February 26 Veterans News

February 26 Veterans News

VetsHQ News UpdateCincinnati VA officials face disciplinary actions, possible charges (Military.com) The director of the Veterans Affairs Department’s regional service network in Cincinnati, Ohio, Jack Hetrick, turned in his resignation on Thursday after hearing from VA headquarters he was to be fired and dismissed from federal service. At the same time VA Under Secretary for Health Dr. David Shulkin said he has removed the Cincinnati VA Medical Center’s acting chief of staff, Dr. Barbara Temeck, from her job pending administrative action. Investigators found evidence that Temeck ordered veterans be sent into the community for care as a cost-shifting measure, resulting in poor quality of care. They also substantiated misconduct by both Hetrick and Temeck related to Temeck’s providing prescriptions and other medical care to members of Hetrick’s family. Some of the substantiated allegations may result in a criminal investigation, according to the VA. “We are committed to sustainable accountability,” Gibson said in announcing the actions against the two. “We will continue to use VA’s statutory authority to hold employees accountable where warranted by the evidence. That is simply the right thing to do for veterans and taxpayers.” The Cincinnati VA facility has been the subject of VA investigations dealing with patient care and alleged employee misconduct. The state’s two U.S. Senators — one a Republican and the other a Democrat — urged the VA to move quickly to get to the bottom of the allegations just last week, and law makers from both parties and both chambers have regularly pressed the VA to hold employees more accountable for bad behavior. But Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee, expressed doubts that either Hetrick or Temeck will face significant punishment, claiming that the federal Civil Service system “is designed to coddle and protect corrupt and incompetent employees” and that President Obama does nothing to change that. Miller said Hetrick “will retire — likely with full benefits and a lifetime pension,” while Temeck “will remain on the department’s payroll making hundreds of thousands of dollars per year for the foreseeable future.” Since last month at least two Senior Executive Service-level employees demoted and transferred to lesser jobs by the VA were ordered returned to their previous positions by the Merit Systems Protection Board that adjudicates appeals brought by the high-level Civil Service workers. Hetrick told the Cincinnati Enquirer on Feb. 17 that he could not say much about the investigations, though did tell the paper VA was “reviewing a number of employee allegations about certain things at the hospital. I cannot get too much into it. It’s part of what the Washington review is looking at.” The VA investigators did not substantiate any impropriety with respect to community care referrals or quality of care for veterans.

Lawmaker: Congress must investigate VA Inspector General’s work (Military.com)
Rep. Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat from Illinois and disabled veteran, wants Congress to investigate allegations that the Veterans Affairs Department’s inspector general’s office has kept reports on the wait-times scandal under wraps. “After the abhorrent wait-time abuses that took place in [VA hospitals] across the country, it is absolutely vital that we carefully study the misconduct and act on lessons learned to ensure we never repeat such disgraceful mistakes,” Duckworth said in a letter Thursday to Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Republican from Utah, who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “However, Congress cannot achieve this important mission if the VA OIG continues to evade transparency and withhold important findings,” she said. Duckworth, a medically retired Army helicopter pilot who lost her legs after being shot down in Iraq, has asked Chaffetz to schedule an investigative hearing “as quickly as possible.” Her call for hearings into the matter follows an article Wednesday in USA Today that the VA’s inspector general’s office has yet to release all of its reports on 73 VA medical centers it looked into because of the wait-times scandal. The paper reported that the IG found scheduling issues in 51 cases. The wait-times scandal came to light in 2014 when whistleblowers at the VA Medical Center in Phoenix reported that up to 40 veterans placed on a secret appointments wait list died before getting care. Officials in Phoenix maintained the unofficial list to conceal the fact they were unable to meet the demands of veterans seeking care within the wait times set by the VA. The VA’s subsequent investigation found that unofficial wait lists and delays to care were systemic across the department. The IG’s office concluded that up to 35 people seeking care through the Phoenix facility died, but initially stated their deaths were not caused by delays. The IG’s office later backpedaled and said delays likely contributed to the deaths of some veterans. Last June, Acting Inspector General Richard Griffin retired from the department even as demands grew for his dismissal. Three months later, several whistleblowers testifying before Congress criticized the IG, with one calling its work “half-assed and shoddy.” “The IG works with the VA to whitewash problems and hide them,” said Shea Wilkes, whose complaints of cronyism and corruption at the VA Medical Center in Shreveport, Louisiana, nearly cost him his job. The VA was investigating more than 100 facilities as of September 2014, according to VA Secretary Bob McDonald, who had been named to the top job just two months earlier following the resignation of Eric Shinseki.

Watchdog says IG dropped ball on VA probe, tried to ‘discredit’ whistleblowers (Fox News)
A top government watchdog on Thursday accused the central agency tasked with holding Veterans Affairs accountable of dropping the ball — by failing to properly investigate whistleblower claims of secret wait lists at Shreveport, La., and Chicago hospitals where thousands of veterans languished up to 15 months without care. Further, Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said the VA’s Office of Inspector General even tried to “discredit the whistleblowers” who brought the allegations by focusing on a narrow aspect of the case. “The OIG investigations that the VA submitted … are incomplete. They do not respond to the issues that the whistleblowers raised,” Lerner wrote to President Obama. The U.S. Office of Special Counsel reports directly to the president and investigates claims of whistleblower retaliation. It has no direct authority over the VA, but the letter sent to Obama and Congress on Thursday represents a stark challenge to the supposedly independent review conducted by the VA inspector general. Whistleblowers who originally brought the allegations – and themselves faced a criminal investigation by IG officials after coming forward — told FoxNews.com the OSC findings are “vindication” for them. “I’m glad the OSC has seen what is the obvious – that the inspector general did not do a thorough investigation,” said Germaine Clarno, one of the whistleblowers. The OSC letter, and an 11-page report, accused the inspector general of an inadequate review that failed to address legitimate concerns over patient care and how it could be fixed. As with other VA hospitals, whistleblowers had claimed supervisors told employees to violate scheduling rules while hiding delays in seeing patients. But Lerner said the IG tried to “discredit the whistleblowers by focusing on the word ‘secret,’ rather than reviewing the access to care issues identified by the whistleblowers … OIG also denied OSC’s request to review a copy of the complete investigation reports, undermining our ability to properly assess the VA’s resolution of these issues.” The VA, according to the special counsel, surmised the wait lists appeared to be an “organizational tool” to schedule patients and out of fear that some might “get lost through the cracks.” VA Chief of Staff Robert L. Nabors said in a 2015 letter to Lerner that investigators were told “No veteran died as a result of waiting for an appointment,” even though in Shreveport, the 2,700-person list had a tab labeled “deceased” with 37 names on it. The VA apparently made no effort to confirm if anyone had, indeed, died due to a lack of care but rather took employee accounts at face value, the report showed. Allegations of wrongdoing in the mental health divisions of Overton-Brooks VA Medical Center in Shreveport and Edward Hinds Jr. VA Hospital in Chicago surfaced in 2014 when social workers Shea Wilkes and Clarno went public. Both were told by the VA that they were under criminal investigation for obtaining patient lists – a tactic used so that none of the reports would be public because criminal cases are confidential, said Wilkes’ attorney, Ricky John. The OSC stepped in last year and started an investigation of its own into how the VA was treating the pair. The VA has not responded to multiple requests for comment on Thursday’s letter.

Sen. Gillibrand to VA: Check for food insecurity during health screenings (Auburn Pub)
Access to food can be a problem for some veterans, and two U.S. senators think the Department of Veterans Affairs should be doing more to address the issue. U.S. Sens. Joni Ernst and Kirsten Gillibrand are calling on the agency to screen veterans for food insecurity during routine health examinations. “We owe it to our veterans to do everything we can to ensure that they do not go hungry,” Ernst, R-Missouri, and Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said. “We believe that veterans would benefit from the VA including a brief screener on food insecurity when veterans seek health care from the VA. “Any veteran who claims food insecurity can be referred to a social worker, who can then assist the veteran in completing paper work for SNAP or other resources. The addition of this screener is simple, requires little of the VA and has the potential to help prevent millions of veterans and their families from going hungry.” Food insecurity, which is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a “household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food,” is higher among Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans. According to the senators, 27 percent of veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq face issues with food insecurity. That’s nearly double the rate of the general population — 14.5 percent — that are affected by food insecurity. There are initiatives available to help address food insecurity, most notably the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. But many veterans choose not to use the program for a few reasons, including the application process and a stigma associated with accepting food stamps. The senators said Veterans Affairs can play a bigger role in encouraging veterans to sign up for SNAP benefits.

VA ousts Memphis hospital director, cites underperformance (The Washington Times)
The Department of Veterans Affairs has ousted the director of the Memphis VA hospital due to underperformance issues. A statement released by the department Thursday says William “Bill” Mills will begin serving as acting director of the hospital starting Monday. Mills has been director of the VA medical center in Altoona, Pennsylvania. Mills replaces C. Diane Knight, who has been moved to another position in Nashville. The VA has struggled to respond in the nearly two years since a scandal emerged in Phoenix over chronic delays for veterans seeking medical care, and falsified records covering up long waits. Similar problems were soon discovered at VA medical centers nationwide, including Memphis. The VA’s statement says it is “committed to holding all senior executives accountable for the delivery of services to Veterans.”

Giving veterans a new start in cybersecurity (CNBC)
When Chris Crace, a Marine Corps captain, left the military in August 2006 he wasn’t sure what to do next — a dilemma for many former military personnel. But Crace eventually found his footing in private industry, and is working to help other veterans make that same transition. “I feel very heavy on my shoulders to give opportunity and break down walls,” he said. While most former military personnel do not have cybersecurity training, they do have compatible skills, including data analysis, an enemy mindset and teamwork that transition well. “Former military hires are very focused by nature and work well with others,” said David Burg, a cybersecurity professional. Crace is the veterans advocacy leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers. Earlier this month, the consulting firm started a cybersecurity boot camp to give veterans training in the tech field. The first class of 41 former military personnel began Feb. 1. Unemployment for all U.S. veterans has fallen to 5.3 percent, lower than the rate for nonveterans, according to the Department of Labor. Still, younger veterans face higher unemployment than their peers as they’ve had less time to translate their skills into civilian work than older veterans. The veterans in the program are getting the hands-on training needed to succeed in cybersecurity, a field that has more jobs than the industry can fill. By 2020, there are expected to be 1.5 million unfilled jobs in cybersecurity, according to the 2015 (ISC)2 Global Information Security Workforce Study, released in April. The skills the veterans are learning include computer fundamentals, securing a network and testing for vulnerabilities, said Burg, PwC’s global and U.S. advisory cybersecurity leader. And PwC’s cybersecurity boot camp program is not about charity, but rather about getting much-needed, qualified talent into the pipeline. “Our vision for this program wasn’t to make a dent in veteran hiring, [but rather to] differentiate us [PwC] and help us meet the needs of our clients with the current talent shortage,” Crace said in a phone interview. To attract more veterans into cybersecurity, PwC decided to change its job descriptions to allow the hiring of former military personnel without a bachelor’s degree. “Do you really need a degree for technical work?” said Crace. However, there are some differences between the military and corporate life. “The big difference between the military and professional services, like PwC, is that we want to people to suggest ways to make things better. In the military you have to be careful to follow orders,” Burg said in a phone interview. To help the new hires transition even after boot camp, PwC assigns battle buddies, a former veteran already working for the company who can provide advice and guidance. The firm also wants the new hires to stay for the long run, so they plan to continue to check in with the boot camp graduates to determine a career path. The two-year mark is an important milestone for veterans because that’s when you are likely to get promoted or get antsy, according to Crace. PwC plans to repeat the cybersecurity boot camp with future hires to continue to fill openings in its cybersecurity consulting practice.

Bill advances to have VA work with Rx monitoring (The Journal Gazette)
A U.S. House committee advanced legislation Thursday containing a provision prompted by an investigation of drug purchases by the Veterans Affairs medical center in Marion. The House Veterans Affairs’ Committee approved a bill that included an amendment requiring VA facilities to participate in state prescription drug monitoring programs. Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-2nd, introduced the proposal in December after the federal Drug Enforcement Agency began investigating purchases of painkilling drugs by the VA medical center in Marion. The language of Walorski’s bill was amended Thursday into another bill that would update VA guidelines and training for prescribing opioids to patients. Walorski told the committee, of which she is a member, that her proposal “treats VA doctors the same as any other doctors and will significantly improve the tracking and coordination of prescription drugs. These databases have proven effective in preventing drug abuse and diversion and in reducing doctor shopping” by patients.

VA, DoD launch care transition effort for service members, veterans (ExecutiveGov)
The Department of Veteran Affairs and the Defense Department have launched an interagency effort that seeks to assist the transition of service members and veterans who need complex care management as they transfer within or between the DoD and VA healthcare systems. VA said Thursday the initiative will designate a lead coordinator for each service member’s care management team to provide guidance and assistance to the service members and their families on the benefits and services available to them. Lead coordinators will guide service members through more than 50 DoD and VA programs under the Interagency Care Coordination Committee Community of Practice that deliver specialty care, VA said. The department further said it expects around 1,500 DoD staff and 1,200 VA staff to be trained as lead coordinators. “More than a decade of combat has placed enormous demands on a generation of service members and veterans – particularly those who have suffered wounds, injuries or illnesses which require a complex plan of care,” said Karen Guice, IC3 co-chair and principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for health affairs. “These individuals require the complex coordination of medical and rehabilitative care, benefits and other services to successfully transition from active duty to veteran status, and to optimally recover from their illnesses or injuries.” The interagency initiative was enacted as policy in 2015 as a result of the efforts of the DoD-VA IC3 established in 2012.

New York State DVA accused of accepting $500,000 gifts from vet (WKBW)
One NYS Department of Veteran’s Affairs worker is accused of accepting half a million dollars in gifts from a veteran while she worked as his counselor. According to the Joint Commission of Public Ethics, Tracy Kinn, a counselor at the DVA office in Buffalo, was given more than $500,000 in cash and other goods from one of her patients, Charles Matie. It is unclear in the report where exactly these counseling sessions between Kinn and Matie took place. Matie, a World War II veteran and Purple Heart Recipient became a client of Kinn’s in 2002, according to the report. The report indicates that shortly after Kinn started working with him, she increased his monthly veterans benefits. Over the course of the next eight years, the report says Matie opened a joint checking account with Kinn, gave her a BMW, changed his will to leave her his estate, and named her the beneficiary on a $175,000 annuity policy. Two days after Matie’s death in 2010, the report indicates Kinn claimed all the money, sold Matie’s house and all his personal items online. We talked to a local attorney at Brown Chiari about this case. “It certainly sounds like a case where an elderly person was taken advantage of,” said Michael Scinta, who specializes in Elder Abuse Law. “Sometimes those who want to take advantage place themselves in a position to do so.” Scinta says the best way to prevent this from happening to someone you know and love is to keep your eyes and ears open, and know who is in your loved ones business. The report indicates that Kinn denies any wrongdoing and says she was a family friend of Matie’s and knew him long before working with him at the DVA in Buffalo. An independent hearing will take place to determine the next step in this case.