March 24 Veterans News

March 24 Veterans News

VetsHQ News UpdateHouse budget plan gives VA a big boost, but also restrictions (Military Times) House appropriators will give the Department of Veterans Affairs almost all the money VA officials say they need for next year, but with a few caveats. A funding plan approved by the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday would allot $176.1 billion to the department for fiscal 2017, an 8 percent increase from the current year’s spending levels. It’s a noteworthy jump, but about $1 billion less than what the White House proposed earlier this year in its budget outline. Under the House plan, discretionary funding would rise about 3 percent to $73.5 billion, which equals the administration’s request. But Republican appropriators said they’ll include several provisions to increase oversight on the spending, in light of problems they see still lingering in department operations. “In recent years, VA has missed the mark on providing our veterans with the services, programs and care they have been guaranteed by our government,” said Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky. “The patient waitlists at VA hospitals, reports of pain prescription mismanagement, and the backlog of disability claims are just some examples of the unacceptable developments we have recently witnessed at the VA.” Rogers said the new funding plan balances the funds department officials need to succeed with “the tools it needs to reverse this trend and offer veterans the standard of care and responsiveness they deserve.” That includes language that prohibits all senior VA executive service managers from receiving bonuses next year, in light of lawmakers’ criticism that, too often, such payouts are connected to average or weak performance. The plan includes $260 million to modernization VA electronic health records but restricts access to those funds until VA certifies the system’s “interoperability” with the Defense Department. Construction projects total more than $900 million, but those funds will be held back until VA meets specific management and oversight conditions on major builds. Appropriators also inserted in the bill requirements for improved service standards at the department’s suicide hotline operations and certification of new mental health therapists to expand care access. Last year, VA officials fought bitterly with House lawmakers over a billion-dollar shortfall in their fiscal 2016 budget request, saying the extra funds were needed to protect veterans care. In the end, Senate appropriators put most of the money back into the budget deal. The House appropriations plan — which is expected to go to a full House vote next month — also includes $7.9 billion in military construction funds, a decrease of about 4 percent from fiscal 2016.

Lawmaker questions why VA reinstated employee linked to armed robbery (
A House lawmaker is demanding answers from the Veterans Affairs Department over how an employee fired after being convicted of charges related to a 2015 armed robbery could win her job back. Rep. Jeff Miller, a Republican from Florida and chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, also wants to know if Elizabeth Rivera’s termination from the VA hospital in San Juan, Puerto Rico, was challenged “by the fact that the HR [Human Resources] manager responsible [for] imposing her discipline, Mr. Tito Santiago Martinez, is a convicted sex offender.” In a March 22 letter to VA Secretary Bob McDonald, Miller said, “The union allegedly asserted that Ms. Rivera should be reinstated in her job since Mr. Santiago was also convicted of a crime and therefore cannot discipline other employees who have been convicted of crimes.” Miller sent the letter the same day The Daily Caller reported that Rivera was arrested in connection with an armed robbery last year. According to a June 16 online report on the San Juan news site Metro, Rivera was in a car with Rolando River Febus when Febus stepped out of the vehicle armed with a gun and attempted to rob a couple. Local police spotted the incident and Febus fled on foot, leaving Rivera in the car. Although initially charged with armed robbery, she ultimately pled guilty to two misdemeanor charges, according to the Caller report, which did not detail the charges. Miller said he wants to know exactly why her firing was overturned, who made the call and what role Martinez played. He also wants to know if media reports are accurate in claiming Rivera wore a GPS ankle monitor when she first went back to work, if she was given back-pay for the time she missed while in jail or after she was fired; why she wasn’t fired for missing work while in jail; and why someone awaiting trial for armed robbery was assigned to the office responsible for security at the hospital. Miller told McDonald he also wants all paperwork associated with Rivera’s dismissal and reinstatement, including an unredacted copy of her personnel file and copies of any paperwork of her grievance process, including a hearing transcript. Axel Roman, a spokesman for the VA hospital in San Juan, told that under federal law, criminal prosecution or conviction for off-duty misconduct does not automatically disqualify an individual from federal employment. “The administrative discipline process for poor performance or misconduct on the job operates distinctly from the administrative process associated with off-the-job misconduct,” Roman said in an email. “Accordingly one is not necessarily impacted by the other.” Roman’s response suggests that the disciplinary action taken against Rivera — and subsequently reversed — dealt with her job performance or conduct and not the armed robbery, though he did not respond when asked for clarification. VA officials in Washington, D.C., did not respond to’s request for comment. Miller first began inquiring about Rivera in September after learning of her arrest. At that time, she was still facing charges but had not gone to trial. The Caller reported that she was detailed to VA police and security so that she did not interact with veterans. In his letter, the congressman said San Juan officials did not tell him in September that she was detailed to facility security. According to news reports, she was subsequently fired and in February pleaded guilty to the two misdemeanor offenses, with the armed robbery charge dropped. But she appealed and earlier this month the firing was overturned and she was returned to her job, Miller told McDonald.

Study: PTSD may stiffen Veterans’ arteries, boosting heart risks (Signature Healthcare)
Veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may have blood vessels that don’t expand normally, a new study suggests. If vessels don’t widen as they should, the risk of heart attack and stroke goes up, the researchers noted. The researchers also found that risk factors usually associated with blood vessel problems — such as high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol and smoking — didn’t seem to account for why people with PTSD were more likely to have blood vessels that didn’t dilate properly. The researchers suspect that stress may be to blame. “We believe that we should try to gain a better understanding of the relationship between mental illness and cardiovascular health,” said lead researcher Dr. Marlene Grenon. She’s an associate professor of surgery at the University of California, San Francisco, and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center-Surgical Services. Better strategies to manage stress could potentially have a positive impact on heart disease, she said. “Stress management will be one of the main focuses of our program, along with other lifestyle factors such as diet and exercise,” Grenon said. “This could help not only people with PTSD but also people with all forms of chronic stress in their lives.” While the study found a link between PTSD and blood vessel health, it wasn’t designed to prove a cause-and-effect relationship. For the study, the researchers recruited 214 veterans, including 67 with PTSD. The researchers measured how well an artery in the arm of each study volunteer was able to relax and expand while a blood pressure cuff was inflated and deflated. The researchers found that blood vessels of veterans with PTSD had a less healthy response. Their blood vessels expanded just under 6 percent, compared with 7.5 percent among the veterans without PTSD. Other factors linked to a poorer response included increasing age, worse kidney function, high blood pressure and taking certain medications. However, after taking these factors into account, PTSD was still linked to blood vessels that were less able to dilate, the study found. PTSD can also occur in non-veterans. It may develop as a reaction to a terrifying event, such as war, natural disasters, sexual assault and other physical violence or trauma. People with the condition may have prolonged anxiety, flashbacks, nightmares and other life-altering symptoms. … Prior studies have shown that PTSD is associated with a greater risk of heart disease and fatal heart attacks, he said. But, exactly how PTSD might increase these risks hasn’t been fully explained. The mechanism behind the association is probably very complex, he said. More studies are needed to see whether impairment of blood vessel function is one of the contributing factors to the risk of heart disease in patients with PTSD, Fonarow said. “Interventions that may effectively lower the risk of cardiovascular events need to be tested in this important patient population,” he said. The new study findings were published online March 23 in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

These are the best jobs for Veterans (Time)
Good jobs for veterans are out there if you know where to look, according to a new roundup from The site asked a pool of 228 employers it categorizes as “military-friendly” to go through their job listings and identify the top positions for which they are recruiting veterans. One top contender is business operations manager, a post that comes with a median salary of $97,270, said. Aside from a nice paycheck, this job could be a good fit for vets because of the wide variety of companies and industries that have these positions to fill, and because some of the skills needed would dovetail with the organizational and decision-making skills they learned during their time in uniform. “This job is hot because a lot of different businesses in a lot of different industries rely on these men and women to get things done,” the site explained. Similarly, GIJobs identified logistician and supply chain manager — median salary $73,870 — as a good prospect because military operations bear similarities to this position’s core functions. “Few organizations know how to move stuff like the military. That’s why military experience in logistics and supply transfer so well to corporate America,” the site pointed out. Some of the jobs on the list are in the booming STEM sector. IT specialist, with a median salary of $61,380, could be especially good for veterans because demand is so high — an estimated 12% growth through 2024, GIJobs pointed out. Some employers might even be OK accepting a candidate’s military experience in lieu of a college degree. Demand and salaries are also robust for software and other specialized engineers, electrical and mechanical technicians. While many of the jobs on the list require a college education, there are others in fields like manufacturing and construction where time spent in the military is equally valued by hiring managers. This is obviously good news for vets.

House appropriators approve VA senior executive bonus ban (Government Executive)
Senior executives at the Veterans Affairs Department would not receive bonuses in fiscal 2017 under a major House spending bill approved by an appropriations subcommittee on Wednesday. The fiscal 2017 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations measure now heads to the full House Appropriations Committee, and includes a provision that prohibits the department from using any funds in the legislation for senior executives’ performance awards. It’s the first time the language has been included in the base MilCon-VA spending bill. An amendment banning bonuses for all VA senior executives was successfully added to the fiscal 2016 MilCon-VA legislation, but was not included in the eventual omnibus package Congress had to pass at the end of last year to avoid a government shutdown. There have been other legislative efforts over the past few years to limit or prohibit VA’s senior executive corps from receiving annual performance awards, which they are eligible for under Title 5. Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., said during Wednesday’s brief markup that he was “not particularly pleased” about the measure’s inclusion in the overall bill. “As I’ve stated over the last three years, this language will not provide any solution in the short term, and in fact may have more long term consequences and compound the very problem it attempts to address,” said the ranking member of the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee. “All the language will do is make the VA a less attractive option than other agencies when it comes to recruiting and retaining quality executive leaders.” Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., said he didn’t “totally understand” the measure to prohibit all VA senior executives from receiving bonuses, mentioning the work of Elizabeth (Lisa) Freeman, who is the director of the VA Palo Alto Health Care System in California. Freeman was temporarily tapped in 2014 to help fix the problems at the Phoenix health care center, where the scandal over excessive waiting times for veterans seeking appointments erupted. “I just think we need to understand what the implications are [of banning all bonuses] because we don’t want to lose people like Lisa Freeman, and they are in government all over the place,” said Farr. The Democrat, who is retiring from Congress when his term is up in January 2017, noted the wide disparity between hospital administrator salaries in the public and private sectors, particularly in a place like Silicon Valley. Jennifer Hing, spokeswoman for the majority on the House Appropriations Committee, said the panel “had many member requests for similar language,” when asked who had pushed for inclusion of the measure prohibiting performance awards for all VA senior executives. The fiscal 2017 MilCon-VA bill appropriates money for housing, training and equipment for military personnel and funds vets’ benefits and programs. The legislation provides $81.6 billion in discretionary funding, $1.8 billion more than the fiscal 2016 level. That discretionary funding figure includes $73.5 billion for the VA alone; adding mandatory funding to the number, the legislation includes a total of $176.1 billion for the VA.

Iowa Veterans mourn comrades who suffered PTSD (The Des Moines Register)
About one year ago, 41-year-old veteran Richard Miles was found frozen in Water Works Park. He committed suicide five days after receiving treatment at the Veteran Affairs Medical Center, which triggered a federal investigation into whether Miles received the care he needed. Veterans defied unseasonable cold weather Wednesday afternoon on the state Capitol lawn to mourn lost comrades who, like Miles, succumbed to the mental anguish of war. They wore black arm bands to signify their solidarity with those suffering from traumatic stress disorders, brain injuries and military sexual trauma. Bob Kraus, president of the Veterans National Recovery Center based in Fairfield, said Iowa needs more hospital beds dedicated to psychiatric treatment of the over 5,000 vets in the state. “Today there are just 10 (beds). No beds have been planned to be added in Iowa since, and the bed closures at Clarinda and Mount Pleasant add to the problem,” Kraus said. These two state mental health institutes closed in June by a decree from Gov. Terry Branstad, contending that the facilities were outdated and inefficient, and that private agencies could provide most of their services more effectively for less money. Gilbert E. Landlot, president of Veterans for Peace, works in a local soup kitchen and often serves homeless veterans in the area. “There’s still a lot of people out there sleeping underneath bridges and shelters which is not necessarily a home. They need a home to start with,” Landlot said. Don’t leave our soldiers on the battlefield, was Kraus’ message of the day.

Veteran dies after setting himself on fire outside New Jersey VA clinic (Washington Times)
A 51-year-old veteran died Saturday night after he set himself on fire outside a Department of Veterans Affairs clinic in New Jersey. Northfield police said Charles R. Ingram III of Egg Harbor Township was airlifted Saturday afternoon to the Temple Burn Center in Philadelphia, where he died later that night, The Press of Atlantic City reported Wednesday. Mr. Ingram reportedly used gasoline as an accelerant and set himself on fire at the clinic at 1901 New Road, which was closed at the time. The Northfield clinic is part of the Wilmington VA Medical Center system. No note of explanation was left at the scene or at Mr. Ingram’s home, said Northfield acting Police Chief Paul Newman. Atlantic County Veterans Affairs Director Bob Frolow said the clinic’s daytime Monday-to-Friday schedule causes a hardship for veterans who cannot get there during work hours, The Press reported. “At the very least, his actions were an expression of need,” Mr. Frolow speculated. “It’s a shame and sign of desperation and need. This might open a window on that need.” On Tuesday, veterans were seen visited a memorial for Mr. Ingram that had been set up at the site of the fire, The Press reported. The Wilmington VA Medical Center issued a statement saying it was “saddened to learn about the tragic incident that took place outside of the Atlantic County Community Based Outpatient Clinic. … Our thoughts and prayers are with the victim’s family, friends and neighbors.” “Due to the open investigation and patient privacy concerns, we will not be commenting further at this time,” the statement said, The Press reported. A VA official told the paper that 22 veterans commit suicide each day in the country.

Florida Veterans courts receive state funding (
A year ago, when it became public State Attorney Ed Brodsky and veterans advocates were looking into the feasibility of establishing a veterans court in Manatee County, a stumbling block appeared. There was no additional funding for the new court. Even though hopes were dashed in April 2015 for an anticipated $300,000 in state funding, the 12th Judicial Circuit found a way to make drug court in Manatee County a reality a few months later. The first session opened Aug. 6, 2015, before Circuit Judge Andrew Owens Jr. In the new state budget, there is an appropriation of $150,000 for veterans court. “We are extremely pleased,” Brodsky said Wednesday, noting Manatee and Sarasota counties each received $150,000 for veterans court this year. A key factor in the state funding this year is advocacy from the area, and the desire for Florida to be the most veteran friendly state in the union, said state Sen. Bill Galvano,R-Bradenton. Also receiving $150,000 each: Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties. “A cookie-cutter approach doesn’t work. It has to be an integrated approach that faces myriad issues,” Galvano said. Approximately 500 veterans wind up in the judicial system in Manatee and Sarasota annually. Veterans court is an attempt to help veterans facing lower-level charges get the treatment and assistance they need to blend back into society. Issues contributing to veterans getting into an endless cycle of being arrested and going to jail are substance abuse as a way to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and sexual assault. “The new funding will allow us to strengthen and expand services to veterans,” Brodsky said. Veterans court is also being planned for Sarasota County. … Manatee County became the 20th of Florida’s 67 counties to establish a veterans court. Shortly after the idea of establishing veterans court in Manatee County was floated, a citizens council formed to assist the program, and provide mentors for vets in the judicial system. The council continues to meet, work with vets, seek grants and train. Last year, Lee Washington, veterans service officer for Manatee County, summed up the reasons for the strong support the proposal is receiving: “Men and women coming back from combat now are dealing with a lot of issues. Often, the first we hear about them is when they are arrested. The vet deserves the opportunity, if they can benefit from the program.”

VA worker says Veterans still waiting too long for care at Wichita, Kansas VA (
The headline says things are good at the Wichita VA, following an investigation by the Office of Inspector General. “Office of Inspector General Finds the Robert J. Dole VA Medical Center in Compliance – Improvements Continue.” But that headline from the Wichita VA, some say, is misleading. “There are some people (veterans) to my knowledge who are still waiting three months to six months for appointments,” says one worker at the Wichita VA who wanted to be called Kevin. “Kevin” is a current Wichita VA employee, who did not want to be identified. But Kevin says the waiting time for veterans to get care is still too long. “All of us that work there wish we could do more for the veterans and that’s why we work there is to help the veterans,” says Kevin. “We wish we had more resources to help them. We just don’t have it.” The Wichita VA also said, in a press release, that the VA is aggressively trying to improve. “The Wichita VA Medical Center (VAMC) has aggressively trained and retrained all of our personnel who schedule patients to ensure that there is no confusion in scheduling procedures,” reads the release, in part. “The Medical Center Director conducts regular scheduling visits with staff throughout the Medical Center and CBOCs and staff are able to clearly articulate scheduling procedures. Wichita has a full-time scheduling auditor who conducts regular audits and results are reported to leadership. In addition, Wichita VAMC has opened evening and weekend clinics, instituted walk-in clinics in both Primary Care and Behavioral Health, hired additional staff and greatly increased the use of telemedicine.  Wichita VAMC recently opened a Sleep Lab to provide these services to Veterans on-site. These actions have dramatically improved our access to health care. We are making lasting improvements in access to VA care by expanding capacity, focusing on staffing, space, productivity and VA Community Care. Staffing at the Wichita VAMC is up to more than 995 employees, including more than 88 physicians and 307 nurses.” Kevin does scheduling and believes some veterans are still waiting too long. He says more people need to be hired at the Wichita VA, or something needs to be run differently with the way the Wichita VA is managed. “They pretend they are doing something but it’s all smoke and mirrors,” claims Kevin. “They are way off the mark.”

Pentagon’s family programs chief resigns to work for VA (Military Times)
The Pentagon’s chief of family and morale, welfare and recreation programs has resigned to take a job with the Department of Veterans Affairs, effective at the beginning of April, sources said. Rosemary Freitas Williams has been asked to go to the VA to serve as assistant secretary for public affairs, according to an unofficial monthly email newsletter to military families she distributed Wednesday, a copy of which was obtained by Military Times. Williams has served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for military community and family policy since July 2013. She has been responsible for policy, advocacy and oversight of all community support to service members and their families, quality-of-life issues, child care and youth programs, family violence prevention and intervention, casualty and mortuary affairs, MWR programs, commissaries and exchanges, military spouse career advancement, and voluntary education programs for service members. Information was not immediately available about a replacement. Before her appointment to the Defense Department position, Williams served as vice president of a social marketing and strategic communications firm. She previously worked in government as director for communications and public liaison at the Office of Personnel Management, and as the senior adviser for strategic communications to the VA secretary. Following a broadcast journalism career that spanned 25 years, Williams worked in the nonprofit sector as communications director for Blue Star Families. “You have heard me say countless times how important it is to close the gap between DoD and VA, now more than ever,” Williams said in the email. “That does not make me a genius. DoD is leaning forward with new ideas like access to Military OneSource for 365 days after transition. Meanwhile, VA is going through a remarkable transformation. But no matter how forward the two agencies reach towards each other, there will always be a gap. And that is where the community-based providers, state programs, non-profits — large and small, schools, churches, synagogues, and mosques come in. I intend to join VA’s mission of transformation and to help where I can to help weave that net of community-based support in concert with VA,” Williams said. Thus, the career move is a logical progression for her, she stated.