March 17 Veterans News

March 17 Veterans News

VetsHQ News UpdateReport: VA staff members in Arkansas altered wait times (Arkansas Online)
A newly released report, prompted by a whistleblower’s complaint 20 months ago, concluded that veterans hospital staff members in Little Rock gave the appearance of shorter wait times by manipulating patient data. Medical support assistants, who help veterans schedule doctor appointments, and several supervisors systematically changed the dates that patients requested to see a doctor in early 2014 and before, according to a report released Tuesday by the inspector general for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The report did not specify how far into the past its investigation covered, but the whistleblower indicated the practice went back at least to 2011. Additionally, the report said two supervisors “displayed a lack of candor” during interviews with investigators. VA inspector general special agents made that determination after a review of the supervisors’ emails and co-workers’ testimonies, the report said. In response to the inspector general’s findings, the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System, which operates a hospital in Little Rock and another in North Little Rock, restructured many of its scheduling practices. It also took administrative action against the employees identified in the report, spokesman Debby Meece said. Meece declined to say what administrative actions the department took because of privacy concerns, but she said they were “not insignificant.” U.S. Rep. French Hill, R-Ark., denounced the actions of what he called corrupt and incompetent VA employees. He mentioned a bill he co-sponsored, the VA Accountability Act of 2015, which would give the Veterans Affairs secretary the latitude to fire poor-performing employees for cause. The bill passed the U.S. House last year and is in committee in the Senate. … The VA Office of the Inspector General began its Little Rock investigation after a medical support assistant submitted a complaint. The complainant alleged that his supervisor instructed him to incorrectly input the dates for which veterans requested appointments to “zero out” the wait times. VA employees did this by inputting the actual appointment date as the “desired date” without regard for how long a patient waited from the time an appointment was requested, the report said. Investigators submitted their findings after interviewing 13 employees and reviewing training records, employee emails and scheduling policies. The VA inspector general’s summation of employee interviews indicated that upper-level managers were unaware of the schedule manipulations. Medical support assistants, however, were very aware of the practice, and one told investigators it was a “numbers game” to make the facility look good, according to the report. When one employee tried to correctly input the patient data, he was reprimanded by a supervisor, according to testimony in the report. The report was released more than a year-and-a-half after the whistleblower’s complaint. … The report was the latest of dozens released in recent weeks by the inspector general after numerous media outlets put the department watchdog under pressure to reveal its findings on similar accusations about VA hospitals around the country. … The Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System said its services improved after the inspector general’s investigation. The system completed 49,000 more appointments in 2015 than in 2014, and the majority of patients were seen within 30 days of their initial request, according to the department. Now, the average wait time is about eight days for primary care visits. … The problems in the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System were not the first discovered in the state by the inspector general’s office after the Phoenix scandal. A similar problem surfaced in a February 2015 report that found the VA’s Regional Benefit Office in Little Rock altered 48 overlooked disability claims to make them appear as if they had just been filed. Some of the claims were more than 2 years old. … The VA inspector general determined the claims had been manipulated, but it assigned blame to a Veterans Benefits Administration rule that directed regional offices to alter the dates of claims.

Read More: OIG report verifies allegations at some VA medical facilities 

Combat vets can apply for VA health care by phone (Military Times)
Combat veterans waiting for the Veterans Affairs Department to approve their applications for VA health care can now call VA to complete the process. VA officials announced Wednesday the department is allowing veterans to apply for VA health benefits by phone instead of being required to fill out a paper application. The move stems from a review last year of the VA Health Eligibility Center applications process, which found the applications of 31,000 combat veterans — mostly Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who automatically qualified for five years of health care — were languishing in a backlog of more than 800,000 names. Although the former troops automatically qualified for VA health benefits for up to five years after leaving military service, the VA was unable to automatically enroll them, so they were required to complete enrollment forms. But during the application approval process, the VA’s healthy eligibility computer system determined that the forms lacked details, like personal income information, that is required of normal applicants but not of combat veterans, so the applications were never approved. Providing a phone option is “the right thing to do for veterans,” VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson said in a release. … VA officials said earlier this month they have tried to contact all combat veterans in the health eligibility backlog and have enrolled 5,500. Combat veterans maintain their automatic eligibility for five years from their EAS. Some veterans, however, have been in the system for nearly two years, reducing to three years their opportunity to be seen at the VA for all their health care needs. VA acting director for member services Matthew Eitutis said VA is working to enroll all eligible veterans on the pending list and will then determine what the department can do to compensate veterans for health care costs they may have incurred while waiting for approval for VA care. … According to a VA release, combat veterans have until July 5 to complete their applications by phone, 855-488-8440.

Read More: VA Health Care Enrollment Changes Announced

Bipartisan bill to aid veterans exposed to toxic burn pits (Ripon Advance)
U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) co-introduced bipartisan legislation on Tuesday that would provide aid to veterans exposed to toxic burn pits in Afghanistan and Iraq. Under the Helping Veterans Exposed to Burn Pits Act, S. 2679, a center of excellence would be established within the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to help prevent, diagnose, mitigate, treat and rehabilitate health conditions resulting from exposure to burn pits. “The smoke from burn pits in Afghanistan and Iraq exposed American service members to harmful substances, and we have a moral obligation to provide them with care for health complications that developed as a result,” Tillis said. “This bipartisan bill moves our nation closer to fulfilling that obligation by creating a center of excellence within the VA to assist in the diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits.” Tillis co-offered the bill with U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN). “‎Veterans who fought on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan are coming home with major health complications that could be linked to their exposure to toxic burn pits,” Klobuchar said. “Our bipartisan bill will help address the health needs of veterans who have fallen ill after being exposed to burn pits. It’s clear we need to do more to make sure that all veterans get the care and support they need when they return home from the battlefield.” Tillis, a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, has co-introduced seven bipartisan bills designed to improve VA health care services and to enhance educational opportunities for veterans and their family members.

Read More: Burn Pit Exposure

Colorado lawmakers join Navy vets pushing for Agent Orange treatment (KOAA)
Local (Colorado) veterans are rallying around a state resolution to fund treatment of soldiers exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. In 2002 the Department of Veterans Affairs amended its guidelines for Agent Orange treatment to only provide care for soldiers who put boots on the ground in Vietnam, even though thousands more spent their time close to the shore on ships. Now Navy veterans in southern Colorado say they are starting to feel hopeful. News 5 spoke with a group of Vietnam War veterans who are all suffering from the effects of exposure to Agent Orange, but they are not all receiving the same care. Their ailments range from weakness and nausea to prostate cancer and brain tumors. Wayne Hurtado never stepped foot on Vietnamese soil, spending his deployment on a ship offshore that carried Agent Orange. He started getting sick about three years ago, and fears he may be developing Parkinson’s disease, but the VA will not pay for his treatments because he is deemed a “blue water” soldier, serving on the ocean. “I quit going to the VA because I couldn’t afford the VA co-payments,” he confesses. “They’re saying, well, you know, maybe the Agent Orange stopped at the shore or stopped at the river’s edge or whatever, and it didn’t,” says Navy vet Ruben Archuleta. He is a “brown water” soldier because he served in the rivers of Vietnam and has become an advocate for those who need help getting their VA benefits. Archuleta has many ailments of his own, including prostate cancer and pain in his legs so bad he can no longer wear boots. He says the chemical known as Agent Orange was so widely used that it polluted both the air and water and infiltrated ships along the coast. “It goes through the evaporators, and yes it takes the salt out of it, but the toxins are still in there,” he says of the water intake on the ships. “Also the same thing with the air. They’re breathing that air that the toxins are in, and they’re not being covered. That’s our concern now.” Colorado is now one of 16 states to pass a resolution urging the federal government to reconsider legislation that took care away from Navy vets in 2002. “They initiated it because they were afraid of too many claims, and it’s a bogus policy,” says Hurtado of the change. Vietnam Navy veteran James Sharpe adds, “The longer they hold out, the more they die, so it’s less they have to pay anyway.” He believes his friends will continue to die unless Congress makes a change. The states hope their stance reaches Washington lawmakers, and they have an army behind them. Veterans advocate and Vietnam Army vet Larry Alvarado says, “If we can go ahead as Colorado vets, help other vets nationwide, then we can set a precedent.” He suffers from diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol and has to take morphine three times a day for his pain. Congress initiated the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2015 last year that would have opened the coverage of Agent Orange effects to all impacted veterans, but it never made it all the way through. The Colorado resolution calls on lawmakers to reintroduce the bill and pass it this time around.

Women WWII pilots deserve Arlington burial, lawmakers say (Military Times)
Elaine Harmon’s ashes have been sitting in her family’s home for almost a year, waiting to be interred at Arlington National Cemetery. Her relatives don’t know when that will happen, if at all. Harmon — one of more than 1,000 female pilots who served in non-combat roles during World War II — has become the impetus for a new congressional push to overturn a decision in 2015 to block certain women veterans from the nation’s best known cemetery. On Wednesday, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers demanded the White House intervene on the issue and promised legislative action in coming weeks to honor the service of Women Airforce Service Pilots, who they called military pioneers. “We need to allow the WASPs to be laid to rest as the heroes they are,” said Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., sponsor of a bill to force a change in policy. “It’s ironic and cruel that at a time when the administration is trying to open up combat positions to women … they are closing the gates to Arlington to these women.” In 1977, Congress passed legislation retroactively granting active-duty status to WASP pilots, allowing them to be officially considered veterans for the first time. Advocates have said if not for sexist attitudes at the time of their service, the women would have been considered the same as any other service member. Following that law’s passage, WASPs and their supporters fought for a variety of benefits and recognition. In 2002, Arlington National Cemetery approved group members for military honors and burial there. But last year, then-Army Secretary John McHugh said cemetery officials erred in that approval, since the site’s qualifications follow Army policies, not Veterans Affairs rules. Since then, WASPs have been blocked. Earlier on Wednesday, acting Army Secretary Patrick Murphy testified before the House Armed Services Committee that he believes the WASPs should be allowed to be buried at Arlington Cemetery, but that he lacks to authority to allow it. He offered support for McSally’s measure. But when challenged by the lawmaker — “you really think an act of Congress is the fastest way to address the problem?” — Murphy became visibly frustrated, blaming the confusion on problematic language in the 1977 law. “Congress needs to change what Congress changed back in 1977,” he said. “I can’t do that. The secretary of defense can’t do that. The commander in chief can’t.” McSally said she still believes the administration could do more to intervene on the issue, but is pushing ahead with legislation while trying to sort out that confusion. The measure has more than 177 co-sponsors in the House and recently advanced out of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa — who with McSally is one of four Iraq War veterans in Congress — has offered similar legislation in the Senate. “There is no doubt these women are heroes,” she said. “The Pentagon should do the right thing and honor these women.” Until then, Harmon’s ashes will be in her family’s home. Her granddaughter, Erin Miller, told reporters that her grandmother would probably be embarrassed by all the attention given to her case. “But for the WASPs as a whole, she would want them recognized,” she said. “To her, Arlington was not just a cemetery, but a memorial to all who have served.”

PAWS Act would provide service dogs to vets with PTSD (
Republican lawmakers have introduced a bill that would create a five-year pilot program pairing veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder with a service dog. “I think we have a chance to save lives,” Rep. Ron DeSantis, (R, Florida) a naval reserve officer, told the Blaze on Wednesday about the bill he is sponsoring. “When you look at some of these veterans who are suffering from post-traumatic stress, the counseling, the drugs, it doesn’t work for everybody.” The Puppies Assisting Wounded Service members (PAWS) Act creates a five-year pilot program pairing a dog with a veteran suffering from PTSD or a traumatic brain injury. Veterans would have to complete evidence-based treatment and “remain significantly symptomatic by clinical standards” in order to qualify for the program, according to the bill’s text. … The PAWS Act is the brainchild of Cole Lyle, a Marine Corps vet who spent six years fighting overseas. He obtained a service dog with the help of his family and said he would not be here today if it hadn’t been for Kaya, his dog. … Lyle said in a previous interview that one thing a dog does that a pill can’t is “give you a sense of purpose again.” The legislation calls for the Government Accountability Office to track the program and measure its effectiveness. Lawmakers said the bill, which requires $10 million in funding, would be funded from the Department of Veterans Office of Human Resources and Administration.

VA patient scheduling pilot rolling out in April (Federal News Radio)
The patient scheduling system used by the Department of Veterans Affairs dates back to the Vietnam War. But this April the agency is rolling out a pilot program that officials hope will bring VA scheduling into the 21st century and veterans more quickly to medical care. LaVerne Council, VA assistant secretary in the Office of Information and Technology and chief information officer, briefed members of Congress on the pilot program March 16, during an update on the overall cybersecurity and IT environment at VA. … Council told committee members that the update to VA’s current scheduling system, the Medical Appointment Scheduling System (MASS), has been put on hold until a determination is made on the success of VAR and VSE. That announcement caught the ear of House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Information Technology Chairman Will Hurd (R-Texas). “Why pursue this versus trying to get something off the shelf that you could possibly deploy a little bit sooner, especially if we had $624 million available for that?” he asked. Council said when VA looked at what was needed, it was “pure scheduling” with a mobile capability. And the way the software team was best able to do that was to integrate through the department’s existing medical records system, VistA. … During a hearing in early March, Council and Dr. David Shulkin, VA’s new undersecretary for health, called VistA’s future into question, as well as mentioned the possibility of postponing the MASS update. … The pilot plans were met with cautious optimism by VA Office of Inspector General auditors who also testified at the hearing. Brent Arronte, deputy assistant inspector general for audits and evaluations, said it was still too early to review the pilot system, though the OIG planned to do so in the future. … Michael Bowman, director of the OIG’s Information Technology and Security Audits Division, said that VA’s involvement in software development usually ends up as a “high-risk venture.”

$10M veterans housing complex in Indiana marks grand opening (Chron)
A new federal facility in northwestern Indiana will provide permanent housing for homeless veterans. Federal, state and local officials gathered Wednesday for the grand opening of the Veterans Village in Gary. U.S. Secretary of Veteran Affairs Robert McDonald is a Gary native and was there for the ribbon cutting ceremony. He says the country doesn’t have enough permanent or transitional housing for veterans. The $10.1 million complex has 44 apartments and room for Veterans Affairs staff to provide social services. It opened last fall and officials said the units filled in a month. The groundbreaking was in 2013. Indiana Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb says that statewide Indiana has provided housing for 1,400 homeless veterans since 2008.