April 12 Veterans News

April 12 Veterans News

VetsHQ News UpdateVA health panel on closure report: ‘Nothing was done in secret’ (Military Times) Members of a blue-ribbon panel studying VA health care defended the group’s work last week, deflecting charges they want to shutter all Veterans Affairs medical facilities in favor of government-paid private care for veterans. Commission on Care member Darin Selnick and chairwoman Nancy Schlicting said last week that a “strawman” paper drafted by seven commissioners “was created to jot down initial ideas” and did not represent a final report from the congressionally mandated group. “The scenario presented is one of several that have been proposed. As the term strawman implies, the document was created by a subset of commissioners to describe their personal ideas … it represents options on a range of possibilities the commissioners are evaluating,” Schlichting wrote in a statement on the commission’s website. “We are going to continue to take input, continue to shape [our views] … No one is going to fully understand our position until we understand our position, and that’s not going to happen until we create the final report. And that comes out in June,” Selnick said. The 34-page document proposes giving all veterans access to private health services and closing VA health facilities gradually over 20 years, starting with those that are obsolete or underutilized in a process similar to a base realignment and closure. The report also calls for VA to become “primarily a payer,” much like Medicare, to provide health care for veterans. Veterans organizations, including Disabled American Veterans, American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Vietnam Veterans of America and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, immediately took issue with the paper’s content and its development, which they say was drafted “outside the open commission process … without the input or even knowledge of the other commissioners,” according to a letter sent to Schlichting on March 31. … The Commission on Care was created by the 2014 Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act to make recommendations on reorganizing the Veterans Health Administration and delivering health care to veterans in the next two decades. Members were appointed by President Obama or a bipartisan group of congressional members.

VA whistleblower: ‘They are still manipulating data’ (The Washington Free Beacon)
A whistleblower at the Phoenix VA Health Care System who spoke out about the mishandling of veteran suicides last year said last week that little has changed since hospital staff made national headlines for keeping secret wait lists two years ago. “They are still manipulating data, it is still happening, they are still being trained to do it at facilities just like the one behind us,” Brandon Coleman, the whistleblower, told Fox 10 News Phoenix. “If someone commits wrongdoing, whether they are a janitor or the director they deserve to be fired–until that happens people are going to continue manipulating the system if there is a financial gain,” Coleman, who was put on leave after speaking out in January 2015, stated. The 2014 wait list scandal led the Department of Veterans’ Affairs inspector general to investigate 73 agency hospitals across the nation. The watchdog only recently began releasing the findings of those investigations under pressure from critics and repeated inquiries. According to a USA Today analysis of the findings, supervisors at VA hospitals in at least seven states instructed staffers to falsify patient wait times. An unrelated inspector general investigation into a VA outpatient clinic in Colorado Springs also found that veterans’ long wait times there were covered up by staffers who used the incorrect dates to make it appear that patients faced shorter wait times. Republican lawmakers and groups like Concerned Veterans for America have long advocated for reform at the VA to ensure that employees are held responsible for misconduct. The Obama administration has resisted legislative efforts to boost accountability at the agency. Allegations of misconduct at the Phoenix VA have surfaced in the wake of the wait list scandal. Last month, reports indicated that staff at the hospital system had been cancelling pending appointments for dead veterans, which violates VA policy, in an apparent attempt to hide connections between pending appointments and veterans’ deaths. Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) called on the inspector general to investigate the allegations.

Decision time nears for easing the survivor benefit offset (Military Advantage Blog)
This could be a pivotal legislative year for more than 60,000 surviving spouses of service members who either died in retirement from service-connected ailments or injuries or died while serving on active duty. The armed services committees will be deciding whether to continue to ease a sharp loss of survivor benefit payments for these widows by extending or even bolstering their Special Survivor Indemnity Allowance (SSIA) which is due to expire on Oct. 1, 2017. At the other end of the spectrum of options, this one perhaps requiring a budget miracle given its projected cost of $7 billion over the next decade, Congress could decide to protect these surviving spouses more fully by ending the so-called SBP-DIC offset, which the SSIA was created to ease. … The survivors, most of them widows, believe that for more than a decade they’ve been mistreated by Congress and the White House because their Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) payments continue to be reduced, dollar for dollar, by the amount they receive in Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Any justification for the SBP-DIC offset disappeared, they argue, when Congress voted to lift a similar ban on “concurrent receipt” of both full military retirement and VA disability compensation, at least for the most seriously disabled retirees and those with rated combat-related conditions. By treating so many retirees fairly and at great cost, how can Congress continue to ban concurrent receipt for those survivors drawing DIC because they lost spouses to service-connected ailments or injury? The two payments, they argue, have separate purposes. SBP is an insurance-like annuity purchased either by dying on active duty or, more typically, by having premiums withheld from retired pay for up to 30 years. DIC, on the other hand, is a tax-free benefit, currently set at $1254 a month, which VA pays to survivors for the economic loss if members die in the line of duty or if veterans die later of service-related conditions. As of Sept. 30 last year, 63,182 surviving spouses were eligible for SBP and DIC and thus subject to the offset. For 38,798, SBP was wiped out. Lawmakers have had an easier time ignoring this since 2008 when they acknowledged the inequity and began to ease it by creating for survivors the SSIA. Like any entitlement pay, it is categorized as mandatory spending and, under House budget rules, can only be funded by shifting the dollars required from other mandatory spending accounts. That’s why SSIA initially was set at only $50 a month, to be raised annually by $10 a year. But then-chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), found enough of the right type of dollars to boost SSIA. It’s now $275 a month and will rise Oct. 1 to $310, enough to effectively replace a quarter of the maximum SBP-DIC offset. But SSIA is to expire Oct. 1, 2017, leaving the armed services committees to debate what to do next. Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) would like them to adopt his bill, HR 4519, which would extend SSIA for five years, and raise it steadily to reach $800 a month by 2022.

VA secretary promises completion of Aurora medical center in 2018 (The Denver Post)
The beleaguered Veterans Medical Center in Aurora is on track for completion in 2018, VA Secretary Robert McDonald promised Sunday, while a criminal investigation into any wrongdoing there continues. Speaking before nearly 400 people at a United Veterans Committee of Colorado banquet, McDonald explained how the $1.68 billion project that had spiraled out of control was doing well in meeting new deadlines for completion. “Since we discovered errors in construction, we offered reforms,” McDonald said. “We have changed how we design, bid and construct facilities.” He noted how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was now heading the project, a deal it reached in October to bring the multi-building project in line with congressional mandates to finish without further delay. The hospital initially was to have cost about $604 million to build, but years of VA mismanagement and a bitter battle between the agency and its primary contractor exploded the cost and nearly derailed the critical project. Investigations ensued following a number of media reports — McDonald described them as “recycled and embellished” — where investigators found wrongdoing, but only by those who had been disciplined or had left the agency. “The evidence simply doesn’t support actions against any individual still at the VA, and there is no one there now who was responsible,” McDonald said. Those at the event included a number of prominent politicians, including U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner, and Congressmen Mike Coffman and Ed Perlmutter, each outspoken critics of the investigation’s outcome. “An investigation of any criminal conduct is still ongoing,” McDonald said. He offered a number of agency progress reports since his tenure began in July 2014, including the hiring of about 6,000 nurses and 1,500 medical professionals.

Forging the way: Vietnam women veterans receive recognition (The Daily Courier)
Nearly 40 women veterans of the Vietnam War gathered in the Veterans Affairs (VA) Theater on Wednesday, March 16, to receive recognition of their service with a ceremony that included keynote speaker Ret. Col. Wanda Wright, director of the Arizona Department of Veterans’ Services, the first woman appointed to the position. They also received commemorative pins and coins acknowledging the 50-year anniversary of the war. Wright served five years active duty in the Air Force and 20 years with the National Guard. Gov. Doug Ducey appointed Wright a year ago. She holds two master’s degrees in public administration and business administration, and is earning a third in education. Wright told the women her father served three tours in Vietnam – when she was 2, 8, and 12 years old – each at least a year’s absence. He wanted her to attend West Point, but she graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1985, one year before her father retired from a military career. “I’m Col. Wright, number two,” she said with a laugh, adding that the women who preceded her allowed her to “stand on their shoulders today.” She also asked for a round of applause for the women veterans present in the room for “forging the way.” As part of her current position, Wright said she is opening two new cemeteries, one in Marana in southern Arizona, and one in Flagstaff. In the past year, she has organized four Veterans Expos that offer information relating to services, benefits, resources, financial and legal issues, guest speakers, and even a spa area for hair, nails and massages. “The best thing about the expos is to network with other veterans,” Wright said. Returning women veterans are in need of mentoring, she added. “I think they’re a little lost.” She also encouraged the women to reach out to Native American veterans who often must travel great distances to receive services. Doug Keller provided music for the ceremony, with Anna Nava singing the National Anthem and Joy Tyson leading the room in some chair yoga and relaxation exercises. “I’m honored to be here with you today, knowing what you’ve gone through, and what you came back home to,” Wright told the women.

Ousted executives defend work at Wounded Warrior Project (Military.com)
Two men ousted from top executive positions at Wounded Warrior Project say their leadership upheld the intent of donors who contributed millions to one of the nation’s largest veteran support groups. Al Giordano and Steve Nardizzi want the Jacksonville-based charity’s board of directors to publicly release the results of an independent review of its records. The board announced late March 10 that Nardizzi was no longer chief executive officer and Giordano was out as chief operating officer. Amid news reports alleging wasteful spending, the board hired outside legal counsel and forensic accounting consultants for a records review. The board has named retired Maj. Gen. Charlie Fletcher as interim chief operating officer and launched a national search for a new CEO. Since their ouster, Nardizzi and Giordano have been defending their work in media interviews, op-ed pieces and posts on their blog, www.thewoundedtruth.com. “The two most painful (allegations) are that somehow we’re not treating donor dollars appropriately and that we’re not taking care of warriors,” Nardizzi told The Florida Times-Union in an interview. “For me, watching the news reports, those were the most personally painful allegations, and obviously untrue.” In a statement Friday, the board said the independent review’s findings were submitted orally and summarized in the March 10 announcement, and there was no written report to be released. “The board continues to implement changes that will move the organization forward and do everything necessary to support the thousands of men and women who rely on WWP on a daily basis,” the statement said. Former Marine John Melia launched Wounded Warrior Project in 2003 and later recruited Giordano, a longtime friend, and Nardizzi, a lawyer who never served in the military, to the charity. Melia left in 2009, and Nardizzi and Giordano were credited with subsequently building the organization into a major fundraiser. Nardizzi said there were some things he should have done differently, such as not choosing a luxury resort in Colorado for an annual employee conference in 2014. He also regretted rappelling down the side of the resort during the opening night of the conference, an action caught on video. … The board tallied the conference’s costs at $970,000, instead of a reported $3 million, but still pledged to cut back on such events. Complaints from employees, veterans and charity watchdogs about the organizations lavish spending emerged in reports by The New York Times and CBS News in January. Nardizzi and Giordano said their fundraising is helping veterans cope with a variety of injuries, but headlines about the board’s decision to fire them made it seem like the independent review had found serious wrongdoing. … The Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance suspended its charity seal designation for Wounded Warrior after the board cut ties with Nardizzi and Giordano. Bennett Weiner, chief operating officer for the alliance, said it’s seeking more information about the review and determining whether the nonprofit meets the BBB’s standards. The board said Friday its commitment to the alliance’s standards “remains unchanged,” and it also is cooperating with U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who has questioned the charity’s spending practices. Nardizzi, 45, and Giordano, 54, said they remain interested in serving veterans and supporting Wounded Warrior Project.

Medical license reinstated for former Tomah VA ‘Candy Man’ (WRN)
The former chief-of-staff at the Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center can practice medicine again, at least temporarily. An administrative law judge has ruled the state Medical Examining Board was wrong to order an emergency suspension of Dr. David Houlihan’s medical license before a state agency could finish its probe into alleged misconduct at the Tomah VA. Houlihan was nicknamed the “Candy Man” for what investigators called an excessive approval of opiate painkillers to veterans hospitalized at the Tomah VA. He was fired after a patient died from a mix of those medications. Regulators moved to suspend Houlihan’s license after it was learned he was trying to open a private psychiatric practice. WKOW-TV reported that the judge ordered the suspension lifted because the state’s medical board did not adequately show why it should continue. The decision means Houlihan can practice medicine until regulators finish a formal misconduct investigation.

False alarm at McGuire VA Hospital was part of nationwide glitch (WTVR)
A lockdown at McGuire VA Medical Center set off a panic for those inside late morning Tuesday, and a representative confirmed to CBS 6 that it was caused by a glitch experienced nationwide. What is categorized as a Code Silver, used as an active shooter alert, triggered a lockdown at the hospital. The hospital, at 1201 Broad Rock Blvd, was in lockdown briefly.  An all clear was given, there was never any threat, according to Darlene Edwards, Public Affairs Officer at McGuire. She called the event a false alarm and said that some sort of glitch in the alert system triggered the lockdown. Investigators are trying to figure out exactly what caused the glitch. The same thing occurred at the Hampton VA Medical Center, according to affiliates WTKR. According to Stephen Wilkins, Deputy Director for Communications at Veterans Affairs Mid-Atlantic Healthcare Network, this glitch was a nationwide event. All 152 health centers were briefly put on alert for an active shooter.

Dayton, Ohio, to become home of VA national archive (Dayton Daily News)
Dayton will house the national archives for the VA, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald told Dayton-area leaders in Washington today. “We’re designating Dayton as the site of the national archive,” McDonald said. The Dayton Development Coalition along with a team of local elected and business leaders are in Washington meeting with officials and elected leaders. The push for the archives has been going on for years, but private funding is needed. The coalition has pushed for the archive as well. “Funding will have to be resolved and will almost certainly involve support from the community to match the VA commitment this is something the community has worked for for many years and will support redevelopment of west Dayton, said Michael Gessel, vice president of the DDC. Back in the early discussions of the plan, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown said the buildings that would house the archive are Building 116, currently unoccupied, which housed the operation’s headquarters starting in 1871, and Building 129, currently a police service building erected in 1881. In April 2009, VA historian Darlene Richardson told a group of Dayton regional leaders that the Veterans Health Administration — part of the VA — was considering Dayton and Milwaukee as sites for the archive. Milwaukee is home to a VA facility as old as Dayton’s.