February 23 Veterans News

February 23 Veterans News

VetsHQ News UpdateVA pitches plan for executive firings to Senate (Stars and Stripes)
The Department of Veterans Affairs told the Senate on Tuesday that its plan to take sole control over firing executives could help fill dozens of vacant management posts at veteran medical facilities across the country. VA Secretary Bob McDonald pitched some upsides of eliminating hundreds of VA executives’ right to appeal firings to an independent merit board. He said positives include higher pay and quicker hiring of medical officials as he testified to lawmakers who are hoping to craft new legislation on VA firings by next month. The VA has proposed the dramatic shift away from the employment protections as part of its upcoming annual budget just as the Senate is pushing ahead with legislation. It comes amid persistent public criticism over its seeming inability to fire misbehaving managers, despite a nearly two-year effort by McDonald to clean up dysfunction and wrongdoing within the agency. McDonald said the proposed changes would make VA “virtually as flexible as the private sector” in its ability to hire and fire its top employees. “People would appeal to me,” he said. VA said a recent high-profile firing decision was thwarted by a Merit Systems Protection Board. Linda Weiss, director of the Albany-Stratton VA Medical Center in New York, was fired by VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson for failing to properly handle staff misconduct, including theft of drugs, but was reinstated earlier this month by a board decision. A merit board also overturned punishments for Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves, two executives who auditors found were involved in a scheme to move into other jobs with fewer responsibilities but the same salaries and hefty relocation payments. McDonald said the proposal would also have the benefit of allowing the VA to pay executives more and cut down the time it takes to fill key positions — an advantage for its health care network. “We compete for health care professionals from the best health care systems in the country,” he said. The average VA medical center director is paid “at best half” of what they could earn in the private sector, according to McDonald. Meanwhile, hiring can take six months on average. That has led to 34 medical centers across the country not having permanent directors, said David Shulkin, VA under secretary for health. “There is no way to ensure we are doing the best for veterans with 34 open positions,” he said. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said his goal is to have legislation crafted by the end of March addressing accountability for VA employees. “If we have problems in the future … then we have a defensible accountability system within the department to right a wrong and not have it happen again,” Isakson said. Democrats on the Senate committee are also backing legislation, though it was unclear Tuesday whether it would mirror the VA proposal. The House passed a bill last year to speed up firings and is considering some new legislation. “I think it is making progress with very close bipartisan support,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., the ranking member on the veterans committee.

VA boss may break silence at Senate hearing on allegations raised by local whistleblowers (WCPO)
The second-highest ranking official in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs sent a message Monday to whistleblowers at Cincinnati’s VA Medical Center. “The message to them is thank you,” said VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson. “I am grateful to the folks in Cincinnati that are raising the issues.” Gibson said the department takes seriously allegations raised by 34 current and former hospital employees, who raised “urgent concerns about quality of care” at the facility and questioned management practices there. The Scripps News Washington Bureau and WCPO spent four months investigating whistleblowers’ concerns. Our findings include allegations of misconduct by high-level officials at the local and regional office, which have triggered two federal probes. “I had Office of Medical Inspector teams on the ground in Cincinnati the very next day,” Gibson said. “We take those allegations very, very seriously. And then as we saw what else was there, we asked the (Inspector General) to come in as well.” VA Secretary Bob McDonald could have more to say on the topic when he addresses the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs at 10 a.m. Tuesday. The former CEO of Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble Co. is likely to face questions about the Cincinnati VA from Senator Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, one of 15 members of the VA oversight committee. Brown’s press secretary said Friday that the senator will ask about the Cincinnati VA when McDonald testifies in the agency’s annual budget hearing. Brown is one of several Tri-State legislators who are demanding answers from the VA. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky joined the chorus Monday with the public release of a letter to McDonald and a statement: “Reports of mistreatment of veterans and misconduct by officials at the VA hospital in Cincinnati are disturbing and must be thoroughly investigated. I am monitoring this situation closely, and I urge the Inspector General and VA to complete their investigations swiftly and take decisive action on the findings.” Gibson said the VA is trying to encourage transparency and trust between the VA and its employees so both can work on “doing the right thing” for veterans and taxpayers. “We will not be able to create the right veteran experience if we can’t create the right employee experience,” he said. “And that means being able to have open and candid conversation; that means creating an environment where employees see things that are wrong or ways to improve service to veterans, that not only do they feel OK raising their hand, but that they’re encouraged to raise their hand. And recognized and rewarded when they raise their hand. That is a cultural change for this organization. But that is the change that we are about.”

Sen. Brown presses VA chief on Cincinnati VA problems (Cincinnati.com)
Calling the atmosphere at the Cincinnati VA Medical Center “toxic,” Sen. Sherrod Brown Tuesday pushed the Veterans Affairs secretary to promise he would punish any supervisors who retaliated against whistle-blowers for disclosing problems at the facility. “I want your commitment that … you will hold those people accountable,” Brown, D-Ohio, said to VA Secretary Bob McDonald at a Senate hearing on the agency’s budget. McDonald, the former chief executive of Procter & Gamble Co., emphasized that allegations of medical and personnel problems at the Cincinnati center are under investigation. “We need to dig into this and find out whether these allegations are supported and then take action as quickly as possible to remedy them,” McDonald told Brown. “Anybody who retaliates against a whistle-blower will be held accountable,” McDonald said. The exchange before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee came after WCPO published an investigation last week outlining concerns about the quality of care and possible inappropriate conduct involving two high-ranking officials at the Cincinnati VA. The WCPO story said a group of whistle-blowers at the center sent an unsigned letter to McDonald in September describing “urgent concerns about quality of care” at the Cincinnati facility. The whistle-blowers alleged cost-cutting measures had “forced out experienced surgeons, reduced access to care and put patients in harm’s way.” The WCPO story also outlined possible inappropriate conduct involving two high-ranking officials there: Dr. Barbara Temeck, acting chief of staff for the Cincinnati VA Medical Center, and Jack Hetrick, the Department of Veterans Affairs’ regional director. The station obtained records showing Temeck prescribed pain medication for Hetrick’s wife, even though she did not have the legal or medical authority to do so.

Some VA workers in disbelief as two controversial executives return to high-paying jobs (Stars and Stripes)
Some employees across the scandal-ridden Department of Veterans Affairs reacted with disbelief when two directors were reinstated Monday despite findings of wrongdoing and as VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson tried to tamp down the controversy. “We were hoping that we’d start seeing an upswing in change and accountability,” said Germaine Clarno, a social worker at the Edward Hines VA Medical Center in Illinois and co-founder of the national whistleblowers group, VA Truth Tellers. “It’s disappointing, it sets us back.” The reinstated executives, Philadelphia VA Regional Office director Diana Rubens and St. Paul (Minn.) VA Regional Office director Kimberly Graves, who the VA Office of Inspector General found to be involved in a hiring-system scheme, were back on the job Monday, after a decision to reassign them was overturned by an appeals board. Gibson said he was still exploring alternative punishments for Rubens and Graves, even as he expressed his confidence in them. Gibson visited Philadelphia on Monday to hold two town hall meetings with employees. “The overarching theme today is for all of us to get back to the veterans’ business,” he said later Monday in a conference call with reporters. “This has been a considerable distraction for a long period of time.” A VA Office of Inspector General’s report found Rubens and Graves manipulated the hiring system to get moved to positions of lesser responsibility while maintaining the same salary. Rubens and Graves are paid $181,497 and $173,949, respectively. The VA disputed the allegations and instead found the women guilty of the less serious offense of not recusing themselves from the relocation process, in which they received about $400,000. The VA ordered the women demoted and reassigned. However, the Merit Systems Protection Board overturned the VA’s punishment, part of a growing battle between the federal employee appeals board and the department. The VA also has been at odds with the Inspector General’s office, which Gibson said Monday has issued findings not supported by evidence that have left him “quite frustrated.” Kristen Ruell, a whistleblower and Philadelphia VA Regional Office employee who met with Gibson on Monday, said she wants to rebuild the relationship between rank-and-file employees and the top levels of VA leadership. However, she said decisions to return leaders accused of wrongdoing to their jobs makes it seem like there is a double standard for top executives. “I do feel like at times the top leaders at the VA are not being sympathetic to employees who have gone through a lot this year,” she said. Some employees in Philadelphia were shocked to see Rubens back at work, and thought the reinstatements would keep people from speaking out about future wrongdoings. “It’s going to have a chilling effect on whistleblowing,” said Steven Greenberg, a claims assistant at the Philadelphia veterans service center. Neither Rubens nor Graves could immediately be reached for comment. Gibson said he is still looking into imposing a lesser punishment for what he called Rubens’ and Graves’ “errors in judgment.”

VA initially denies wheelchair to dying veteran (KTNV)
He fought for our freedom. Now the Department of Veterans Affairs had denied his. Contact 13 has the story of a dying veteran whose simple wish for mobility was initially rejected by the embattled government agency that’s supposed to help those who served. VA doctors diagnosed Vietnam Veteran David McKinney-Smith’s cancer when he was already in the end stages and told him he only had six months to live. The cancer is riddling his body. And he believes he knows what caused it. “We were over in the Gulf of Tonkin and this huge tanker was flying from the coast of Vietnam over the water spraying orange substance. It turned out it was Agent Orange.” Despite everything he’s been through, David says he wouldn’t change a thing. “I think we have the greatest country in the world. And I would do it again. I would do it again.” That makes it all the more difficult to understand why the VA would deny him his freedom in the form of an electric wheelchair. “If I can’t move around, I know that I will die earlier than the five months,” David said through tears. The VA approved him for home hospice, but told the dying vet he’d have to cancel that care to get an electric wheelchair.  He did that, but then the VA denied his request, leaving him with no hospice, no wheelchair and no faith. “The VA double-crossed me,” David said. We asked him to give us a message to deliver to the VA. “Please stop lying to the vets!” After talking with David about his situation, Darcy Spears immediately picked up the phone to ask the VA what the heck was going on. Less than 48 hours later, David had his wheels. “Our entire team out at the VA was kind of taken back by this case,” said VA Public Affairs Chief Chuck Ramey. He said it was “quite sad” that it did happen to the veteran who served two tours of duty in Vietnam. Ramey calls it a misstep, saying the person at the VA who denied David’s request misinterpreted policy and was unaware of resources like the VA wheelchair loan program. “We’re going to go back and look at this and see what we can do to make sure that if this comes up and happens again that we’re taking care of our people and our patients accordingly,” said Ramey. He came out to David’s home to help deliver the chair in person. “And I would like to thank the hospital for thinking that I was worth getting the wheelchair,” Smith told Ramey. Smith remains an eternal optimist against all odds, believing his new wheels just might give him wings. “And I’m pretty sure that next year this time, you might be doing another interview on me as to, well, how come you’re still here?” In the meantime, David surrounds himself with angels. A fighter then who will fight to the end. “This is like heaven now,” he said. ” I can go out, go up the street, come back and get my sunshine. This feels so good.  Wow.”

Learn more about Agent Orange and herbicide exposure.

Burn Pits 360 lobbies for veterans in Washington D.C. (KRISTV)
Members of the group Burn Pits 360 are in Washington D.C. this week pushing for legislation to help veterans with health problems from exposure to burn pits. The open-air fires were used by the military in Iraq and Afghanistan to burn trash that often included rubber and plastic items. A national registry shows approximately 56,000 soldiers were exposed to the toxic fumes.  Burn Pits 360 is meeting with Senator John Cornyn and Congressman Joaquin Castro as well as several veterans organizations in Washington D.C. The group hopes to expand healthcare for those suffering health consequences from the burn pits and track the number of veterans who have died from illnesses related to the exposure. Rosie Torres and Diane Slape, who are representing the group on the trip, will present their ideas to the House and Senate Wednesday. For both Torres and Slape, advocating for soldiers exposed to burn pits is very personal. Slape lost her 42-year-old husband Frederick this fall to lung cancer. She says it was caused by burn pits in Afghanistan. … Le Roy and Rosie Torres founded Burn Pits 360. The group lobbied for a national registry for burn pit victims, which President Obama signed into law in 2013. Now in an effort to track those who have died from exposure to burn pits, Torres is presenting Congress with a list of nearly 50 she says have lost their lives due to the toxins. The group is advocating for compensation for the families of these deceased veterans, who are currently not eligible for benefits. … Another component of the proposal is expanding healthcare for those who are currently suffering, which members of Burn Pits 360 say is so important because it could mean families get more time with their loved ones. “It’s sort of like a matter of time, when do you discover that cancer, when do you discover that terminal illness?” Rosie Torres said. “So we really don’t want to sit back and wait 20 years until thousands of others die.” Burn Pits 360 is also giving politicians in Washington D.C. a recently published book called “The Burn Pits” to help raise awareness about the issue.

Learn more about burn pit exposure.

Senator lifts hold on VA inspector general nominee (Military Times)
Republican Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe on Tuesday lifted his hold on the White House’s nominee to take over the Veterans Affairs inspector general post, opening the possibility the agency could get a new head watchdog in coming days. Michael Missal, who previously worked as a senior counsel at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, has been awaiting confirmation since last fall and had his nomination forwarded to the full Senate in early January. But he has remained stalled there for more than a month, thanks in large part to Inhofe’s decision to block the appointment over unanswered questions regarding deficiencies at VA facilities in his state. The senator said he lifted the hold after VA officials agreed to investigate those problems. “My office is working hundreds of cases for Oklahoma veterans facing inadequate care or blocked access to benefits,” Inhofe said on the Senate floor. “I believe the impending investigations will show that it’s going to require a change at the management level to bring about lasting improvements for veteran care.” Outside critics of the department and even VA leaders have been clamoring for Missal’s confirmation in recent weeks, saying the inspector general’s office needs a new permanent leader to deal with ongoing problems with health care delivery and employee accountability. Earlier in the day, VA Secretary Bob McDonald asked Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee members to push the nomination ahead, saying the vacancy limits investigators’ ability to help improve the department. Committee Chairman Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said he had scheduled several meetings this week with key senators to move the process along. If confirmed, Missal, who has worked on a number of federal and congressional investigation staffs, would be the first permanent inspector general since December 2013, when George Opfer retired. In the last few years, tensions between the inspector general’s staff and VA leadership has grown, with Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson accusing the office of exaggerating problems in a recent report accusing two senior executives of gaming the department’s internal hiring systems for personal gain. Inhofe said his decision to place a hold on the nomination was not a condemnation of Missal’s experience or credentials. He was voted out of committee without any opposition.