the treatment he was already undergoing — their answer was to put him on suboxone and more SSRIs. He sought relief elsewhere, in the form of cannabis. Within nine weeks, O’Neil’s habit had dropped from 24 mg of pharmaceuitical medicine each day to zero. … O’Neil and many others are hoping that veterans returning from conflict won’t have to endure pharmaceutical torture at home. Weed, O’Neil says, saved his life. “It hurt, but I did it,” he says. “They (the VA) refuse to let veterans treat with a safe medication. They would rather prescribe methadone and suboxone for opiate addiction. They would rather press SSRIs…” This is the crux of a growing movement against an outmoded VA policy — a directive that prohibits doctors from recommending marijuana as a treatment option or even discussing the abstract idea of that option. That VA policy actually expired just this month, though the administration has done nothing to move toward accepting medicinal marijuana as legitimate treatment. … Essentially, the VA’s self-imposed prohibition continues, even in the 23 states where the medical use of marijuana is actually legal. To further complicate the matter, veterans who test positive for marijuana could lose certain medical benefits, depending on their particular clinic or physician’s temperament. Marijuana remains a federally designated Schedule-I drug. … It would require a new directive from the VA — or Congressional action — to change course on that policy. With that in mind, alongside the slowly rising wave of states’ legalization, federal politicians are beginning to talk with fervor. In late January, a bipartisan group of members of Congress wrote the VA and urged the administration to begin discussing and prescribing medical marijuana. In tandem, the Veterans Equal Access Amendment — H.R. 667 — is currently getting kicked around committees in Congress right now. That resolution would push the VA to discuss medical marijuana with patients. The VA has not issued a formal statement on the matter to date. Still, however, the growing problem of veterans wracked with opiate addiction problems and boiling rage is not diminishing, according to Rocky Mesarosh, the president of Warriors for Weed in Oho. … Mesarosh says that the goal for his group is to unite veterans behind this cause, and to align his group’s interests with legalization campaigns under way now in the state.

Potential tuberculosis exposure at VA hospital in Palo Alto, CA (NBC Bay Area)
More than 170 veterans are being screened for tuberculosis after an employee at the Veterans Affairs medical center in Palo Alto was diagnosed with the disease but continued to work for months. Congressman Jerry McNerney says the employee tested positive for TB in October, but management didn’t find out until last month. The hospital disputes that claim, telling NBC Bay Area the employee tested positive in January and has not returned to work. The VA so far tested more than 60 percent of the veterans who could have been exposed. All of the results are negative. Spokesman Damian McGee said the VA is continuing to reach out to the veterans who have not responded.

Oscar-nominated film spotlights death-row veterans, combat PTSD (Military Times)
A film that raises questions about veterans’ mental health care, capital punishment and justice for troubled troops is on the short list for an Oscar on Feb. 28. The 30-minute documentary “Last Day of Freedom” tells the story of former Marine Manuel Babbitt through the eyes of his brother Bill. Babbitt was executed in California in 1999 after being convicted of beating an elderly woman to death in Sacramento in 1980. Babbitt — “Manny” to family and friends — had suffered a head injury as a child, and despite having learning disabilities and dropping out of school in seventh grade at the age of 17, he was recruited by the Marine Corps. He went to Vietnam, twice, and later developed a host of mental health issues, including schizophrenia, severe post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse. … Through a melange of film footage and animation using more than 30,000 drawings and sketches, filmmakers Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman follow Manny Babbitt’s life from childhood to grave, focusing on his struggles but also on the system they believe failed him. “One of the things we really wanted to uncover is the complexities of the death penalty and of veterans’ care,” said Hibbert-Jones, an associate professor of art at the University of California-Santa Cruz. “The fact that someone would go to war and serve their country and then be failed by that country is a complete travesty.” The movie is among five vying for the Academy Award for best short documentary. Going into the competition, it already has a bevy of accolades, including the best short film award at the International Documentary Association, as well as the jury and best filmmaker awards from the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. Hibbert-Jones said the six-year project began as an effort to understand the impact of gang violence and PTSD on youth. “But as we listened to Bill’s story, it was so powerful … it really speaks to the issues of the judicial system, who goes to war for us, race and politics,” she said. The exact number of combat veterans facing capital punishment in the United States is unknown. An extrapolation from several states released last November estimates that 275 to 300 of the country’s 3,057 inmates on death row are veterans. Manny Babbitt’s case is emblematic of many of these cases, Hibbert-Jones said. … “We have been showing this film at universities, and people say, ‘This was years ago. This doesn’t happen today.’ But that’s not true. These issues have not gone away,” she said. Nearly 40 years after Babbitt was discharged, the Defense Department does not know how many troops have been discharged with combat-related mental health disorders, according to the Government Accountability Office. According to a report published in 2015, the Army, Marine Corps and Navy do not accurately label the reasons for discharges ineligible for disability pay, making it impossible to know how many service members in the past decade have been kicked out for misbehavior that may be related to PTSD or other combat-related disorders. A Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation in 2013 by The Gazette of Colorado Springs found that the Army continues to discharge troops who have combat-related mental issues for misconduct and poor behavior without examining the connection between the two. The report also found that Army psychologists face pressure to clear troops for discharge from superiors who want to thin the ranks. Hibbert-Jones said she would like to win in order to shine a spotlight on the plight of veterans’ mental health and capital punishment. “One of our hopes for the film is it will reach audiences that might not otherwise be aware of these issues,” Hibbert-Jones said. “Last Day of Freedom” is currently available on Netflix.

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