April 18 Veterans News

April 18 Veterans News

VetsHQ News UpdateVA hasn’t fixed wait-time problems, GAO finds (USA Today)
The Department of Veterans Affairs has not done enough to prevent schedulers from manipulating appointment wait times, and wait-time data remains misleading and underestimates how long veterans wait for care, according to a nonpartisan watchdog report released Monday. “Ongoing scheduling problems continue to affect the reliability of wait-time data,” the Government Accountability Office found. The GAO said the VA has taken a “piecemeal approach” to addressing the problems since the wait-time scandal broke in 2014 in Phoenix, where schedulers falsified wait times and at least 40 veterans died awaiting care. But the agency needs to take comprehensive action, the GAO concluded in its audit, which stretched from January 2015 through last month. Auditors found schedulers at three of the six medical centers they reviewed had improperly changed dates so the VA system falsely showed shorter or zero wait times. In a review of scheduling records for 60 individual veterans at those three centers, they found improper scheduling in 15  — or 25% — of the appointments. While the system showed average wait times of between four and 28 days in the cases reviewed, the actual averages were between 11 and 48 days. The audit characterized the schedulers’ actions as mistakes rather than deliberate falsification. “Until a comprehensive scheduling policy is finalized, disseminated, and consistently followed by schedulers, the likelihood for scheduling errors will persist,” the GAO said in its draft report. The findings bolster recent claims by VA whistle-blowers that schedulers across the country are still falsifying wait times. And they cast doubt on the effectiveness of corrective actions VA officials touted as recently as 10 days ago. … In response to the new GAO report, VA spokeswoman Walinda West issued a statement saying the agency “agreed with its conclusions” but adding that it has “built a strong system of checks and balances to detect scheduling errors and potential manipulation since the GAO findings.” The VA said it also is working on a new national scheduling directive and is in the process of testing and deploying a new scheduling program to make it easier to book appointments. … The GAO audit focused on primary care for newly enrolled veterans and said its findings should not be generalized, but it did not limit its conclusions to those patients. Auditors selected six centers with varying sizes and geographic locations for their sample. … Local VA officials overseeing five of the six centers told the GAO their own internal audits also found schedulers continuing to enter dates improperly. At one of the medical centers — the GAO didn’t say which one — an audit of 1,200 appointments between January and June 2015 found scheduling problems with 205 of them. The local VA officials blamed national VA officials for confusing directions about changes to scheduling policies that had been “ineffective and may be contributing to continued scheduling errors,” the GAO report states. The VA, in its response to the report, said it will review the situation and make improvements where necessary by the end of the year.

Hundreds of veterans are winning state elections (MilitaryTimes)
A veteran will likely be on your election ballot this fall, but maybe not in the race you expected. The study is the first comprehensive look at veterans’ political involvement on a state level and indicates that despite years of declining veteran representation in Congress, the pipeline of potential candidates for national office may be refilling.New research from the American Enterprise Institute found that roughly one in seven lawmakers serving in state legislatures is a veteran, totaling more than 1,000 former military members nationwide. “I think it’s fair to think that we’ll see an increase in the number of veteran candidates at the federal level in coming years,” said Rebecca Burgess, manager of AEI’s Program on American Citizenship and the report’s author. “For some, state offices are like getting their feet wet.” With 23 percent, New Hampshire has the strongest veteran representation in a state legislature, followed closely by Nevada, Alabama, North Dakota and Tennessee. Utah, where only 5 percent of the state’s elected leaders have military experience, ranks last. California, Minnesota, Massachusetts and Illinois round out the report’s “Bottom Five,” each with single-digit veteran representation in their state legislatures. Numerous groups have raised concerns in recent years about the declining numbers of veterans seeking and winning congressional seats, especially as Congress deals with ever-more complex issues surrounding national security and military policy. In 1971, veterans made up 72 percent of House seats and 78 percent of the Senate. In the latest Congress, only 20 percent of senators had served in the military, and only 18 percent of House members claimed military service. Much of that decline is due to the all-volunteer force and the shrinking number of veterans in the country as a whole. The state legislature survey found about 14 percent of the nearly 7,400 elected individuals nationwide have served, an even smaller percentage than in Congress. Veterans make up about 9 percent of the American population. But Burgess said she sees the new numbers as a positive development, since they show steady involvement by veterans in politics across in a variety of positions. In some cases, individuals can be more effective at passing policy at state and local levels. “Often [advocates] are so focused on the federal level that they don’t think about the importance and impact of work at the state and local offices,” she said. AEI’s research found the majority of veterans in state legislatures are Republican, at more than a two-to-one ratio. That mirrors Congress, where 70 percent of veterans in the Senate are Republican and 75 percent of veterans in the House hail from the GOP. Burgess said she hopes to build on the findings with more historical data, to track connections between veterans in state office and federal elections. The most important takeaway, she said, is that many veterans are continuing their service in elected office. Many of them just don’t have the national platform or attention, at least for now.

Commentary: The VA needs a radical overhaul (Washington Times)
Newt Gingrich, former House speaker: In December 2010, a fruit seller in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, doused himself with gasoline and lit himself on fire in front of a provincial government office. That act of despair — and the man’s subsequent death — ignited a revolution of consciousness in Tunisia and throughout the Arab world. The street vendor’s protest touched off a surge of public outrage with the corruption, abuses and failures of governments throughout the region. It was the turmoil that became known as the Arab Spring. Last month, a 51-year-old veteran set himself on fire in front of a Veterans Administration facility in Northfield, New Jersey. His comparable act of despair should be a call to another political revolution here in the United States — one focused on transforming the bureaucracies that are failing many of the most vulnerable Americans, not least our veterans. No American should be satisfied with the incompetence and corruption exemplified by the VA. That the Department of Veterans Affairs is grievously sick has been evident since at least 2007, when the stories of neglect at Walter Reed Army Medical Center began to get public attention. We learned that the VA had wounded veterans recovering in deplorable conditions and that the carelessness and indifference of the administrators led to a number of deaths. Over the next nine years, we have watched the bureaucracy try and fail to cure itself. In 2014, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned after press reports revealed that dozens of VA medical facilities had been hiding outrageously long wait times through fraudulent record-keeping and that tens of thousands of veterans had been waiting months or even years for appointments. We later learned that more than 300,000 veterans may have died waiting for care. Of course, firing the secretary did not fix a system that is corrupt, extraordinarily resistant to change and devoted to its own self-preservation. The new secretary, Robert McDonald, has attempted to fire several of the senior executives responsible for the wait-time fraud. He has discovered that, due to public employee unions’ intransigence, it will take up to 700 days (two years!) before the agency actually succeeds in firing them. In the meantime, they could continue to receive full pay — in one case, $250,000 a year — at taxpayer expense. And so the outrages continue. In an Inspector General’s report released this month, we learned that the person the VA appointed to fix the Phoenix VA’s wait-time scandal apparently manipulated wait times in her previous position as head of a VA facility in Vermont — and that her superiors knew it. The week she took control of the Phoenix VA, the Daily Caller reports, “her superiors saw papers confirming the Vermont hospital had the same issues with wait-time falsification — with equally deadly results — as Phoenix.” In the IG report, the story continues, a litany of schedulers at White River [the Vermont facility] told identical stories about being instructed during [her] tenure to game the data to show that veterans were given instant appointments. Those who didn’t were told they would be punished. Multiple levels of supervisors enforced the instructions, all the way up to at least the patient-care chief. In another report published this week, we learned that the backlog of appeals cases in the veterans benefits system approaches half a million. “We’re failing veterans,” Veterans Affairs Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson said of the system. “This process is failing veterans. Nobody can defend the status quo here.” In yet another case, we learned that the VA systematically and intentionally declined to pay its proper share of veterans’ emergency room bills, causing many veterans to face enormous fees: In a recent court decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims … held VA was violating federal law using an unlawful interpretation of the statute. That statute required VA to pay for all uncovered costs related to veterans’ emergency room (ER) services. VA surreptitiously interpreted the statute to justify denial of payments to veterans with insurance that would cover part but not all of emergency room visits. The interpretation resulted in veterans getting stuck with enormous bills following emergency room visits. According to the National Law Journal article, the VA stuck veteran Richard Staab with an uncovered portion of his bill of $48,000. It is obvious that the VA is not going to fix itself, and so the task falls to Congress to impose real change. The sickness of the system is so deep that, like a body infected with life-threatening cancer, the agency will need radical surgery if it is to survive. And a radical surgery is what Congress should perform in completely overhauling the agency. It is time to put veterans first, not bureaucrats.

Democratic presidential candidates enter GI Bill fight (MilitaryTimes)
Both remaining Democratic presidential candidates this weekend blasted congressional proposals to trim Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits as short-sighted and harmful to veterans, a move opponents of the idea hope gives them new momentum in the legislative fight. Last Thursday, a group of nine Democratic lawmakers said they’d work to block any legislation that includes cuts to the education benefit, even if it includes critical veterans programming they’ve been pushing for years. Just a short time later, both former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders joined their cause. … At issue is a plan that would cut in half the housing stipend for veterans’ dependents attending college using the Post-9/11 GI Bill. House lawmakers passed the proposal without opposition in February. The move would save the government about $773 million over the next 10 years, and that money would be redirected into other veterans programs, including scholarships for the children of troops who die on duty. But it would also amount to $1,000 in lost monthly payouts for some veterans’ families. Individuals that have already transferred their GI Bill benefits to children would not be affected, but individuals who haven’t served long enough yet to make those transfers would be. Several veterans groups — most vocally Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America — have said that any cut to the benefit amounts to a betrayal of the promise made to troops, and unnecessarily pits veterans programs against each other. But other veterans advocates have supported the House bill, saying the wider legislation contains needed pilot programs and updates that offset the GI Bill trims. None of the Republican presidential candidates have weighed in on the issue yet. House Republicans have largely supported the measure, but Senate Republicans crafting their own veterans omnibus measure have not yet taken a position on the issue. White House officials have also declined comment thus far on the proposed GI Bill cut.

VA sees number of intrusion attempts up, affected vets down (FierceGovernmentIT)
The Department of Veterans Affairs saw a rise in intrusion attempts and suspicious emails in March, but the agency said it blocked or contained all such threats, which didn’t affect any veterans. According to the VA’s latest threat report, the agency blocked 74.5 million intrusion attempts in March, up from 63.9 million in February. It also blocked 95.8 million suspicious or malicious emails last month, up from 85.7 million in February. The report also contained some good news. Attempted malware incidents fell slightly, down to 754 million blocked or contained incidents from 788 million in February. Furthermore, the number of veterans affected by noncyber events fell by almost 300, even as the number of noncyber data loss events rose slightly. Around 288 veterans in March received notifications of data loss, and 234 were offered credit protection services, while in February, 572 received notifications and 245 were offered credit protection. Many of last month’s affected veterans had information stolen in a single mishandling incident in Seattle, Wash. On March 2, a briefcase containing two lists of patient names was stolen from a physician’s locked vehicle, according to the report. In that instance, the agency delivered loss notifications to 141 veterans on the first list, whose names were accompanied by the last four digits of their Social Security numbers. The second list contained 70 veterans’ names along with their full SSNs, dates of birth, opioid prescription nomenclature and the last time they ordered medication. Those veterans were offered credit protection services, according to the report.

A new battle for 20 wounded US vets: The Boston Marathon (Boston Herald)
Twenty U.S. military veterans wounded in action in Iraq and Afghanistan will face a new battle: reaching the finish line of the Boston Marathon. The veterans will attempt to cover all 26.2 miles of Monday’s race as part of the Freedom Team. The effort is sponsored by the group Achilles International, which helps disabled vets take on physical challenges such as marathons. Competitors include Army Spec. Stefan Leroy, of Jupiter, Florida, who lost both legs while serving with the 82nd Airborne Division in Afghanistan. Leroy will run on a pair of carbon-fiber blades. He’ll be paced and guided by David Cordani, the president and CEO of Cigna Corp., a Connecticut-based health services company. Freedom Team organizers say the program helps injured veterans regain fitness and build confidence.

Veterans health fix failing in Montana (MTPR)
Two years ago news broke about a scandal at the Veterans Administration hospital in Phoenix. Congressional investigators found that the hospital was covering up the lengthy waiting times that veterans faced trying to see doctors. There’s evidence that 40 veterans, maybe more, died while waiting for medical appointments. Congress took action, authorizing $10 billion for a new program called “Veterans Choice,” aimed at speeding veterans’ access to care. But a year into it, there’s widespread recognition that Congress’s fix isn’t working. In February Senator Jon Tester sent his staff to 28 towns across Montana, and dozens of veterans, like Bobby Wilson in Superior, complained about their continuing inability to get their health needs met in a timely manner. “The VA can’t do it in 7 months? 8 months?” Wilson asked about his attempts to get his hearing aids fixed. “Something’s wrong,” he said. The idea of Veterans Choice is simple: It’s to make it faster and easier for vets to get medical care. They’re supposed to be able to go straight to local doctors or clinics if they live more than 40 miles from a VA clinic, or if they’d have to wait more than six weeks to get an appointment at a VA facility. But to get those local appointments, veterans have to go through a third party. It’s a company called HealthNet, and there have been a lot of complaints about HealthNet in Montana. At the meeting in Superior, Bobby Wilson described what it was like trying to get an appointment. “Three hours on the phone with her, not waiting, talking for three hours trying to get this thing set up for my new hearing aids,” Wilson said. And it’s not just vets who are saying that this fix that’s supposed to streamline their access to healthcare is failing them. “This program, as we’ve seen over the past year, is just too difficult to use and not enough veterans are getting the access to care that they need,” said Dr. David Shulkin, undersecretary of health for the Veterans Administration in Washington, D.C. In an interview with NPR, Shulkin said that after the Phoenix scandal, Congress told the VA they had to set up the Choice program in 90 days. “I think the reason why Congress asked us to do it in such a short time is because this was a national crisis,” Shulkin said. “Veterans weren’t getting care. The concern being that veterans were actually being harmed being on wait lists, so there wasn’t the time to give. So everyone stepped up and put a program in place, in really what would be a record unprecedented time.” Shulkin says the VA realized that it couldn’t set up the Choice program on its own, so it asked private companies to bid on two contracts to administer it. And only two companies did. HealthNet got the contract for a big part of the country that includes Montana. We’ve been trying to get an interview with HealthNet since the first of March. A company spokesman says it just completed a merger, and their CEO is too busy to talk to the press. No other HealthNet officials are available for interviews. But Donna Hoffmeir, HealthNet’s vice president of VA services called the 90 days Congress gave the VA to set up the Choice program, “an extremely aggressive implementation period,” at a congressional field hearing in Georgia last August. Hoffmeir said that led to, “bumps in the road,” including – “Incorrect and sometimes conflicting information provided to veterans. These bumps have understandably caused a level of veteran frustration,” she said. Senator Jon Tester says 90 days was plenty of time to roll out the new program. “I think it is. Obviously they weren’t up to that task, and obviously those timelines cramped their style. But the bottom line is that these folks knew what they were doing,” Tester told MTPR. “Ninety days is three months, and all they had to do was set up appointments, develop partnerships with medical providers, and pay them in a timely basis, and they haven’t done that.” Tester is extremely critical of HealthNet. He’d like to see Montana vets be able to skip dealing with the company, and go through the VA instead to make medical appointments with private health care providers close to where they live. While Senator Tester has little sympathy for HealthNet and the VA’s inability to roll out the Choice program in three months, in the next breath he acknowledges that Congress was, actually, asking a lot. “Should have Congress have put down those kinds of timeframes to the VA? Probably wasn’t the best thing to do,” Tester said. “But, keep in mind the times. We had a list of folks in Phoenix that claims were made they died because they were on a waiting list too long and couldn’t see the doctor in a timely manner. So we felt like we had to act and had to act in a prudent manner to get to the heart of the problem. Now, did it happen the way we intended in the end? No, but we’ll get it fixed.” Some fixes have been implemented since Senator Tester sent his staff around Montana in February to get feedback from veterans who’ve tried to use Choice. But the VA says the program still isn’t working as intended. Veterans like Bobby Wilson from Superior are really, really frustrated. “If I knew half of what I knew now back then when I was just a kid, I would’ve never went in the military,” Wilson told University of Montana Journalism School Student Carrie Miller. “I see how they treat their veterans when they come home.” Wilson says he’s not going to give up trying to get the healthcare he was promised when he joined the military. He says he refuses to give in to the VA.

Military veterans enlist to fight wildfires (King5)
It’s a world away from the desert sands of Iraq, but it was still a something of a combat mission on Orcas Island, Monday. Fifty military veterans prepared to do battle with a new enemy: wildfire. “It’s very dangerous, but I think our members are used to that sort of risk,” said Vince Moffitt, a member of Team Rubicon. Team Rubicon is an international organization of American military veterans who volunteer to serve on disaster and relief missions around the globe. The group is now partnering with the Bureau of Land Management to train firefighters to combat wildfires in Washington and beyond. They’ve trained a total of 500 veterans for duty over the past two years. “These men and women have seen a lot, and they’re exactly what we need,” said the BLM’s Chuck Russell. “They know how to think fast, act fast and have each other’s backs. We’re honored to have them.” Last year’s record wildfires stretched fire crews dangerously thin across the west. Three firefighters died fighting the flames near Twisp. The addition of these skilled veterans is critical for what will be another unpredictable fire season. “They’re used to chaos,” said Moffitt. “They go out there in very stressful situations, and they handle them very well.” Among those feeling the call to serve once again is Iraq war vet Jay Pense. He has a very personal call to duty. A close buddy was killed in action by an insurgent sniper in Iraq. This will be Pense’s second wildfire season with Team Rubicon. He does it, in part, because he knows his buddy would want him to. “To be able to impact the people in a positive way is important to me and all of us,” he said.

VA names IT manager for veterans benefits (fedscoop)
Sean Kelley, formerly the CIO of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ central office and national capitol region, has been named the IT account manager for the Veterans Benefits Administration and VA’s Veteran Experience team. In his new position, Kelley will join as the third member of the VA Office of Information and Technology’s newly formed IT Account Manager team, which works with the office’s internal customers, CIO LaVerne Council wrote in an announcement to VA staff. In Kelley’s case, he will be responsible for meeting the IT needs of the the VBA and Veteran Experience team. Kelley “is well-known to our partners for his technical savvy and ability to navigate strategic relationships, and his experience in VHA gives him insight into how IT can support larger MyVA priorities, streamline processes, and enhance the Veteran experience,” Council wrote. “As a core member of our senior leadership team, he has worked every day over the last seven months to make our transformation a reality.” On the IT Account Manager team, Kelley will join Jackie Patillo and Alan Constantian, who oversee the office’s corporate and health care partnerships respectively. “Our ITAMs represent our principles of transparency, accountability, innovation, and teamwork,” Council wrote. “These Account Managers will play a trusted role on our business partners’ teams. They are an invested partner with our business teams, a strategic consultant, and a collaborative leader that will drive effective decision-making.”