VA head talks about effort to reduce wait times at hospitals (Daily Globe)
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald visited the once-embattled St. Cloud Veterans Affairs Medical Center Friday detailing how the VA was striving to decrease wait times by opening up more facilities, hiring more doctors and increasing telemedicine communication systems. St. Cloud was one of the facilties where those steps are being taken. McDonald also visited the Minneapolis VA medical center on Thursday. In St. Cloud, McDonald met with U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, as well as Congressmen Tim Walz and Tom Emmer in addition to VA administrators and staff. He called the meetings “very productive.” Following the meetings, McDonald together with St. Cloud VA Health Care System director Barry Bahl gave about a half-hour run-through of how their talks with officials and staff went, and answered reporter questions. McDonald detailed how the VA was striving to decrease wait times and personally rattled off statistics about how this was being done locally in St. Cloud. The facility hired 445 staff members, including 13 doctors, seven physician’s assistants and 49 nurses from April 2014 through January 2016, he said. St. Cloud increased facility space by 45,000 square feet, McDonald said. In addition to a town hall-style meeting he conducted with “everyone on site” at the St. Cloud VA, McDonald said he met with employee union leaders who until recently were in federal mediation with management. An internal Veterans Affairs investigation found between 2011 and 2013, more than 24 primary care physicians resigned from the St. Cloud VA, and average caseloads reached 1,800 patients per doctor in July 2013. In terms of employee satisfaction, the hospital ranked near the bottom of all VA facilities nationwide in 2013 and 2014. The VA’s internal Office of the Medical Inspector examined the St. Cloud VA, McDonald said. Those reports are almost never public, McDonald said, because the Office of the Medical Inspector is internal and publishing the studies would mean “we would never get cooperation” from facilities under scrutiny. However, the Office of the Inspector General, another VA investigative body, is independent. “All of their reports should be made public,” McDonald said. However, there was a backlog of inspector general reports — more than 110 investigations into scheduling practices alone, McDonald said. “Sometimes the reports don’t get published as quickly as some members of Congress would like,” he said. “But they are being published.” A 2013 report to the inspector general about the work environment at St. Cloud was kept from the public until a whistleblower leaked it in 2015, a delay that drew the ire of both Walz and Emmer. Emmer talked about possibly writing a bill to make the VA release all future inspector general reports. McDonald said working with the mediators improved the situation at St. Cloud. … Bahl said the improvement projects the St. Cloud VA will work on going forward mostly deal with communication between labor and management, as well as training and education. The most important goal to address is establishing a workplace culture “that is open and transparent,” McDonald said. McDonald added that at the behest of the Minnesota congressional delegation, the VA had identified where areas of needed improvement at St. Cloud intersected with nationwide VA improvement goals, and the St. Cloud VA was tasked with finishing them by the end of the year. That way, McDonald said, changes would be set in motion before a new U.S. president is inaugurated in January and a new cabinet picked, with possibly a new VA secretary.
Leading private-sector health care system woos vets with ads (Military.com)
A leading hospital system in the US is courting military veterans with a multimillion-dollar ad campaign, raising concerns from some veterans groups that private sector marketing could weaken the Department of Veterans Affairs health care system. The campaign tag lines — “Veterans have a choice in healthcare” and “You honored your oath, and so do we” — emphasize consumer preference and the shared values of medical professionals and the military. Starting Monday, TV, radio, print and online ads by St. Louis-based Ascension Health’s will urge veterans to call a toll-free number for information about Veterans Choice, the cornerstone of the VA overhaul approved in 2014, which makes it easier for veterans to receive federally paid medical care from local doctors. Veterans groups say it’s the first large-scale marketing to Choice-eligible veterans. Vets are wary of proposals to privatize the VA health system and fear that draining off patients and dollars could hurt the VA in the long term, said Louis Celli of the American Legion, the nation’s largest veterans group. While they supported the Choice legislation following a scandal over long wait times and falsified records, most want the program to remain temporary, he said. The VA said it encourages veterans to make sure they are eligible for the Choice program before signing up for private care. More than 4.6 million veterans used VA health care last year, and the VA says it has reduced its waiting list while authorizing millions of veterans to receive care in the private sector. Congress approved $10 billion over three years for the Choice program, money that will go to private sector providers at Medicare rates, a potentially valuable revenue stream. To be eligible, veterans must live more than 40 miles away from a VA medical facility or face a long wait for VA care. “No community is more vulnerable than veterans,” said Ascension spokesman Nick Ragone. “Our mission is to serve those who are under-served, no matter what the revenue stream or reimbursement levels.” Ascension, the nation’s largest nonprofit health care system with facilities in 24 states, estimates its efforts could lead to 24,000 veterans a year getting care from its providers, helping the VA reduce its backlog of cases. Ascension supports extending the Choice program beyond its 2017 expiration and will air ads in Washington, D.C., Ragone said. “We’re looking to continue to be part of the solution,” he said. Ascension plans to train providers in veterans’ issues and has hired veterans in each of its markets to help new patients navigate the requirements of the Choice program, Ragone said. Some veterans groups are skeptical, however, about whether Ascension can live up to its marketing. … Terri Tanielian, a Rand senior research analyst, said many private sector providers lack training in military culture and combat-related health conditions. Her research — a 2014 survey of mental health professionals — found only 13 percent met standards for culturally competent, evidence-based care for veterans. Ascension’s ad campaign could lead to unexpected medical bills if veterans seek private sector care without making sure they’re eligible, said Carlos Fuentes of Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Atlanta VA builds $850,000 fence to help prevent veteran suicides (myAJC)
Drive past the Atlanta VA Medical Center on Clairmont Road and you may notice a curious new feature that stands as a stark reminder of the struggles too many veterans face. Over the winter, officials at the medical center completed installation of a new anti-climbing fence atop the parking decks used by thousands of veterans each month. The fence is 10 feet tall and constructed with welded mesh wire. Officials also enclosed the lower levels of the decks with regular chain link fencing. The $850,000 project is a response to a pair of incidents where suicidal veterans threatened to jump from the decks. In both instances, the veterans were talked down and received care and treatment for their mental health issues. “Based on these events and to enhance the overall safety of the facility, the Atlanta VAMC installed the anti-climbing fences on several parking structures,” said VA spokesman Greg Kendall. The VA in Atlanta has been plagued by suicides in the past. In 2013, a rash of veteran suicides at the center were blamed on mismanagement within its mental health unit. In 2014, the center was on the hot seat after the murder-suicide of Marine veteran Kisha Holmes. She killed her three children and then herself at the family’s Cobb County apartment, but VA officials knew she was in distress and had identified her as a suicide risk. She had missed three appointments at the VA before her final act. Later that year, an employee at the VA benefits office died after jumping or falling from a deck on the property. The VA across the country has struggled for years to stem the epidemic of veteran suicides that followed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many veterans returning from war suffered post traumatic stress disorder or other mental health issues, and the VA system has been overwhelmed trying to serve them. “Ensuring that employees and veterans have an environment that fosters physical and psychological safety is one of the primary goals at the Atlanta VA Medical Center,” Kendall said. “The Atlanta VAMC cares deeply for our nation’s veterans, and it is a privilege to serve them.”
NYC homeless veterans to get boost from private sector donations (NY Daily News)
Here’s some news we can all wave the flag about. The city’s ongoing efforts to end veteran homelessness are getting a $750,000 boost from the private sector, officials will announce Monday. The much-needed money largely stems from two massive donations, including a $450,000 gift from the Real Estate Board of New York. “The amount donated is nothing in comparison to what they (the vets) have already given,” said John Banks, REBNY president. The REBNY money, as well as $50,000 raised from several other smaller donors, will go towards the Veterans Housing Initiative, which helps those who recently moved from a shelter so they don’t end up on the streets again. A portion of the initiative — which was launched by the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York — will go towards $1,000 Target gift cards so the recently housed vets can spruce up their new digs, officials said. Meanwhile, Deutsche Bank Americas is giving the city a $250,000 grant to help homeless vets. The donations will go towards helping the city achieve the “Functional Zero” goal, a federal standard that calls for the number of veterans entering the shelter system equals the number leaving. If that goal is achieved, the city can say it effectively ended veterans homelessness — an ambitious goal that Mayor de Blasio has been championing since taking office. Last year, the city met the federal requirements for ending chronic homelessness among vets, which has different standards. Those standards include finding permanent homes for veterans who have been homeless for at least a year, or housing for vets who have had four or more bouts of homelessness over the past three years. The city met that standard despite some vets remaining on the streets because those former service men and women didn’t fall into these categories. Over the past five years, the city has reduced homelessness among veterans by 90%, officials said. “A home gives us stability and a sense of self, and is the haven that is so necessary for healing,” said First Lady Chirlane McCray, who is chair of the Mayor’s Fund. “That’s why our city is so committed to making sure every veteran has one.”
Unemployment rate for Utah vets among nation’s lowest (The Spectrum)
Utah’s jobless rate for veterans was down to 2.6 percent in 2015, among the lowest rates in the nation and a sign of significant improvement over previous years, according to a new report. Only four other states had a lower rate than Utah, according to the newly updated data kept by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the 2.6 percent number was down more than 2 percentage points compared to the 4.9 percent rate reported in 2014. “We are pleased to see the improved year-over veterans unemployment rate,” said Jon Pierpont, executive director at the Department of Workforce Services, in a written statement. “We are committed to implementing strategies that help all veterans obtain employment.” The average jobless rate for veterans across the U.S. was 4.6 percent. Among veterans who served active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces at any time since 2001 — a group known as Gulf War-era II veterans — the rate was 5.8 percent, down about 1.4 percentage points from the previous year. About 20 percent of all veterans have a service-related disability, according to the BLS, including 33 percent of Gulf War-era II veterans. But even those veterans had an unemployment rate of 5.4 percent. In Utah, a number of state-sponsored programs have helped veterans to find work and receive job training. DWS officials said they work closely with the Department of Veterans and Military Affairs to provide support services for veterans. In addition to job searches and job training, the state provides specialized workshops and programs that help apply the skills veterans learned in the military to help them find work in the private sector. “Utah benefits from a strong partnership between multiple agencies collaborating to comprehensively serve veterans,” said Gary Harter, executive director of the VMA. “We focus on supporting veterans, their family members and those currently serving in the military to ensure they know all the benefits available for them because of their service to our country.” Veterans have a lower unemployment rate than Utah’s population as a whole, although that figure is also among the lowest in the U.S. — 3.4 percent as of February — according to the latest figures from the DWS.
Omaha, Nebraska, officials to meet with landlords, aim to end veteran homelessness (KETV)
As part of their on-going support of local efforts to end veteran homelessness and the Mayor’s challenge to end veteran homelessness, several elected officials will meet with landlords Wednesday. Omaha City Council President Ben Gray, and the mayors from Bellevue and Council Bluffs, are among the many elected officials who plan to attend Wednesday’s meeting. “For the first time ever, we know the names of our homeless veterans. Our region is using data to drive coordination efforts and we are on a path toward ensuring all veterans have a place to call home,” said Council Bluffs Mayor Matt Walsh. The group plans to meet with landlords and housing groups from 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Several representativies from at least five other organizations, including the U.S. Departments of Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Affairs, will also attend the meeting. “The City of Omaha has made dramatic progress in our goal of ensuring that all veterans and their families have a place to call home, but we have more to do,” said City Council President Ben Gray. Attending landlords and property managers will learn about the progress being made to house homeless veterans, how they can help local efforts and available resources to support both landlords and tenants. ‘”Using nationally recognized best practices, Omaha has collaborated with local housing organizations and federal and state partners, but we also need the support of the private sector, especially area landlords and property managers,” said Bellevue Mayor Rita Sanders.
Legos help ease Iraq veteran’s post-traumatic stress (Military Times)
Retired Army medic Robin Krauth found relief from post-traumatic stress in a way the 43-year-old never imagined, and it involved her computer and a massive pile of Lego bricks. In therapy for PTSD symptoms such as debilitating nightmares and crippling anxiety, Krauth was able to achieve a sense of calm in counseling. That peaceful feeling proved elusive at home — until she received a casual gift from her husband, a 1,228-brick Hogwarts Castle Lego set. “I was excited because I am a huge Harry Potter fan. But as I was building it, I also realized my concentration was up and my anxiety down. I was calm, peaceful,” Krauth said. With that first set, Krauth had stumbled onto a recreational therapy activity that worked for her, improved her mental state, boosted her confidence and provided a gateway to the world of other adult Lego fans. “I was surprised — I really didn’t play Legos as a child. But when I’m doing it now, I’m focused. All the other fears fall away,” she said. Many veterans with PTSD and combat-related depression take part in recreational activities to relieve tension, ease anxiety and reduce stress. This playtime, if conducted as part of an overall treatment plan, is known as recreational therapy, and can be as active as rock climbing or fly fishing or as restful as knitting or painting, according to Brent Hawkins, a recreational therapy professor at Clemson University, South Carolina. “Most people do some form of recreation just to keep themselves sane, to reduce stress, keep themselves strong,” Hawkins said. “For veterans with PTSD, they learn coping skills to deal with their symptoms.” For Krauth, building with Legos, specifically large portraits and landscape mosaics made from the plastic bricks, has improved her mental state and bolstered her confidence in public. Krauth said that before she discovered Legos, she couldn’t walk in to a supermarket or Walmart. “You have to go into a shop to get these sets. And it turns out that’s part of the therapy — how long you can stay in a store or be out in public,” Krauth said. Hawkins said recreational therapy can reinstill confidence in those with PTSD, provide social opportunities and a sense of community, and engage a person whose focus may have waned with an increase in mental health symptoms. … Krauth, 43, said her PTSD has its roots in a 2009 deployment to Baghdad, where her base sustained daily mortar fire and a soldier, Army Sgt. John Russell, shot and killed five fellow troops in an attack at the Camp Liberty combat stress clinic. … She sustained physical injuries, too, including a torn hip and bursitis, and was medically retired. According to Krauth, once she returned home, she sought mental health counseling but largely stayed in the house, “fearful” and “constantly on edge.” Her therapist asked whether she had any activities that improved her mental state, and she remembered how good she felt building Harry’s famed boarding school. Krauth says she still has PTSD symptoms but that she “handles them better now,” and she tells other veterans to find their passion, whether it be a formal recreation program through a therapist, a nonprofit or the Veterans Affairs Department, or a personal hobby that requires focus. “It just helps to take your mind away from the things that caused the PTSD and the symptoms themselves. You need something to help you heal,” Krauth said.