March 25 Veterans News

March 25 Veterans News

VetsHQ News UpdateVA employees being threatened to sign petition in support of embattled doctor (CBS5AZ) Department of Veterans Affairs employees claim they’re being threatened to sign a petition to save a man’s job or else as another insider is coming forward to shed light on the latest developments inside the troubled Phoenix VA. It’s a campaign to keep Chief Medical Dr. Darren Deering in power and the approach may be illegal. What is happening inside the VA and the rally of support for what they call corruption has employees not only fearing for their jobs, but also coming forward and risking everything to make it stop. “It’s an absolute shocker that that would happen within our system,” said employee Jared Kinnaman. “I can’t believe that they would allow that to happen.” He’s talking about fear and intimidation within the VA walls. The vocational rehabilitation specialist came forward Thursday because he simply couldn’t keep quiet any longer. “To my knowledge, it’s not a legal practice. It’s unethical. It shouldn’t happen in our environment,” Kinnaman said. “If that’s the decision of our higher ups today, it needs to stay the decision of the higher ups.” Kinnaman is referring to support letters and multiple alleged petitions that are circulating inside the VA to save Deering, who is now faced with being fired amid fallout from the hospital’s wait-list scandal. A petition that was created online where more than 400 people have signed it, asking the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs to restore the doctor’s job. But Kinnaman says not every signature necessarily represents support. “I’ve had a couple of employees come up to me and say that they felt threatened by the petitions,” he said. Threatened by management and those insiders say Dr. Deering helped cover up for in the past.  A letter written by Chief of Social Work David Jacobson, rallies up support for the doctor, asking employees for examples of how he supported them. Dr. Kathryn Carbone, Chief Medical Service, called the doctor in an email of support “our rock.” “It just perpetuates the culture here.” Kinnaman said. “It’s gonna take a lot to change places.” Kinnaman says once a whistleblower brought it to the attention of VA Director Deborah Amdur Wednesday afternoon and said we would be reporting on the practices, she sent out an email asking employees “as leaders to remain neutral.” … Kinnaman said he’s afraid for coming forward and loosing his job but said the truth needed to be told. We are still waiting for a response from VA leadership and an interview with Director Amdur.

Colorado veterans sue for access to medical marijuana to treat PTSD (KDVR)
Medical marijuana has been used to treat everything from cancer to cataracts, but in Colorado, it cannot be prescribed to treat post traumatic stress disorder. That’s the reason behind a lawsuit by some veterans against the state. Among them is Curt Bean, who spent this teenage years in Iraq. The U.S. Army scout and sniper learned a valuable lesson: Kill or be killed. “Talking about taking lives is never easy, especially when you are the person making the decisions,” Bean said. “It’s never something that you take lightly.” When Bean returned to the U.S., he found himself in a fight with depression and anxiety. “I drank a lot, stayed in bed a lot, avoided people,” he said. Bean was diagnosed with PTSD by the Department of Veterans Affairs and was prescribed a powerful antidepressant that only made things worse. Then he tried recreational marijuana and felt relief. “I was like, ‘Wow, I’m sleeping better, I have less anxiety. I’m able to function day to day,’” Bean said. While medical marijuana is approved to treat PTSD in several states, Colorado is not one of them. Denver attorney Bob Hoban is representing Bean and several other veterans in a lawsuit against the state, asking Colorado to give PTSD sufferers access to medical marijuana, specifically used to treat anxiety. “The medical system and the medical stores should be accessible to PSTD sufferers because they provide different products, carry different products, different potencies than what’s served on the retail or recreational side,” Hoban said. Bean said marijuana has eased his anxiety and opened a whole new world, helping him put the Iraq war behind him as he gets ready for a legal battle. “It’s legal, and it’s moral and it helps me,” Bean said. “Veterans’ lives have been saved by this, so why not get the word out about how powerful it is?” The Colorado Attorney General’s Office is representing the state in the lawsuit. A spokesman declined comment on the case.

VA secretary tours troubled Minnesota facilities (Star Tribune)
Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald is in Minnesota on a morale-boosting trip to embattled facilities in St. Paul and St. Cloud. “We have and must maintain the trust of America’s veterans and America’s taxpayers,” said McDonald, who met Thursday with staff members at the Minneapolis Veterans Medical Center. “If somebody’s not happy, or they’re not getting the service they need, I like to hear from them.” The St. Paul facility has been rocked by allegations that staff members manipulated records to cover up lengthy wait times for care. A recent report by the VA’s independent internal watchdog found no evidence to back up the allegations. “There were allegations of egregious misconduct, ethical violations and conflict of interest. Those findings simply were not supported by the thousand pages of evidence that [the inspector general] reviewed personally,” said McDonald, who expressed “every confidence” in the leadership of St. Paul VA Executive Kim Graves, although he said she exercised “poor judgment” in some of her decisions. “If they were [supported], we would have taken much more aggressive action.” On Friday, McDonald is scheduled to travel to St. Cloud, where relations between labor and management at the St. Cloud VA Health Care System became so tense that members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation appealed for federal mediators. The mediators wrapped up their work last week, after a series of training sessions meant to improve the facility’s work environment.

Fitzpatrick wants VA to stop purchasing contraceptive device (Bucks County Courier Times)
Congressman Mike Fitzpatrick is urging the Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense to stop ordering a contraceptive device he says caused irreparable harm to thousands of women. In a letter to the House Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies, Fitzpatrick made the request to halt government purchases of Essure for the 2017 fiscal year. “We should not allow the Department of Veterans Affairs to purchase and implant this dangerous device in our veterans,” said Fitzpatrick in the letter. “We should not be utilizing taxpayer resources to purchase a device that has caused so much harm for so many families.” Marketed by Bayer Pharmaceuticals, the Essure device is a small, nickel-based metal coil implanted in a patient’s fallopian tube. The body’s scar tissue grows around the coil over three months and permanently sterilizes the patient by blocking the passage of eggs, according to Bayer. Fitzpatrick’s letter is the latest move in his campaign to have Essure removed from pharmaceutical shelves. In November, he introduced the E-Free Act, which would rescind the Food and Drug Administration’s approval and take Essure off the market. The letter comes just days after a federal judge in Philadelphia allowed five lawsuits to continue with claims that Bayer negligently misrepresented the product and failed to warn the plaintiffs about Essure’s risks. The suits were originally filed individually in the U.S. Eastern District Court of Pennsylvania and were combined by U.S. District Judge John R. Padova. In his ruling, Padova denied the eight other claims against Bayer but found the plaintiffs can amend charges of negligent training, risk management, manufacture, breach of warranty and fraudulent misrepresentation. According to a statement from the plaintiffs’ Philadelphia-based co-counsel McEldrew Young, the civil case moves on to the discovery phase. In a statement reacting to Padova’s ruling, Bayer representatives said the company was pleased with the dismissal of most of the claims. … Essure has come under fire in recent years, with the FDA reporting in September that it received more than 5,000 complaints about Essure in a 10-year span, including claims of abdominal pain, menstrual irregularities and headaches. That number rose to 9,900 after the FDA reviewed the Manufacturer and User Facility Device Experience database. The most serious reports claim the device caused four adult deaths and the loss of 294 pregnancies that occurred after the implementation. Fitzpatrick previously said that independent studies show at least 303 fetuses have died. The FDA recommended in February that Bayer add a “black box” warning label on Essure’s product packaging and create a checklist that doctors can review with patients before the implant procedure. Bayer must also develop and conduct a post-market study to help the agency better understand the risks associated with Essure. The device received Premarket Approval from the FDA in 2002, undergoing what the agency calls a stringent investigation process designed for Class III medical devices. If a device survives the Premarket Approval process, it is then shielded from personal injury liability. A 2008 Supreme Court ruling upheld the policy, saying lawsuits in state courts could not pre-empt the federal regulatory approval process. Suits claiming the device violated FDA specifications or brought under state laws mirroring federal regulations are still permitted.

Bill introduced to extend pilot program for rural veteran health care (The Ripon Advance)
U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R-ME) introduced a bill on Wednesday that would extend a pilot program enabling rural hospitals to contract with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Congress established the Access Received Closer to Home (ARCH) Program in 2011 to help veterans living in rural areas receive care closer to home. Five rural hospitals were selected to participate in the pilot program. “It is so important our veterans receive the health care and benefits they were promised, earned and deserve,” Poliquin said. “From talking with veterans personally in Aroostook County who use the program, I know the ARCH program has proven to be an extraordinary success. With so many VA programs under scrutiny for mismanagement, it’s important that we implement the programs that are successful and that truly benefit our veterans.” U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) was the lead cosponsor of the bipartisan bill to extend the ARCH Program before it lapses in August. “There are far too many examples of veterans not getting the care they earned and deserve, or of wait times that are way too long,” Pingree said. “But the ARCH program is a success story and an example of the kind of responsive, flexible care we need to provide our veterans, especially in rural states like Maine. It absolutely should be extended and we’re going to work to make sure that happens.” Poliquin and Pingree also introduced the bipartisan Helping Our Rural Veterans Receive Health Care Act, H.R. 3709, in October to make the ARCH Program permanent.

Alabama high school students interviewing Vietnam veterans (KSL.com)
Willie King sat surrounded by a slew of memorabilia in the Auburn High School Library, his words giving life to the artifacts that represent his time of service to the nation. “Over 40-something years to this day, I still only sleep about three hours a night at the most,” said King, wearing a hat emblazoned with “Bronze Star-Heroism.” “I wake up and I drift back and get another hour. I wake up, and I drift back and get another hour. And it’s been going on for 40-something odd years. It all had to do with the combat that I did and was a part of. It’s different. Any time you hurt somebody like that, the moment, the second and the hour, you always remember that. It will never, ever leave you.” King was one of 62 Vietnam veterans whose stories will be told and permanently recorded. They were interviewed at Auburn High School Thursday and Friday as part of the school’s annual Veterans History Project. For the project, 137 junior students in Blake Busbin’s AP History class are recording veteran interviews, which will then be sent to Washington, D.C., to be stored at the Library of Congress. “We’re trying to help preserve the story of these veterans as well as allow the students to become historians and allow this history to be preserved for future generations,” Busbin said. Busbin said the interviews have proved mutually beneficial to veterans and students. “For several veterans, they keep coming back each year,” Busbin said. “This is an experience they absolutely love — being able to share these stories with students. For many of these Vietnam veterans, no one cared to hear their stories when they came back home, and this is an opportunity for us to say, ‘thank you.’ “For the students, overwhelmingly for the past two years, this has been their favorite activity of the school year, and they had been asking, ‘Why can’t we do more of these?’ So this is just an opportunity for us to also be involved in the community and show that as public educators, that we can interact with the community and preserve something for the public good, which is the history of these great men.” … Witnessing the sentiments associated with the veterans’ stories was one aspect of the project that made a war they had only read about in books or online more real for students throughout the interview process. “I’ve heard about the PowerPoints and seen how many died, how many were wounded,” said student Solomon Balaam-Reed. “But hearing the story of even just one veteran, it really changes you because it puts a face on a big event in American history.” Balaam-Reed’s classmate and fellow interviewer, Jack McGowin, agreed. … While students feel accomplished in helping keep history present, veterans said that having their stories heard is significant, especially for the younger generation. … And as King said there are aspects of his war experiences that his memory will never be able shake, making sure other parts are never forgotten is critical. “Somebody got to know some information about the war, and not just coming from the people that were designated to tell it,” King said. “I was just your average soldier. I got caught up in the conflict, and I figure my part and my knowledge and my experience is just as good as anybody else’s. The story needs to be told.”

Florida seeks more federal money for veterans’ nursing home (Highlands Today)
An “incorrect interpretation” of strict federal design guidelines for a planned state veterans’ nursing home may drive up the project’s costs by more than $20 million. Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet will be told Tuesday that the cost for the St. Lucie County facility they approved in 2014 is projected to grow from $39.7 million to nearly $60 million because of federal guidelines that were not in place when the state first looked at building additional veterans’ nursing homes across Florida. The need to change the St. Lucie facility’s design, which includes additional square-foot requirements, hasn’t delayed the project. But Colleen Krepstekies, director of legislative and Cabinet affairs for the state Department of Veterans’ Affairs, said the state awaits guidance from the federal government. … Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs Executive Director Mike Prendergast wrote to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald on March 3 and said the state agency may have to redo its grant request for the 120-bed facility in St. Lucie County unless the federal agency can agree to some compromises, from waiving design requirements to agreeing to cover at least 65 percent of the added costs. … The 65 percent mark is what the federal government agreed to cover when Florida sought a grant for the facility at $39.7 million. The state is expected to pay $13.9 million of that cost. Prendergast noted that without the assurance of additional federal money, the state Legislature “will not increase funding to this or any other construction projects.” In the letter, Prendergast noted that the state in 2011 submitted plans to build four conventional nursing homes, a year before the federal agency set new Community Living Centers designs. Prendergast said in the letter that there wasn’t a fiscal analysis when the new regulations were adopted nor any formal notification that states would have to follow the new standards. Prendergast’s letter seeking “relief from an incorrect interpretation” of the design guide, came a week after state and federal officials met to discuss the issue. The federal standards require one nurse per seven residents. The state was working on a ratio of one nurse per eight residents, in accordance with Medicaid and Medicare and Florida Agency for Health Care Administration requirements. Krepstekies, after addressing Cabinet aides Wednesday, said the federal standards require a number of private rooms, which will increase the footprint of the 28-acre facility that has been named the Ardie R. Copas State Veterans’ Home in Tradition. Copas, a Medal of Honor recipient from Fort Pierce, was killed during the Vietnam War. Prendergast said in the letter that as the footprint is stretched, operational costs grow.

OSHA cites VA hospital in Little Rock with 15 safety violations (Arkansas Online)
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited the John L. McClellan Memorial Veterans Hospital in Little Rock Wednesday with 15 safety violations posing hazards to hospital employees, according to an agency press release. Upon receipt of a Notice of Unsafe or Unhealthful Working Conditions citation, the hospital took immediate corrective action and rectified the violations that same day, avoiding $184,700 in penalties, according to the hospital. The violations included, among others, not having adequate safety mechanisms on a table saw; not ensuring oxygen and acetylene cylinders have valve caps; failing to guard shafts, pulleys and belts; and failing to ensure contaminated needles were not recapped. All violations were noted over an inspection period between September 2015 and February 2016. “John L. McClellan Veterans Memorial Hospital willfully and repeatedly exposed its employees to the dangers of electrocution, amputation, bloodborne pathogens and other hazards. That is unacceptable,” OSHA’s area director Carlos Reynolds said in a press release. OSHA is alleging that the hospital demonstrated either an “intentional disregard” or a “plain indifference to employee safety and health,” said OSHA deputy regional director Juan Rodriguez. One hospital employee had suffered an injury related to a violation, hospital spokesman Melanie Sabik said. The employee had sustained an electrical shock and was treated, kept overnight for observation and returned to work the next day, Sabik said. “To rectify these citations, policy changes for work practices, new signage, changes to the work environment and additional education for staff have been implemented,” she said. The hospital has engaged outside engineers and experts to help ensure OSHA’s findings have been appropriately mitigated. “Whenever an issue is identified, the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System takes immediate corrective action to ensure the safety of our veterans, visitors, and employees,” Sabik said in an email on Thursday. “We look forward to an informal meeting in the coming weeks with OSHA to further confirm that all our collective actions meet their regulatory standards,” she added. In the past five years, only one other Arkansas hospital has been cited and penalized for workplace violations. The Little River Memorial Hospital was cited in 2012 for exposing employees to blood-borne pathogens and was penalized $7,200, according to OSHA data.

Separate court for veterans plans to include felony cases (KLTV)
The only veterans treatment court in East Texas is planning to expand their caseload to include felonies. Smith County began operating the specialty criminal court for veterans last year, according to Veterans Service Officer Michael Roark. Roark says after completion of the program, veterans could qualify for getting the criminal charges erased from their record. “They volunteered for the military and go into combat, and it’s felt that it’d be better for them and for society as a whole,” said Roark, “to have a separate court for them where they get the treatment that they need that they might not otherwise get.” During a presentation to the Smith County Criminal Justice Committee on Thursday, Roark explained to department heads that his research of Montgomery County’s veterans court has seen high completion numbers and low recidivism. “This program isn’t a get-out-of-jail free card,” Roark said. “We hold them to a higher standard, what we in effect do is try to take them back into the military, mentally.” Each defendant gets a tailored program in place of a sentence which can include treatment, counseling, community service. Currently, the veterans court under Judge Randall Rogers, only hears misdemeanor cases.  Now Roark said with the success of the court’s first year, he expects the expansion to include felonies to reduce the rate at which veterans may re-offend. Roark said the following felonies are excluded: homicide; murder; sexual assault; a crime involving the injury of a child, elderly, or disabled; sale of illegal drugs or narcotics.   A person qualifying for veterans court also cannot have a prior conviction of one of the listed felonies. In order to qualify, the person must be an: honorably discharged veteran; who has been diagnosed with or exhibits symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), or any other mental illness caused by service in a combat zone or hazardous duty position. There also has to be a connection between the diagnosis and the crime they committed. “An example is a veteran with PTSD self-medicating with alcohol or narcotics and either gets caught in possession of narcotics or he gets a DWI,” Roark said. Smith County Criminal Justice Coordinator Gary Pinkerton hopes the word will get out about the resources available to veterans. … Incidents involving veterans are not automatically turned over to the veterans court. The person charged must request their case be reviewed by the veterans service office. Roark said he is working toward being able to be notified when a veteran is arrested or charged. In some instances, a veteran with pending charges that did not go through veterans court, may still apply for the program.

Florida congressmen acknowledge lingering problems, promise more attention to vets issues (WDBJ7)
The focus was on veterans Thursday, as 6th District Congressman Bob Goodlatte brought the Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs to the Roanoke Valley. The two men heard the concerns of former servicemen and women and toured the Salem VA Medical Center before meeting with reporters. Goodlatte and Representative Jeff Miller (R-Florida) said they heard complaints from the veterans with whom they met, primarily with the system for making appointments and accessing care at the VA Medical Center. But once they get in the door, veterans told the congressman, they are receiving quality care. Goodlatte and Miller placed a wreath at the Vinton War Memorial in honor of all the men and women who have died while serving the country in the armed forces. But it was the country’s continuing commitment to veterans that dominated most of their day. Both men acknowledge lingering problems in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, but said they believe the Salem VA Medical Center is providing quality care. “It’s very apparent that they understand the need for the veteran,” Miller said after meeting with the interim director, “and it’s more about the veteran than it is for the VA.” Goodlatte agreed.  “It’s a good place, and the employees there work very hard every day to make sure our veterans are well cared for,” Goodlatte said. “We need to make sure we’re continuing to conduct oversight so that improvements are made everywhere around the country.” Goodlatte said he plans to take a closer at the concerns about the phone system, and the difficulty making timely appointments. And both men said they are pushing for more improvements in the choice program that will allow veterans to seek medical care outside the VA system.

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