March 31 Veterans News

March 31 Veterans News

VetsHQ News UpdateCode of silence: Vets groups mum on scandal at Wounded Warrior Project ( Some veterans groups suspected for years that Wounded Warrior Project was playing by a different set of rules than older, more established organizations. There were the heavy-handed, tug-at-the-heartstrings TV ads that showed the struggles of vets dealing with severe amputations and traumatic brain injury. In print and online spots, the face of the organization is often a horribly burned veteran. The Madison Avenue-style campaign brought in scores of millions of dollars annually — dwarfing the amounts received by other organizations — but also giving members of these other groups pause over exactly how Wounded Warrior Project was spending its massive war chest. By 2014, Wounded Warrior Project, then a little more than a decade old, had pulled in more than $1 billion. Still, no outsiders publicly voiced concern or raised questions. “The first commandment of veterans’ organizations is ‘Thou Shalt Not Criticize Other Veterans Organizations,’ ” said a longtime official with a national veterans group who spoke to on condition that neither he nor his organization be identified. It was the same with every veterans group official interviewed for this story. “The reason we hesitated is not because we don’t want to expose the charlatans out there, it’s because we don’t want to bring discredit upon the veterans’ organization community,” said another career veterans advocate. If donors or potential donors found a group was serving its own top officers more than veterans, donating to all groups is likely to take a hit, the source said. … CBS News, in an expose on Wounded Warrior Project in January, reported the veterans’ charity spent 34 percent of donations on fundraising and only 60 percent on care for veterans. The group’s Form 990 tax filing for 2013 shows it spent $149 million on programs and services for its veteran clients. Charity Navigator, which scores charitable organizations, gives Wounded Warrior Project an average rating of 84.5 out of a possible 100. In terms of financials — how a group spends its money — it scores the veterans group at 78.5, while rating it 96 on transparency. That means it has been fairly open on how much it spends on overhead, including marketing and salaried personnel. The documents indicate the charity brought in $342,066,114 in 2013. After its program expenses — the $149 million for veterans — it spent $15 million on administrative costs, including salaries, and $84 million on fundraising. It then carried over $94 million in excess. Wounded Warrior Project has been criticized for its level of spending on travel, which the most recent filing shows totaled about $7.5 million, in addition to about $26 million for conferences, conventions and meetings. The organization has also been especially criticized for the high salaries it paid its chief executives and the overly expensive travel arrangements and hotel stays they wrote off to the charity as the cost of raising money for vets. Wounded Warrior Project’s Chief Executive Officer Steven Nardizzi reported a salary of $473,000. Its chief operating officer, Albion Giordano, earned just over $369,000. Chief Financial Officer Ronald Burgess had reported income of $235,000 from WWP, the document shows, while Chief Program Officer Jeremy Chwat earned 262,750. Nardizzi and Giordano have since been fired and the organization has been trying to regain the goodwill and trust it lost, officials there said. … Eight other executives are also listed as earning between $151,000 and $252,000 annually. … Along with the spending abuses and high salaries of the executives that have now been revealed, it creates a level of distrust among donors, the source said. Yet leaders of veterans groups who saw all this remained quiet. Not only did they not feel it their place to sound an alarm publicly when they saw Wounded Warrior Project’s excesses, they did not see a role for themselves as whistleblowers — not even to lawmakers who likely would have raised questions.

Care commission shocker: The push to privatize VA health care (Stars and Stripes)
Seven of 15 outside health advisers appointed to recommend ways to improve veterans’ health services over the next two decades have proposed shutting down all Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers and outpatient services, and having its nine million enrollees get their medical care in the private sector. The 34-page “straw man” document released by the congressionally created Commission on Care calls for an immediate halt to construction of new VA hospitals and clinics, and launch of a “BRAC-like process” to begin closing existing facilities. Shuttering the largest medical system in the country would leave the VA to be “primarily a payor” for the care veterans would receive from civilian community doctors and health facilities. To entice these physicians and facilities to accept more veterans as patients, the straw man document proposes that VA reimbursement rates be set 5 or 10 percent higher than Medicare pays. A slim majority of commissioners have not endorsed dismantling the Veterans Health Administration with its 288,000 employees and $63 billion budget. In fact its chairwoman, Nancy M. Schlichting, chief executive officer of Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, warned colleagues in an open letter against recommending a “payor-only” role for VA in their final June report. … Backlash from veteran service organizations was swift. The American Legion noted that many commissioners are medical industry executives who stand to gain financially if VA care is privatized. Paralyzed Veterans of America said placing vets with special needs into private-sector care “is a death sentence” because community providers are minimally experienced to provide complex care over the lifetime of severely injured veterans. Dr. David J. Shulkin, VA undersecretary of health, also criticized the straw man recommendations, but he is grateful they surfaced so early. “This would be a terrible mistake, a terrible direction for veterans and for the country, to essentially systematically implement recommendations that would lead to the end of the VA health care system,” Shulkin said in a phone interview Tuesday. The controversial ideas popped, however, two months before a final report is due to President Barack Obama and Congress. That’s time enough, he said, to educate commissioners on “transformative steps” VA already has taken to preserve the system and better integrate VA care with community care. Schlichting, appointed by Obama, said in an interview Wednesday that, given differences of opinion since commissioners began work last fall, she asked Commissioner David Blom, a health care executive from Ohio appointed by then-House Speaker John Boehner, to prepare the straw man document. By definition, she said, “it’s to be evaluated, criticized and considered as part of our discussion as we are … driving toward a consensus final report.” The final report will be “veteran centric” and, if Schlichting prevails, will support “the most integrated model possible to ensure veterans have appropriate choice access to highest quality services.” The straw man says the VA health system is so broken there’s “no efficient path to repair it.” It’s a theme often heard from Republican lawmakers, particularly in the House, in hearing after hearing the past two years. Five commissioners who support ending VA care are Republican appointees, including all three named by Boehner, an Ohio Republican, before he resigned last year. One of his appointees, Darin Selnick, advises Concerned Veterans for America, a lobby group funded by the billionaire Koch brothers that seeks to cut budgets and responsibilities of the VA. Though the straw man correctly identifies “serious systemic issues” across VA health care, Shulkin said, the system can be repaired. He said he was disappointed the straw man ignores reforms VA has launched the past year, including its call for legislation to improve access to community care.

90 percent of Americans want more funding for the VA (Opposing Views)
A recent Gallup survey found that three of the most popular policy proposals to emerge out of the 2016 presidential election would require more government spending. On Mar. 21, Gallup released the results of a questionnaire that polled respondents on whether or not they agreed, disagreed or were ambivalent about three key proposals. The most popular proposal was allowing veterans to receive healthcare from providers outside of the Veterans Administration (VA). This idea has actually been touted by Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and also Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. Enabling U.S. veterans the ability to access healthcare through any provider that accepts Medicare received a resounding 89 percent net agreement. It may be the most most popular idea of the entire election cycle. The next policy proposal was using federal money to modernize the VA, which was less popular — with a 67 percent net agreement — but remains one of the most uncontroversial ideas of the season. This idea has been pushed solely by Trump. Finally, there was the proposal to invest federal money in improving the U.S. infrastructure. This would include projects to update roads, bridges, buildings and waterways. This received a 64 percent net agreement. … All of these proposals appear to be popular with the general public and will require taxpayer money to execute. Clearly, improving the healthcare of U.S. veterans is important to most voters.

Deceased veterans canceling their own appointments? (azfamily)
Are dead veterans apparently canceling their own appointments? That’s what one insider says is happening at the Phoenix VA. That whistleblower is providing screen grabs of numbers that he says prove that hundreds of appointments that were more than 120 days past due to be scheduled were deleted from the system. That means many are still waiting to be seen and might not even realize they’re no longer in the system. “Obviously, if you’re deceased you’re not going to call the clinic and cancel your own appointment,” said Kuauhtemoc Rodriguez, Chief of Specialty Care Clinics at the Phoenix VA. He is making a startling accusation about alleged appointment deletion fraud happening at the VA. “Just within this past year the facility here in Phoenix has canceled over 700 appointments for dead veterans that are listed as canceled by patient,” he said. The manager says he first noticed employees were gaming the system about a year ago and he sent those concerns all the way to the Office of Inspector General and says ever since, he’s been retaliated against. He even received a letter to cease and desist. “So they did the exact opposite of what they’re supposed to do which is to go out and be impartial and create an investigation and determine what is really going on,” he said. I brought his concerns to Arizona Senator John McCain this week. “It shows that we have an enormous amount of work to be done and this information that you’re bringing to me should be referred directly to the Department of Justice because clearly that is criminal behavior,” said Sen. McCain. “It would be refreshing if the Justice Department actually did take some action to resolve these issues because they’re not going away. Our veterans are dying. They’re suffering and it’s not right,” said Rodriguez. Rodriguez says nothing has been done to address the unauthorized behavior of employees deleting dead patient and living one’s appointments. Even after he told Director Deborah Amdur about it, the mysterious cancellations continued, he said. I reached out to the VA Public Affairs Office for comment on these allegations but have yet to hear back. Meantime, Sen. McCain’s office is working on drafting a letter to the Justice Department.

VA audits find stressed, overworked staffs made scheduling mistakes (Stars and Stripes)
Schedulers at Department of Veterans Affairs clinics across Washington state were so stressed out by patient growth and low staffing two years ago that they took questionable short-cuts in booking medical appointments, according to a group of audits released this week. VA investigators launched the investigations in spring 2014, when the agency was under fire for doctoring reports on patient wait times at its hospital in Phoenix, a practice that later was determined to be fairly common across the country. Altogether, the VA pursued complaints about scheduling misconduct at 77 sites. It did not begin releasing most of those reports until the past month. In Washington state, the inspector general followed three tips:

  •  An allegation that a supervisor at the VA clinic in Chehalis instructed a scheduler to misrepresent patient requests for medical appointments. The audit determined that happened on a handful of occasions over three years.
  •  Charges that the VA hospital in Spokane inaccurately tracked requests for mental health appointments. The IG report confirmed Spokane staff members used unsanctioned scheduling methods in 2013 and 2014.
  •  A complaint from a former VA scheduler that suggested a supervisor at the American Lake hospital in Lakewood instructed her employees to misrepresent their contacts with patients in an internal Microsoft database. The manager and seven of the complainant’s former co-workers disputed his allegation and the inspector general considered it unsubstantiated.

The lapses in the state clinics took place at a time when the VA set a goal for itself to see almost all patients within 14 days of a request for an appointment. The pledge was made even as the system swelled with new veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan and it expanded services to veterans of past conflicts. Today, the VA tries to see patients within 30 days of a request for an appointment, a goal that more closely aligns with its past practices. The VA hospital in Seattle meets that standard for 91 percent of its patients, while American Lake hits the goal about 86 percent of the time, according to the VA’s more recent wait-time report. The local system sees about 100,000 patients a year, almost double the number it served at the beginning of the Afghanistan war in 2001. It continues to grow at a pace of 5 percent a year. Among the three new reports, only the one on Spokane suggests patients might have experienced unwarranted delays in care because of administrative problems at the clinics and hospitals. “Some patients were rescheduled multiple times while waiting three to four months between appointments,” a Spokane mental health scheduler told the auditors. In 2014, leaders of VA Puget Sound, which oversees the local facilities, said they were surprised by reports of scheduling misconduct at their hospitals and clinics. Nine of 27 schedulers interviewed at American Lake that spring told the inspector general they were instructed to schedule appointments for dates that were different than the ones patients wanted. That report was released to Congress, where lawmakers cited its nationwide findings as confirmation that VA supervisors were instructing staff members to misrepresent scheduling data. The new reports released this week do not reveal new information about that survey. In a statement to The News Tribune, VA Puget Sound officials said they have taken steps to improve scheduling practices since the 2014 audits. They’ve also hired about 200 more full-time employees than the local system had two years ago. Later this year, the VA plans to open an outpatient clinic in Bremerton. Next year, it’s due to open a mental health research facility in Seattle. The efforts are intended to expand capacity and improve care for patients. “While we were confident the investigation would not identify any scheduling irregularities, we continued to move forward in finding new ways to improve access to care for our Puget Sound veterans,” the VA Puget Sound statement said.

Woman veterans want ‘equal services,’ not ‘special consideration’ (Action News Jax)
Local women veterans, out of a job and facing major obstacles when they come home. New research from Northeast Florida Women Veterans shows some of our bravest women are struggling just to pay the bills. The study surveyed 1,088 women veterans in Northeast Florida. The research shows the most prevalent barrier was employment related:

  • 29 percent of women veterans who participated in the study are having difficulty finding suitable jobs.
  • 26 percent are struggling to pay the bills.
  • 22 percent are having trouble finding adequate childcare while they work.

Valerie Daughtry, a Navy Veteran, said she recently escaped an abusive relationship and moved to Jacksonville. But she found starting over has been an uphill battle. She said no one is hiring her and the skills she picked up in the military haven’t helped secure a civilian job. Plus she’s dealing with depression and PTSD. She spent many nights in shelters and sleeping in a van with her 8-year-old son. Daughtry has gotten a lot of help from agencies like Northeast Florida Women Veterans, but she’s desperate for stability. NFWV’s President said the research show now is the time to act. “There is still a lot of work to be done. Women veterans are not asking for a hand-out or special consideration, it is about receiving equal services and unique services to their needs,” said Deloris Quaranta CEO of NFWV. As for Daugtry, she spends time volunteering and searching for her next big break. She won’t stop until she’s able to support her family on her own.

Groundbreaking for new Central Nebraska Veterans’ Home (NBC Nebraska)
Wednesday morning, several guests gathered at the new site with dignitaries across the state to celebrate the groundbreaking for the new Central Nebraska Veterans’ Home. The one-hour ceremony featured speeches rom Governor Pete Ricketts, Director of the Nebraska Department of Veterans Affairs Jim Cada and a few more. Wednesday’s ceremony marked the first step towards building the new multi-million dollar facility. … Back in 2013, former Governer Dave Heineman decided to move the veterans home from its current location in Grand Island to Kearney, creating a bit of controversy among community members. “Senator Fischer would like to point out that when push comes to shove and we get down near the goal line, all Nebraskans always come together to get the right thing and get it done now,” Major General Roger Lemke representing Sen. Deb Fischer said. However, despite the tension created around the moving of the vets home, the new facility is a venture many in the Kearney community are excited for. “They’re our veterans. They cared for us. They cared for our freedom. They cared for our nation. They cared for our security, and all together, let’s continue to care for them,” Nebraska Department of Veterans Affairs director John Hilgert said. The project will cost approximately $101,000,000 and is funded through the state, grants and the Department of Veterans Affairs. The new location is at the intersection of 56th Street and Cherry Avenue, the site of an old army air base, considering it sacred ground for those who served in the military. … The sentiment of many in attendance of the ceremony agree the new vets home is the least Nebraska can do to pay back the debt they owe to their veterans. “We’re all very patriotic here and know that we want to take care of our veterans, the people who sacrificed for us to give us this great country. This is going to be a great way to say, ‘Thank you’ to those veterans by having this wonderful facility to be able to take care of them,” Governor Pete Ricketts said. The ceremony ended with 19 shovels digging up the grounds where the new veterans home will sit. Project officials expect the new home to be completed in 2018, but that date could be changed.

Clearer message needed on what cloud can do for VA (Federal News Radio)
Improving veterans services through cloud technology requires equal effort from both the Veterans Affairs Department and private sector. Speaking at the March 30 “Face to Face: Overcoming Barriers to the Cloud” event in Washington, VA Deputy Chief Information Officer for Architecture, Strategy and Design Paul Tibbits said his agency wants to do more with cloud technology. But VA needs a more defined explanation from private industry on what the technology can do for its employees and the veterans they serve. … Tibbits said a value proposition has to be clear, whether that would be measurable improvement to customer service, measurable improvement for service to VA staff, or if there are no measurable improvements, there’s at least a drop in price because “there’s gotta be something in there that’s better,” Tibbits said. The same goes for use cases, Tibbits said. While VA gets many vendors with great product stories, few of them come with a use case. And of those that do, Tibbits said, an even smaller percentage bring an estimate of improvement in operations. … In May 2015, Tibbits brought together stakeholders from across the VA, including the general counsel, the inspector general as well as experts from the Homeland Security Department, the General Services Administration, and research organizations Gartner and Mitre, to discuss how the agency could take advantage of cloud technology. In 2012, VA awarded a contract for cloud email but ended up cancelling it in mid-2013 after the agency decided its requirements changed. Information sharing is important to VA, Tibbits said, but the agency has been struggling for decades with how it approaches information interoperability, even with the cloud. The way it’s been done is working from the bottom up, Tibbits said, which is the wrong way to do it. … Tibbits said VA would have been better off starting from the top down. LaVerne Council, VA chief information officer and assistant secretary for information and technology, stressed in October the importance of “buy first,” something Tibbits also touched on during the cloud conference, which was hosted by Federal Computer Week. “Buy first,” Tibbits said, means instead of in-house development, an agency looks at something that is already running. … The “buy first” and “make first” strategies each have their supporters, even for the same product or service. Earlier in March, Council announced a VA pilot program to help veterans self-schedule their medical appointments. At the same time, a Massachusetts congressman is asking for support on a bill that would link the agency with private sector technology to do the same thing.

Navy vet: Marijuana use for PTSD led to kids’ removal (Navy Times)
A Navy veteran seeking to get five of his children back from state custody in Kansas says his use of medical marijuana to treat PTSD — not the family’s past scrapes with the law — prompted the state’s action. Raymond Schwab, 40, said the Kansas Department of Children and Families took the children in April 2015, which he calls “illegally kidnapping” them, after his wife’s mother told police they had been abandoned. It happened as he was preparing to move the family to Colorado, where medical marijuana is legal. Schwab has recently campaigned on the statehouse steps to get his children back, and drawn national attention as medical marijuana proponents describe the case as an example of government overreach against a disabled vet who used cannabis to treat mental and physical conditions. While the Department of Families and Children has declined to specify exactly why officials took custody of the children, ages 5, 7, 11, 13 and 16, it said last week Schwab is not being truthful in his contention that it was because of medical marijuana. Officials have declined to comment beyond that statement. In the five months before the children were removed from the home, Schwab’s wife, Amelia Schwab, was arrested for domestic battery after assaulting her husband at a strip club, police were called to the family’s home for a domestic disturbance and Amelia Schwab was hospitalized for mental health issues, according to Topeka, Kansas, police reports and Shawnee County court documents obtained by The Associated Press. “None of those things were in the state’s allegation,” Schwab said, but added that marijuana was. He said the state ordered him not to use cannabis for four months if he wants the children back. He said he is complying, though it was not clear when that period began. Schwab said he ended a hunger strike Wednesday that began March 14. He said he ended it after a California attorney specializing in medical marijuana issues came to Topeka with plans to file a federal lawsuit against the state, DCF and several government officials. It had not been filed by the close of business Wednesday. The lawyer, Matthew Pappas, and Cheryl Shuman, a California resident whose website describes her as a “cannabis branding personality,” were among about 40 people at a rally for Schwab and his wife Wednesday. Schwab said he plans to continue the statehouse vigil he began March 14 and has permission from the state to stay for 30 days, with the possibility of applying for more time. Pappas said he was certain that the family’s other problems, “if they played a role in what’s going on in court, would be in the transcript, but they’re not.” Schwab said he was honorably discharged from the Navy after serving 18 months between 1994 and 1996, during which time an incident he said he didn’t want to discuss occurred that led to PTSD. Suffering from chronic joint and back issues, he said he became addicted to pain medications and then to heroin in 2009. He got treatment in 2011 and was able to kick the heroin addiction with the use of cannabis, he said. In 2013, he moved to Topeka from Colorado to take a job with the Veterans Administration, he said.