VA health care reforms are underway, leaders tell panel (MilitaryTimes)
A blue ribbon panel crafting recommendations to Congress on the Veterans Affairs health system heard Monday from the department’s top leaders, who said reforms underway at the department will improve many aspects of patient care by year’s end. VA Secretary Bob McDonald and Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson addressed the Commission on Care during an open meeting in Washington, D.C., to explain the department’s ongoing reform effort, known as MyVA, which was created to fix internal issues as well as problems highly visible to veterans, such as the benefits appeals backlog, Internet platform problems and the Veterans Choice medical program. McDonald said MyVA is transforming the Veterans Health Administration, where changes have included new training for employees, increased hiring, one-day stand-downs to focus appointment wait times and patient care, and adding evening and Saturday hours to accommodate patients and increase appointments. The changes have led to VA completing 97 percent of appointments within 30 days of the date a veteran wanted for an appointment, McDonald said. Other reform measures require Congressional authorization, however, and getting permission for those, including funding flexibility and consolidating numerous community care programs, has not been easy, he added. “We can change the system if we get the legislation we need … but getting someone [in Congress] to work on the future has been difficult,” McDonald said. A veterans omnibus bill is expected any day from the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. The bill is likely to make changes to accountability rules for senior VA employees, provide additional support for caregivers and address problems in the Veterans Choice program. The Commission on Care is a 14-member panel appointed by Congress and President Obama to draft recommendations for Congress on the future of the veterans health system. Before their March meeting, the commissioners’ lengthy and often tedious analysis of veterans health services largely went unnoticed outside those whose jobs it is to follow their deliberations, like VA employees and veterans service organizations. But on March 23, commissioners discussed a report called a strawman, generated by some commissioners, that asked whether closing VA facilities gradually and moving veterans to civilian care paid by VA was a viable option. The strawman generated a huge backlash from veterans service organizations that favor maintaining VA medical facilities to provide care for veterans and was a hot topic at Monday’s meeting. … Commissioner Darin Selnick said the strawman authors were not advocating for elimination of all VA medical facilities. Instead, they were exploring what could happen to VA hospitals if the percentage of veterans who use community care goes from the current 25 percent of all VA health care to more than 50 percent. “The strawman wasn’t intended for external use. It was designed to start the process of exploring these trends, play devil’s advocate,” Selnick said. The commission was created by the 2014 VA Access, Choice and Accountability Act. Commissioners were appointed by members of Congress and the president. Eleven of 15 commissioners are veterans, and six of the seven commissioners who drafted the strawman are former service members. Gibson updated commissioners on the current state of VA health care, stressing that the VA excels every day treating veterans. … McDonald said that if he could make any recommendation, he’d like the commission to suggest making the head of VA a permanent position. He said that with a budget akin to a “Fortune 6″ company, VA should have a leader who could stay longer than four or eight years. “Whether it’s a CEO or a secretary, if I were you, I would recommend having a competitive search process, finding someone who wants the job and filling it that way,” he said. The commission is expected to deliver its recommendations to Congress by June.
House chairman blasts VA for more problems with veterans’ wait times (Washington Times)
A top House Republican criticized the Department of Veterans Affairs Tuesday for persistently misleading the public and Congress on the amount of time veterans must wait to receive health care. House Veterans Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, Florida Republican, said the VA is still manipulating its records and failing to hold employees accountable for inaccurate record-keeping, two years after a scandal hit the agency over phony wait-lists and veterans who died awaiting care. “Two years after what was and is a systemic crisis in care being brought to light, it is time for VA to stop using misleading data to tout wait times successes that simply do not show the real wait time experience of veterans,” Mr. Miller said at an oversight hearing. A Government Accountability Office report on Monday found that veterans waited from 22 days to 71 days from the time they requested appointments until they were actually seen by a provider. Mr. Miller said the findings were “significantly more than the five-day average Secretary [Bob] McDonald declared earlier this month.” The VA said it is in the midst of a massive transformation to new programs and is working harder to improve veterans’ access to care. Dr. David Shulkin, undersecretary for health at the Veterans Health Administration, said the VA is “working to rebuild trust with veterans and the American people, improve service delivery, and set the course for long-term VA excellence and reform, while delivering better access to care.” He said the VHA held two “stand-down” events in November 2015 and in February to contact veterans with urgent health care needs, and to reduce the number of about 80,000 veterans who had been waiting more than 30 days for urgent care. Dr. Shulkin said 93 percent of those veterans were contacted. Mr. Miller said the agency is manipulating its data to make its performance appear better than it really is. “Instead of considering a veteran’s wait time to be from the date when the veteran first contacts VA to request an appointment to when the appointment takes place, VA considers a veteran’s wait time to be from the date when the veteran wants the appointment to occur to the date when the appointment actually occurs,” the lawmaker said. “The obvious result of VA reporting only a portion of veterans’ actual wait times is artificially low results. I still do not understand a culture that persists in presenting inaccurate data.”
Did Wurtsmith Air Force Base cause health woes? (Military.com)
For years, Tammy Dumaresq and her family spent time at a family cabin on Alvin Road, about 2 miles from the now-shuttered Wurtsmith Air Force Base, swimming nearby in the pond created by the Foote Dam. In 1991, Dumaresq and her family moved to Oscoda, just a few miles from picturesque Lake Huron. “That was part of the reason to come to town, because the house values dropped after the base closure and made it so affordable,” she said. Both Dumaresq’s son, who was a year old when they moved to the area, and a daughter born in 1997, were later diagnosed with problems with their thyroids, glands in the neck that secrete important hormones related to growth and metabolism. Dumaresq said her daughter was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune disorder causing chronic inflammation and ultimate failure of the thyroid gland. “The doctors said both of their thyroids were fried out,” she said. A definitive source of their illness remains a mystery. But Demaresq, along with former Wurtsmith personnel and other current and former neighbors of the base, say they have a prime suspect for the health ailments they have endured over the years: As area residents now are forced to seek alternative water supplies and uneasily await a resolution to the latest discovery of groundwater contamination emanating from the former air base about 170 miles north of Detroit, some are wondering whether the base’s toxic history is the source of their current health problems. The most recent revelation about the contamination at Wurtsmith, which closed in 1993, is that perfluorinated chemicals, or PFCs — a legacy of firefighting foam used at the base for many years — have migrated from groundwater under the base to pollute nearby residential wells. Last month, the local health department suggested residents near the base with elevated levels of PFCs in their wells find an alternative water source as a precautionary measure, as the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Air Force continue to test the scope and severity of the spreading contamination. The DEQ also issued an advisory against eating fish caught in nearby ponds or the nearby section of the Au Sable River because of PFC contamination in 2012. But that’s just the latest in a history of harmful surface and groundwater pollution at the base that goes back decades. In the 1990s, trichloroethylene, or TCE, a solvent used to clean airplanes, also was found in the base’s water wells. Both TCE and PFCs have been found in scientific studies to potentially affect thyroid function. And when a state Department of Health and Human Services official mentioned last month that PFCs can affect the thyroid, “I felt like, ‘There is finally an answer,'” Dumaresq said. But getting conclusive proof of a link between their ailments and the water contamination at the base has been problematic because no one at the federal or state level has ever done what it would take to answer that question: comprehensive health surveys and scientific research on the health condition of Wurtsmith base veterans and their families, and those who live or lived close by. … In January 1994, the EPA moved to add Wurtsmith to its National Priorities List, essentially making it a Superfund site — the worst of the worst, most problematic contaminated sites in the U.S. The base was evaluated by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, or ATSDR, created by Congress in the Superfund law with a mandate to conduct a public health assessment for every site on the priorities list. … When asked why no health studies have been conducted with former base residents or those living nearby, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Jennifer Eisner noted that as a federal facility, it is the Air Force and ATSDR’s purview to provide public health evaluations. She cited the agency’s 2001 reports and added, “The ATSDR’s Public Health Assessment did not recommend a health study at the time.”
Filipino WWII veterans advocate falls to cancer (NBC News)
Jesse Baltazar survived the Bataan Death March, but he didn’t live to see the day when his fellow Filipino World War II veterans would overcome the Rescission Act of 1946. On Tuesday, Baltazar, one of the nation’s leading advocates for the full recognition of Filipino World War II veterans, will be put to rest at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. A retired U.S. Air Force major, Baltazar, of Falls Church, Virginia, had looked forward to April and the 74th anniversary commemorating the Bataan Day of Valor in Washington, D.C., but his long battle with lung cancer forced him to miss this month’s wreath ceremony. He was hospitalized and died on April 12 at the age of 95. Baltazar was the first Philippine-born officer to be commissioned in the U.S. Air Force and served in World War II, as well as the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Prior to his Air Force duty, Baltazar was one of the first Filipino nationals who answered the call of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to serve in the United States Army Forces in the Far East. Baltazar was a prisoner of war of Japan when the Americans surrendered on April 9, 1942. … Only in January 2015 was Baltazar finally recognized with a Purple Heart. But the fight for glory and valor was not as important as his other passion — the restoration of equity pay and benefits stripped of Filipino veterans of World War II by the Rescission Act of 1946. Though Baltazar received his full U.S. Air Force military retirement pay, since 1946 he had been denied his full pay and benefits for his World War II service in Bataan. “He was affected by the Rescission Act because his war injury entitled him to only half of what his American counterparts received,” Eric Lachica of the American Coalition for Filipino Veterans told NBC News. “He disliked that the Rescission Act deemed his comrades in World War II service as ‘not active’ for purposes of benefits.” “I was outraged that we were not treated right,” Baltazar said in his testimony. Only after documentation fights with the Department of Veterans Affairs was Baltazar able to prove his World War II service and gain the lump sum payment given to many Filipino World War II veterans in 2010. But he never stopped fighting for others who were less fortunate. In his 2014 testimony, Baltazar spoke about how thousands of veterans were still being denied compensation because of incomplete and inaccurate records in the U.S. and the Philippines. Baltazar called what happened to Filipino fighters after 1946 an “injustice,” and urged Congress to honor their claims. He singled out fellow veteran Celestino Almeda, who waits for a resolution to this day. Baltazar is survived by his wife Margrit; three sons, Thomas, Phillip, and Melchior; and two daughters, Katherine and Susan.
Wisconsin town building ‘tiny homes’ for homeless vets (TMJ4)
An effort underway in Racine, Wisconsin, is hoping to end homelessness among the community’s military veterans. Jeff Gustin, of Veterans Outreach of Wisconsin, said his organization is hoping to build 15 “tiny houses” that vets who are homeless can move into while getting back on their feet. Gustin said the group is still identifying a property for the project, which will likely be located near downtown Racine. The first tiny house being constructed is about 80 percent complete, he said. According to Gustin, the total cost of the project will be in the neighborhood of $125,000. That includes the purchase of the land as well as the building of the tiny houses and a community area/center with gathering space, a cafeteria and showers. “Nobody should be homeless in our country,” Gustin said. “Especially not someone who put on a uniform to serve our country.” Gustin said Veterans Outreach of Wisconsin is currently raising money for the project. He said each tiny house costs about $5,000 to build with donated materials and labor. Gustin said the goal is to have five of them finished in time for winter. Tim Shea, of Van’s Electric in Racine, is donating his time to help out with the construction. Shea said he’s a veteran himself, having served in the U.S. Marines. “It’s a great feeling. When I was young and in the service people took care of me,” Shea said. “So now it’s my turn to give back and help others.” Racine Mayor John Dickert said he’s only aware of two homeless veterans in the city. But he said the 15 tiny homes, when completed, can help house homeless veterans from around the county. Dickert said many such vets pass through the community while traveling between temporary accommodations in Milwaukee and Chicago. “This is a project that helps us with the transitional veterans, the ones that are moving around and not settling down somewhere,” Dickert said. “We send these people off to war and then, often, we almost forget about them when they come back home,” the mayor said. “They’ve served us. Now it’s our time to serve them.” Gustin said the goal is for veterans who move into the tiny houses to stay there for up to two years. They’ll be paired up with resources like financial advice, access to their veterans’ benefits, and even alcohol or drug addiction counseling when needed. “We’re going to bring everything to the grounds to help them in any way they may need,” he said. Gustin said the goal is for the veterans to eventually move out with stable jobs and into homes of their own.