After a two-year wait, VA gets a new top watchdog (MilitaryTimes)
Senators confirmed Michael Missal to be the new inspector general for the Department of Veterans Affairs late Tuesday, giving the embattled agency a top watchdog for the first time in 28 months. The evening voice vote came without any discussion or objection. It ends a confirmation process of more than six months for Missal, who drew praise from senators for his background but saw his nomination held up over a series of largely unrelated VA concerns. Missal has previously worked as a senior counsel at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, and has extensive experience with congressional and federal investigations. During his confirmation hearing in November, he promised to focus on issues of fraud and abuse but also “integrity at VA,” given years of scandals and public missteps by the department. Earlier on Tuesday, House Veterans Affairs Committee members questioned why some veterans still face long waits and access problems for medical care, nearly two years after those issues forced the resignation of then VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. VA leaders in recent months have also repeatedly sparred with lawmakers over issues of employee accountability, construction overruns and benefits delivery. Meanwhile, the VA Inspector General’s office — operating without a permanent head since December 2013 — has fielded criticism from Congress for working too closely with VA leaders, and from VA leaders for what they see as exaggerations of minor issues. Missal will step into that fight right away. White House officials said after his nomination that Missal was picked for the post due to his “proven record of expertly leading prominent, sensitive, and extensive investigations.”
Two years after VA scandal, healthcare system still stacked against vets (The Fiscal Times)
Two years after various investigations into the medical network at the Veterans Affairs Department sparked one of the worst scandals of the Obama administration, the agency hasn’t fixed the problems that have plagued its healthcare system. A new Government Accountability Office audit found that the Veterans Health Administration, which spent $58 billion in fiscal year 2014 to provide care to 6.6 million veterans, found that it remains vulnerable to manipulation of patient wait times and wait-time data. Falsified records were at the root of the 2014 wait-time scandal that unearthed widespread fraud throughout the department’s medical system and prompted the resignation of then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. At least 40 veterans died while awaiting care. The VA has taken a “piecemeal approach” to addressing the problems, but the agency must take more comprehensive action to cure its ailments, according to GAO. The independent audit lasted from January 2015 to last month and look at a sample of medical records for 180 veterans newly-enrolled in the VHA system. Schedulers at three of the six medical centers improperly changed dates to the VA system showing shorter or zero wait times, the audit states. Further review of records for 60 veterans at those sites uncovered improper scheduling for 25 percent of the appointments. While the official VA system showed wait times of between four and 28 days, the averages were really between 11 and 48 days, according to GAO. “Until a comprehensive scheduling policy is finalized, disseminated, and consistently followed by schedulers, the likelihood for scheduling errors will persist,” the watchdog stated, chalking up the errors to mistakes and not malicious intent. White House press secretary Josh Earnest admitted that the VA has been scandal-plagued in recent years but that the agency had made progress since the dog days of 2014. “There’s no denying that the problems that the V.A. has encountered for more than a decade now have been deeply entrenched,” he said Monday during a press briefing. “That said, there’s more work that needs to be done.” “There’s nobody right now that’s satisfied,” Earnest added. In a statement, a VA spokesman told The Fiscal Times that the agency agreed with the three recommendations laid out in the audit – including creating a “national scheduling directive” that would consolidate all the tweaks that have been made since to scheduling procedures since the 2014 scandal – and that the department expected to have the fixes in placed by this December.
Military sexual trauma linked to higher risk of homelessness among vets (EurekAlert)
U.S. veterans who screened positive for sexual trauma in the military had a higher risk of postdeployment homelessness, with male veterans at greater risk than female veterans, according to an article published online by JAMA Psychiatry. Military sexual trauma (MST) is defined by the U.S. Department of Veterans of Affairs as “psychological trauma, which in the judgment of a mental health professional employed by the Department, resulted from a physical assault of a sexual nature, battery of a sexual nature, or sexual harassment which occurred while the veteran was serving on active duty or active duty for training.” About 25 percent of female and 1 percent of male veterans report having experienced MST during their military service. The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) started MST screening for all veterans seeking care in any of its medical facilities in 2004. Adi V. Gundlapalli, M.D., Ph.D., M.S., of the VA Salt Lake City Health Care System and the University of Utah School of Medicine, and coauthors used administrative data in their study of 601,892 veterans deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan who separated from the military between 2001 and 2011 and subsequently used VHA services. The average age of the veterans was nearly 39 and most of them were male, white and enlisted in the Army. Veterans are generally screened once for MST when receiving VHA services. The screening is considered positive if a veteran answers in the affirmative to either of the following questions: “While you were in the military … (a) did you receive uninvited and unwanted sexual attention, such as touching, cornering, pressure for sexual favors, or verbal remarks? (b) did someone ever use force or threat of force to have sexual contact with you against your will?” Of 603,495 veterans screened for MST by a VHA clinician, 583,822 screened negative and 18,597 veterans screened positive. Veterans who responded “decline” were excluded from the study sample, according to the study. Among the veterans who screened positive for MST, rates of homelessness were 1.6 percent within 30 days, 4.4 percent within one year and 9.6 percent within five years, which were more than double the rates of veterans with a negative MST screen at 0.7 percent within 30 days, 1.8 percent within one year and 4.3 percent within five years, the results indicate. “A positive screen for MST was significantly and independently associated with postdeployment homelessness,” the study notes. The study also suggests a greater risk for homelessness among men with a history of MST than women. The authors acknowledge limitations to their study, including a reliance on self-reported MST status. Also, because a positive screen for MST is associated with increased service use, there may be more opportunities to detect homelessness among veterans with a positive screen. “In addition to the independent association of MST screen status with homelessness, results from this study indicate that MST status provides clinically important information as an early indicator for adverse postdeployment outcomes. … Future research focusing on the temporal associations among sexual trauma, mental health diagnoses and treatment could yield important information on effective prevention and intervention of postdeployment homelessness,” the authors conclude.
Retired General and wife on mission to prevent suicide (Military.com)
After losing one son to suicide and another to a roadside bomb in Iraq just eight months later, Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Mark Graham implored those gathered inside Central Connecticut State University’s Torp Theatre last week (April 11) to help banish the stigma surrounding suicide and mental illness among veterans and military service members. “What we’re talking about today is a culture change,” said Graham, a retired U.S. Army commander who served for more than 34 years. “We can’t keep that hushed tone when we’re talking about invisible wounds — because they can be deadly.” Kevin Graham, a senior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps cadet, took his own life in 2003 at age 21 after discontinuing his medication used to treat depression, his father said. Graham and his wife, Carol, knew their son was struggling, he told the audience, but he said he didn’t know much about mental illness at the time. “We didn’t know about depression. We had no idea,” he said. “I knew our son Kevin was sad, but I didn’t know he could die from being too sad.” “We did not get our son Kevin the help he needed, and we lost him,” Graham continued. “And we’ll never get him back.” In February 2004, eight months after Kevin’s death, the Grahams’ other son, Jeffrey, was killed outside Fallujah when an improvised explosive device on the side of the road was detonated remotely by a cell phone, said Graham. He compared the deaths of his two boys to seeing the Twin Towers fall in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. “To lose both of our boys was beyond comprehension,” he told audience members, many of whom wiped away tears during Graham’s talk. He urged the CCSU community to “keep talking” about the many challenges that soldiers and veterans face as they re-adjust to civilian life, including post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, mental illness and physical disabilities. He asked audience members to be aware of sudden changes in the behavior of soldiers and veterans they know, and to take action by physically bringing them to someone who can provide help. He also urged veterans to seek help for themselves. “It’s a sign of strength, not weakness, to get help,” he said. At CCSU, there are resources available to student veterans, says Veterans Affairs Coordinator Chris Gutierrez. Mental health clinicians specializing in the care of student veterans are available on campus, he says, and a confidential support group for student veterans meets every Thursday at the university. Last month, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs pledged to take additional steps to reduce suicide among veterans, including adding additional resources to its Suicide Prevention Program and meeting urgent mental health needs with same-day evaluations, along with other initiatives. According to the VA, approximately 22 veterans take their own lives each day in the U.S. Since their sons’ deaths, the Grahams have dedicated their lives to dispelling the stigma surrounding mental illness that they themselves were once a part of, he says. Graham is now the senior director of the Rutgers Behaviorial Health National Call Center, while Carol Graham is involved with the Suicide Prevention Action Network. Their story is also chronicled in the book “Invisible Front: Love and Loss in an Era of Endless War.”
Dying veteran denied VA prescription for marijuana use (Task & Purpose)
Vietnam veteran Gary Dixon was denied prescription medication by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The reason: they found marijuana in his bloodstream. “I went in to get a refill on my pain medication and they refused to let me have it because I have marijuana in my blood,” he told KSNT news station. Dixon is suffering from terminal lung cancer, stage four. As a result, his wife Debbie takes him to the Topeka, Kansas VA for stroke treatment and medication refills. On Sept. 8, 2015, instead refilling his prescriptions however, the VA had him fill out an opiate consent form and take a urine test, which showed he had marijuana in his bloodstream. Exposed to Agent Orange during his time in the service, Dixon admits to smoking marijuana to combat the physical pain and emotional trauma of the Vietnam War. The 65-year old added that he has been using marijuana since 1972. “I have always had marijuana in my blood and will continue to have it in my blood,” Dixon said. Dixon’s case highlights a larger issue with VA guidelines. Under these provisions, veterans can fill out an opiate consent form, which tells them the negative effects of mixing painkillers and marijuana. Though marijuana isn’t federally legal, in 21 states it can be used for medicinal purposes. As a result veterans, have started turning to their states for medicinal marijuana. But for many it comes at the cost of their VA prescriptions for painkillers. USA Today reported that “veterans who have admitted to participating in a state marijuana program say the VA has forced them to choose between their prescription narcotic painkillers — such as Vicodin, Oxycontin and Percocet — or marijuana,” according to Michael Krawitz, president of Veterans for Medical Marijuana Access. While the VA can’t actually take away benefits for marijuana use, it will oftentimes alter medical treatment for veterans by eliminating their access to painkillers until they test negative for it. Krawitz added that when forced to choose, veterans usually pick marijuana. Dixon, like many veterans, said he will continue to smoke marijuana and try instead to find $400 for his monthly painkiller prescription.
Focused networking for veterans (Military.com)
The importance of networking for anyone in the job market cannot be ignored, but there is a right way and a wrong way to network. The right way means that you are prepared and know your goals. The wrong way means you’re taking a scattershot approach that doesn’t lead to lasting relationships and relies heavily on luck. To be an effective, focused networker, consider the following tips:
- Know your goals: Do not get into a conversation with the CEO of your most loved company and find that you cannot articulate what you truly want to do or why you are the best person for the job. Every conversation is potentially a job interview, of sorts, and you have to be ready to give your pitch. If you are not there yet, spend some time soul searching by reading, taking classes, listening to military transition podcasts, and asking questions via informational interviews with people in the industries you are potentially interested in.
- Leverage your connections: Take a break from your normally busy schedule to consider each of your connections and what they have to offer. Can you approach them to be introduced to someone for an informational interview? Remember to consider what type of connection you are reaching out to before asking too many favors, because you do not want to turn them off. However, if you have a rapport, they should have no problem making introductions, at least virtually. It is time to build your network.
- Connect in person: Even if you hate networking and are more networking from your computer, consider breaking through your discomfort by attending a professional happy hour, alumni event, or any other form of in-person networking you can find. If a contact has agreed to share their wisdom with you in an informational interview, offer to buy them coffee or lunch rather than converse over the phone. Making that face-to-face connection is much more likely to leave a lasting impression.
Focused networking is not just a job-search tactic, but a way of life. The best networkers never have to conduct formal job searches, because they are so well-connected and attuned to those connections that opportunities find them. Until this is your situation, keep the above-mentioned tips in mind as you build your network.
Two-day event aids homeless and at-risk veterans in Florida (Tallahassee Democrat)
A coalition of local organizations and businesses is working to ensure that the fourth annual North Florida Homeless Veterans Stand Down will make a difference in the lives of homeless veterans. The event — held 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, and Saturday, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the North Florida Fairgrounds, located on Paul Russell Road — will offer homeless veterans and their families free meals and an array of services, such as wellness screenings, eye exams, counseling, haircuts, issuance of ID cards and educational and employment assistance. Stand Down, a grassroots, community-based initiative led by the Florida Veterans Foundation, attempts to address challenges facing many homeless veterans, including job layoffs, affordable housing shortage, lack of health care and substance abuse. “These hardships, often compounded by a loss of family and social support networks, make the issue of homelessness a difficult social challenge,” said Donna Barron, the organization’s director, in a prepared statement. The foundation needs additional support from volunteers to help run the event, Barron also said. Online registration ended earlier this week, but walk-in volunteers are encouraged to contact the director at (850) 488-4181. Stand Down bolsters a recent effort by the community to address homelessness among veterans. Last year, government officials, the Big Bend Homeless Coalition and other non-profit leaders endeavored to house hundreds of homeless veterans in the area through a project called Zero: 2016. Preliminary figures show their efforts have been largely successful, with dozens of homeless veterans relocated to at least temporary housing programs almost every month. More information about Stand Down can be found online at www.floridaveteransfoundation.org.