VA rebuffs IG criticisms of crisis hotline (Federal News Radio)
The Department of Veterans Affairs second in command is pushing back against an oversight report criticizing the agency’s suicide hotline program for not adequately training staff and using a backup call center that relied on voicemail to handle some calls. VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson said changes in business practices, the hiring of additional staff and investments in technology and work space have dramatically improved the environment of the Veterans Crisis Line in Canandaigua, New York, where a VA Office of Inspector General investigation found quality assurance concerns. “The operation at the Veterans Crisis Line today does not bear any resemblance to what was described in the IG report or in some of the ensuing coverage,” Gibson said during a Feb. 26 call with reporters. “The fact of the matter is the reports of calls going to voicemail were reports from 2014. In fact, there was a very rigorous process put in place back then to ensure that our third party fallback, rollover call center was not under any circumstance utilizing voicemail. And where it was identified that voicemail was used (about 20 calls) every one of those veterans was followed up with to make sure we took care of them.” “I’m not saying that there aren’t things we’ve got to do better, there clearly are,” Gibson said. “But these people need our recognition for the great work that they do every single day.” Hughes said that in response to the investigation, which was conducted from fiscal 2014 through the first quarter of fiscal 2015, the call center brought on additional staff, and those people are going through a six-week training program to help ensure “they are ready to take calls before they get on the phone.” “In addition to that we are enhancing the space that responders work in so it’s more consistent with call centers of today and ideal call center operations,” said Greg Hughes, director of the Veterans Crisis Line, who’s been on the job for two months, during the call. “We’re increasing the supervisors to staff ratio so that we know that we have sufficient supervisors in place to not just monitor staff but to support staff, so as they take these difficult calls they can decompress and brief with supervisors so that they’re ready to go back on the phones.” Matthew Eitutis, acting director of member services for the Veterans Health Administration, said the VA puts additional importance on readiness and resiliency training for its staff to ensure that they’re not only ready to help callers, but they are able to leave their shift and be “ready to engage back in their normal, personal lives.” … VA’s Office of Inspector General Office of Healthcare Inspections conducted the investigation based on complaints that calls to the crisis line went unanswered or were sent to voicemail, assistance was not always immediate and that staff were not properly trained. The OIG found evidence to support the complaints that some calls were routed to voicemail at a backup center, as well as found gaps in quality assurance and in some training and orientation for social service assistants. … Despite the progress that’s been made in the past two years, congressional watchdogs were critical of the report. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, called the investigation’s findings “shameful” and “unacceptable.” House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), meanwhile, cited the report as a sign that the Veterans Health Administration, which oversees the hotline, needs immediate attention.
Persian Gulf War veterans fume as a 25th anniversary goes unmarked by Pentagon (The Washington Post)
On Saturday, Scott Stump, president and founder of the National Desert Storm War Memorial Association , could not commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Persian Gulf War in Washington. There was, after all, no official Defense Department event scheduled to mark the conflict’s cease-fire on Feb. 28, 1991. Instead, Stump, a former Marine who deployed to Saudi Arabia on Dec. 31, 1990, attended a formal event and lunch at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, at the request of Gen. Jonathan Vance, defense chief of the Canadian Armed Forces. That’s right. Canada. “When we got the invitation to Canada’s official, government-sanctioned 25th anniversary event, the thing hit us with a ton of bricks,” said Stump, 49, who lives in North Carolina. “You have a country that had 4,000 troops on the ground inviting an American like me to attend their commemoration, yet our country — which deployed over 600,000 troops — is not doing anything.” Lt. Col. Thomas Crosson, a Defense Department spokesman, confirmed that it did not plan any 25th anniversary events to recognize the Persian Gulf War. … The Persian Gulf War, a U.S.-led effort to oust Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces from Kuwait, was a short war by modern standards. Combat lasted about a month-and-a-half, claiming close to 300 U.S. casualties. But the lack of any Pentagon-sponsored 25th anniversary event reinforces Stump’s concern that Desert Storm veterans rarely merit the tributes heaped on other war veterans. … Though the Pentagon hasn’t planned anything, some veterans organizations have scheduled their own commemorations. … But for Stump, the Defense Department should have planned one major commemoration that would have been open to all veterans, no matter which service or unit they belonged to. Two months ago, the memorial association began asking the Defense Department if it had any plans to commemorate the anniversary. The Pentagon wrote back saying nothing was in the works and suggested that individual military services might hold their own ceremonies, according to emails provided by the memorial association. But after Stump got invited to Saturday’s event hosted by the Canadian Armed Forces, and a Newseum reception Thursday hosted by the Ambassador of Kuwait, his organization pressed the Pentagon one more time. Fred Wellman, a board member of the memorial association, sent an email to the Pentagon on Feb. 19, flabbergasted. “Up until recently I dismissed the constant complaining by Gulf War veterans that they have been forgotten by the military but frankly at this point it’s hard to dismiss their complaints,” wrote Wellman, a veteran of the Persian Gulf War and Operation Iraqi Freedom. “We are ignoring one of the greatest military victories in world history that was led by the U.S. because its ‘just another anniversary’? Nothing at Arlington? Nothing at the Pentagon? This can’t seriously be the plan still is it?” A Pentagon official wrote him saying he had shared Wellman’s concerns with higher-ranking brass, and sent Wellman links to stories about the 25th anniversary on the websites of the Air Force, National Guard, and Stars and Stripes. Stump said he was delighted to attend Canada’s event on Saturday. And Canada was more than happy to honor the Persian Gulf War’s 25th anniversary. In fact, Saturday’s event at the Canadian War Museum wasn’t the only commemoration organized by the Canadian Armed Forces, according to spokeswoman Major Indira Thackorie. It was one of seven.
Rep Roe: VA problems have nothing to do with money or the lack of it (The Rogersville Review)
U.S. Congressman Phil Roe, M.D., who serves on the House of Representative’s Veteran’s Affairs Committee, told a Town Hall meeting in Rogersville on Monday evening that the current woes at the Veterans Administration has nothing to do with money or the lack of it. “Money is not the problem,” he said. “Seven years ago the VA’s budget was $100 billion. Today, its over $180 billion.” Roe wants to see the bureaucracy at the VA streamlined and to offer America’s military servicemen and women a “Veteran’s Choice Card” so that a patient can have the option of going to a VA facility or their own family doctor if they so choose. “I want to put control back in the hands of the veterans,” he said. A veteran himself, Roe served as a general medical officer in an infantry division in Korea more than 40 years ago. … Roe said he personally worked on the “Sustainable Growth Rate” bill – relating to how Medicare doctors are paid — for six years. That bill, he said, enjoyed bi-partisan support. Prior to that, physicians were paid basic amounts for their services. Doctors today are now being compensated based on outcomes, he said. … It was a landmark bill because no serious Medicare reform had been undertaken in more than 20 years, he said. Over a 10-year period, that bill alone will save taxpayers more than $2.1 trillion, Roe commented.
UMMS, VA launch first ever VA study of women’s maternal health care (UMass Med)
Nearly one in five United States military veterans is a woman, most of who are of childbearing age. The swelling ranks of female veterans have made prenatal and postpartum health care a growing priority for the Veterans Health Administration. “Originally built entirely for men, the Veterans Health Administration understands that it needs to change to accommodate female veterans. Many improvements have been made in the past decade, but there is still not a single VA facility in the country that provides prenatal care,” said UMass Medical School health researcher Kristin Mattocks, PhD, associate professor of quantitative health sciences and psychiatry. In order to better understand the needs and experiences of female veterans during pregnancy and following childbirth, Dr. Mattocks and colleagues have launched the first ever VA study of women’s maternal health care issues and needs. Jointly sponsored by UMMS and the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System, where Mattocks serves as associate chief of staff for research and development, the three-year Center for Maternal and Infant Outcomes Research in Translation (COMFORT) study will inform ongoing efforts to improve prenatal maternity and postpartum care coordination and follow-through for women enrolled in the VHA. “We recently found that the number of women veterans delivering babies using VHA maternity benefits has nearly doubled in the past five years, and yet virtually nothing is known about how they access and use maternity care services, how their maternity care is coordinated, or how ongoing VHA care including primary care, specialty care, mental health care is managed during and after pregnancy,” said Mattocks. “Coordinating maternity care with ongoing VHA care for pregnant veterans is crucial because many women using VHA care have complex medical and mental health conditions that may increase their risk for adverse pregnancy outcomes.” The mental health needs of women who are both veterans and mothers are especially concerning to Mattocks and colleagues because conditions such as depression, pain and PTSD are common among women veterans using VHA care, and these conditions may necessitate ongoing treatment during pregnancy. Given pregnant veterans’ existing mental health burdens, they may also be at increased risk for postpartum depression, which may in turn lead to poor infant and maternal outcomes. “No one has ever measured postpartum depression in women veterans,” said Mattocks. “We don’t know how women who have faced the challenges of war as well as the ordinary challenges of motherhood in our society are doing, or how their kids are doing.” The three-year COMFORT study is the first of its kind to survey women served by a diverse array of Veterans Health Administration facilities at 13 sites across the country, ranging from extremely rural areas to urban hubs. Interviews with VHA primary care, gynecologic and mental health providers, as well as with community obstetricians caring for pregnant vets through the VHA’s fee basis program, will investigate prevailing approaches for pregnancy and maternity care delivery, including barriers and facilitators to care coordination. Veterans will be interviewed during pregnancy and after giving birth to gain their perspectives of and experiences with pregnancy, mental health and maternity care coordination. Finally, investigators will integrate provider and patient findings into recommendations for VHA research, practice and policy focused on pregnancy, mental health and maternity care coordination. “Research drives policy at the VA. This is advocacy based research,” Mattocks emphasized. “We are doing this work to push the agenda to make sure women veterans are getting the care they need.”
Rep. Scalise presses VA to rescind McDougall appointment (The News Star)
Republican Rep. Steve Scalise, of Louisiana, slammed federal officials Friday for assigning Skye McDougall to head the region’s Veterans Affairs hospital system. Scalise, House majority whip and the chamber’s No. 3 leader, says he hopes to get McDougall replaced. “Our veterans deserve better,” he said. “The VA needs to do a better job and it’s not going to happen if you keep recycling the people who have failed in other places.” Scalise made his comments at an event hosted by Bloomberg Government. He discussed a range of issues, including the GOP’s legislative agenda, task forces set up to craft bills, and the race for the Republican presidential nomination (he’s not endorsing any candidate ahead of Louisiana’s March 5 primary). McDougall, who took over the South Central VA Health Care Network on Jan. 10, previously was accused of giving false testimony to Congress about how long patients had to wait for care at VA facilities in Southern California. The VA initially named McDougall director of the Southwest Health Care Network, but after Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, objected, she instead was assigned to head the VA network that includes Louisiana and Mississippi. “It seems like she failed out in the West,” Scalise said after Friday’s event. “That’s not the way to handle it — just to recycle somebody who has had a failed track record.” He also said VA officials aren’t informing veterans about a law signed by President Obama in August 2014 that allows veterans to seek care at a private hospital to avoid long waits for treatment at a VA facility. … Scalise isn’t alone in complaining about McDougall’s appointment to head the South Central VA Health Care Network. Other Gulf Coast lawmakers, including members of the Mississippi delegation, recently wrote to VA Secretary Robert McDonald urging him to rescind the appointment. Mississippi lawmakers also met with McDonald and McDougall last month. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said VA officials continue to defend McDougall. He vowed Thursday to continue efforts to replace her. The law signed in 2014 also makes it easier to fire VA officials, but Scalise said Obama isn’t following through. “The president hasn’t done that at an adequate level,” he said. “I would first call on the president to exercise his ability under the law to go and fire the people who did such a disservice to our veterans by not providing the proper care.”
Milwaukee looks to renovate historic city buildings to house homeless vets (Fox News)
Homeless veterans in the Milwaukee area could soon have a new place to stay — inside one of several historic buildings in the city’s Soldiers Home District, Fox 6 reported Sunday. The area near Miller Park was originally created to house veterans of the Civil War, historians say, adding that it was one of the last acts signed by President Abraham Lincoln before he was assassinated in 1865. The buildings were intended to give veterans a place to stay and adjust to life after war. Now, the Department of Veterans Affairs has asked for developers to propose plans to renovate the buildings for veterans who are homeless or may soon be homeless. If approved, the department would issue long-term leases, Fox 6 adds. The grounds in Milwaukee comprise one of three original Soldiers Homes across the country, Peter Zanghi, Vice President of the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance, said. The VA Department ultimately took over the buildings, many of which are now vacant. Zanghi encouraged developers to “bring this full circle and get them back into the service of veterans.” Developers reportedly have until May to submit renovation proposals.
Homelessness statistics are deceiving, veterans told (Hartford Courant)
Despite recent headlines about chronic homelessness having been “eliminated” in Connecticut, there are still homeless veterans across the state, and a Killingly group is planning to reach out to those who live on local streets to address their needs. “It’s very difficult to get to the zero percentage of anything,” said Tom Stefanko, director of the state’s Department of Veterans’ Affairs Office of Advocacy and Assistance. “I get calls from homeless vets.” Stefanko addressed a packed house at the weekly veterans’ coffeehouse in the Killingly Recreation Center on Feb. 23, debunking Gov. Dannel Malloy’s statement that chronic homelessness in Connecticut had been eliminated. He said that while numbers have been steadily declining over the past few years, people still live on the state’s streets, often by their own choice. “You don’t see them, but they’re there,” said Garry Brown, director of the Pomfret Food Pantry and the town’s veterans’ affairs agent. “Many of them don’t want to be counted. The need is here, definitely. We’re kidding ourselves if we think it’s solved.” Robert Bailey, state commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, agreed. “We all know it might be zero today and tomorrow night it might be 10 percent,” he said. Even so, he added, through its diligent efforts, “Connecticut has laid the blueprint” for getting assistance to its homeless citizens and getting them off the streets. “Poverty and homelessness go hand in hand,” said Alejandro Fuentes, property management director of Access Agency in Willimantic. He said that the agency has established two affordable housing developments, in Willington and North Franklin, and is purchasing properties in Willimantic and Danielson to renovate into affordable, federally-subsidized housing. Veterans will be given priority, but the apartments will be open to anyone earning less than 80 percent of the area’s median income – “people at potential risk for becoming homeless,” he said. Stefanko said that while the federal VA has outreach teams that visit communities to “count noses” and determine how many vets are homeless, it may be a long time before they reach the “Quiet Corner.” “Assets get a little stretched from West Haven to here. We’re always looking for extra sets of hands,” he said. “Don’t wait for the VA to count noses and show up with sleeping bags. Most people in small communities know what the needs are.” To that end, Greg Kline, who directs the RSVP program for Thames Valley Council for Community Action’s Killingly site, offered to organize a local outreach team of volunteers to talk to homeless local vets. Stefanko said that any information or statistics the team collects would help give the VA a clearer picture of the region’s needs for veterans’ assistance. Bailey, who said he was attending the meeting not in his VFW capacity but as a brother veteran, urged his listeners to contact their local representative if they know a fellow vet in need. “No one takes care of veterans but veterans,” he said. “The VA tries to do everything they can to make our lives easier. We’re the ones that fought for the benefits you earned and deserve.”
Veterans heading to Essex County to help with tornado recovery (NBC 12)
Team Rubicon, a Veteran-led, global disaster response organization, is partnering with the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and local Emergency Management Agencies to conduct disaster relief efforts in areas devastated by Wednesday’s tornadoes. Team Rubicon deployed a six-man recon team to Essex County, conducting initial surveys and assisting with initial damage assessments. The group will provide chainsaw operations, debris removal, and volunteer management operations in coordination with local authorities beginning Sunday, February 28, prioritizing the needs of affected homeowners based on level of assessed damage and proximity to the team’s geographic location. Team Rubicon unites the skills and experiences of military veterans with first responders to rapidly deploy emergency response teams. Beyond disaster relief, Team Rubicon helps veterans find a renewed sense of purpose—vital as many return to civilian life after more than a decade of war. Since its inception following the 2010 Haiti earthquake, Team Rubicon has grown from eight to nearly 35,000 volunteers and has responded to over 110 disasters, including the 2015 floods in Hays and Caldwell Counties in TX, the Nepal earthquakes, Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, and Hurricane Sandy. Team Rubicon unites the skills and experiences of military veterans with first responders to rapidly deploy emergency response teams. The disaster relief organization offers veterans the opportunity to continue their service by helping those affected by disasters while regaining a sense of purpose, community and identity, and empowering those affected by disasters.
Arizona nonprofit to help more vets and homeless dogs (Peoria Independent)
A Peoria, Arizona, nonprofit is expanding its ability to provide more service and emotional support dogs for veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder, or a tramatic head injury. Soldier’s Best Friend recently broke ground on its first training campus at 75th Avenue and Acoma Drive next to its office, which pairs and trains a war veteran with a dog rescued from local shelters. “We hope to start actual construction in the next few weeks,” said Brenda Meir, Operations manager. “If it all goes perfectly, construction could conclude by late May, that is the goal.” The 4,640-square-foot building will include a small administrative office, reception area, storage, kennels and outdoor training space. The group, which sustains itself through donations, grants and fundraisers, has a$250,000 matching grant and is still raising money for the $750,000 building. It currently offers training throughout the state, including Phoenix, Tucson and Flagstaff, out of facilities borrowed from other groups such as the American Legion and the Fraternal Order of Police. … Since its inception in early 2011, the group has trained 117 veteran-dog teams. As of last week, it was training 39 teams. With the building in place, the group’s goal is to train an average of 75 teams a year. According to the Department of Veteran Affairs, veterans have reported that their quality of life have improved when paired with a specially trained dog. The dogs not only act as companions to veterans dealing with traumatic events, they also are trained to identify symptoms and react when their owners are exhibiting signs of stress. The department earlier this year launched a three-year study to determine the potential benefits of canine support for veterans with PTSD. At least 20 percent of the roughly 2.7 million American veterans coming home from service in Iraq and Afghanistan have PTSD, according to a RAND Corp. study. PTSD symptoms develop after combat stress and include flashbacks or reliving the event, hyperarousal, becoming jittery or always alert, and avoiding situations or people who trigger memories of the traumatic event. It takes on average six to nine months for a veteran and a dog to go through training and costs about $3,000, Ms. Meir said. The training is free to veterans accepted into the program and is covered by donations. Most of the veterans are referred by the Veterans Affairs and some learn of the group through the Internet or through one of the group’s many presentations in the Valley. Solider’s Best Friend has partnerships with a number of rescue groups and the type of dog used is not breed specific. The veteran’s homelife, what task is required of the dog and if there are children in the household are all taken into consideration when pairing an applicant with an animal. “There are two ways a dog comes into the program,” Ms. Meir said. ”We rescue the dog and put it in foster care and match it with a veteran or if a veteran has a dog they already own and want it to go through training with them,” provided the dog passes the group’s evaluation. President and founder John Burnham, who was at the ground-breaking ceremony called the new campus a win-win for everyone involved.