April 4 Veterans News

April 4 Veterans News

VetsHQ News UpdateVA still plagued by problems two years after scandal (Washington Times)
If you thought the Obama administration had put its problems with veterans behind it, think again. Two years after the scandal emerged over phony waiting lists for patients at the Department of Veterans Affairs facility in Phoenix, the department is still beset with problems ranging from fresh accusations of falsified waiting lists to a system-wide failure to discipline wrongdoing. “The VA is still struggling with a lack of accountability, an inability to properly manage a budget rapidly approaching $200 billion, and a failure to provide veterans with timely access to care and benefits,” said John Cooper, a spokesman for Concerned Veterans for America. … Employee discipline has become an embarrassment. Even in the rare cases where VA management does punish employees, the agency is being thwarted by union-backed civil service rules. For example, a VA employee in Puerto Rico was reinstated with back pay last month after she was fired upon being arrested for armed robbery. She pleaded guilty, but her union got her job back by arguing in a grievance that a VA manager at the facility is a registered sex offender and another VA hospital manager was once arrested for drunken driving and found in possession of pain pills. In Alexandria, Louisiana, a VA nursing assistant is still on the payroll while awaiting trial on manslaughter charges in the death of a 70-year-old Air Force veteran in 2013. Hospital officials initially called the veteran’s death an accident, but a coroner determined the veteran died from blunt force trauma to the head. House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, Florida Republican, said the case is an example of “VA’s continued and pervasive failure to seriously discipline its employees.” The agency has said civil service rules make it difficult to fire poor-performing employees and has recommended changes to Congress. Mr. Cooper said it’s taken the VA two years to propose firing three senior leaders responsible for the Phoenix VA scandal, “which led to nearly 300 veterans dying waiting for care.” The VA didn’t respond to requests for comment. The agency’s problems go far beyond civil service rules, however. The agency’s inspector general released twelve reports on VA health care systems in Texas last month, revealing that seven of them have scheduling mismanagement that led to extended wait times for veterans. The reports blamed that lack of supervision, poor training of employees and weak management controls for data manipulation. In San Diego, California, the inspector general reported Friday that staff at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center manipulated waiting list data to make it appear veteran patients received mental health care more quickly than they actually did. The report covered fiscal 2012 and 2013. The department’s inspector general told USA Today in February it has investigated 73 VA facilities across the country, and found scheduling problems in 51 cases. But the inspector general still has not released reports with the findings of nearly all those investigations to Congress or the public. In Denver, the VA said it has no plans to punish any other employees over massive cost overruns at the VA medical facility under construction. The executives responsible for the cost of the project rising to $1.7 billion have already left the department, the agency said in an internal review, while three other executives were transferred or demoted. In Jackson, Mississippi, an investigation found that taxpayers are paying millions for VA hospitals to keep health care workers with questionable records on paid leave for years. The Clarion-Ledger reported in February that two surgeons at the G.V. “Sonny” Montgomery VA Medical Center whose annual salaries total more than $500,000 have been on paid leave more than two years. Their salaries count against the Jackson VA’s budget, but veterans receive no care from them. The paper found that 2,560 VA employees spent at least one month on paid leave in 2014, costing taxpayers $23 million — more than any other federal agency. VA Secretary Robert McDonald said the agency is streamlining the administrative leave process so employees can be disciplined more quickly. In Clarksburg, West Virginia, veteran Terry Riley has filed suit against the Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center, alleging that the facility has “a practice of falsifying and reducing emergency room numbers.” His claim accuses the facility’s managers of “utilizing false clinics to enable senior managers to reduce ER visits and receive a high yearly bonus,” against VA policy. The VA last month did take disciplinary action against one notable employee. The agency suspended the head of the Veterans Benefits Administration Danny Pummill for allowing two lower-ranking officials to manipulate the agency’s hiring system for their own gain. Mr. Pummill was suspended without pay — for 15 days. Deputy VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said Mr. Pummill failed to exercise proper oversight as Kimberly Graves and Diana Rubens forced lower-ranking managers to accept job transfers and then stepped into the vacant positions themselves, keeping their senior-level pay while reducing their responsibilities. But Ms. Graves and Ms. Rubens were reinstated last month after administrative judges overturned their firings. The agency reprimanded them and cut their pay by 10 percent. Last week, Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, and Mr. Miller wrote to Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Johnny Isakson, Georgia Republican, to warn that failure of Congress to pass new language allowing the VA to fire corrupt or negligent officials would be a “disservice” to the nation’s veterans. They urged him to consider Mr. Miller’s bill, which would expand the agency’s authority to fire employees. … Some veterans groups are concerned that the VA’s problems are getting less attention during the presidential election year.

Veterans groups criticize secret proposal to end VA healthcare (Military.com)
Several of the largest veterans’ service organizations in the US are criticizing a proposal drafted in secret to shut down veterans’ hospitals and clinics across the country and turn over veterans health care to the private sector. The proposal was circulated outside the normal process by several members of a congressionally mandated Commission on Care created to study how VA will provide health care over the next couple of decades. “We are greatly alarmed by the content of the ‘proposed straw man document’ that was developed and drafted outside the open Commission process by seven … of the fifteen members — without the input or even knowledge of the other Commissioners,” states the letter to the panel’s chairwoman, Nancy Schlichting. It was signed by the heads of Veterans of Foreign Wars, The American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America, AMVETS, Military Order of the Purple Heart, Vietnam Veterans of America, and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. The 34-page proposal would privatize veterans’ health care and completely eliminate the Veterans Affairs Department health care facilities over the next 20 years, they said. The proposal also calls for an immediate halt to new VA construction and for a “BRAC-like process” to begin shuttering existing hospitals and clinics, referring to the Pentagon’s base realignment and closure process. The department’s future role would essentially be to pay the bills of veterans getting care in the private sector. Schlichting, chief executive officer of Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, had previously warned commission members against recommending a “payor-only” role for VA. The VSO chiefs said what is “most unsettling about the [recommendation] is the utter lack of consideration that veterans would want to improve and expand the VA health care system. There is also no discussion of how this proposal would affect the coordination of care, the quality of medical services and the health outcomes of veterans.” Instead, the document simply asserts that “the current VA health care system is seriously broken and … there is no efficient path to repair it” without backing up the assertion, the chiefs wrote. Commissioners behind the straw man document are David Blom, former president of OhioHealth’s central Ohio hospitals; Dr. Toby Cosgrove, chief executive officer of The Cleveland Clinic; retired Rear Adm. (Dr.) Joyce Johnson, formerly with the US Public Health Service and a former surgeon general of the US Coast Guard; Darin Selnick, the Senior Veterans Affairs Advisor for Concerned Veterans for America; retired Marine Gen. Martin Steele, associate vice president for Veterans Research, executive director of Military Partnerships, and co-chair of the Veterans Reintegration Steering Committee at the University of South Florida in Tampa; Dr. Marshall Webster, senior vice president of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center; and retired Marine Corps Maj. Stewart Hickey, national director of AMVETS and former CEO for the Hyndman Area Health Center, Pa. Five of the seven commissioners backing the shutdown of VA health care are Republican appointees, including all three named by former House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio before he resigned last year. Concerned Veterans for America, the group advised by Selnick, is a lobbying group largely funded by the billionaire Koch brothers that seeks to cut budgets and responsibilities of the VA.

Marco Rubio has a new plan to purge the VA of ‘corrupt and incompetent’ employees (Military Times)
Senate negotiators are expected this week to unveil new employment rules for senior executives at the Department of Veterans Affairs, but a pair of prominent lawmakers already want the law to go even further. House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and former presidential hopeful Marco Rubio, R-Fla., have teamed up in recent days to lobby for a pair of pending bills that would speed the process for firing any VA employee, calling them common sense reforms needed to fix the department’s woes. “Almost every day Americans are reminded that the federal civil service system is designed to coddle and protect corrupt and incompetent bureaucrats rather than facilitate a fair and efficient climate of accountability,” the two said in a statement last week. “Nowhere is this more visible than the Department of Veterans Affairs. VA’s inability to hold problem employees accountable is at the root of all of the department’s most serious problems.” The plan has proven controversial with congressional Democrats and union supporters, who argue the lawmakers are trying to undo fair employment laws. The legislation has already passed the House but stalled in the Senate. The latest push to renew the proposal comes as Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., prepares to offer a sweeping veterans omnibus bill in coming days, including new employment rules governing senior VA executives. Those changes are already controversial without the Miller and Rubio plan. The Senior Executive Association has already called the proposed changes — which would allow VA leaders to offer more hiring and employment flexibility but dismiss managers without any outside appeal — a scapegoating move that will hurt experienced supervisors without fixing any problems. But VA leaders have pleaded with lawmakers for the change in executive employment rules, even though Congress updated them less than two years ago. VA Secretary Bob McDonald has argued the more flexible standards will allow him to run the department more like a business and less like a government bureaucracy. VA officials haven’t offered the same support for the Miller-Rubio plan. But several prominent veterans groups have, and the plan was included in early drafts of the omnibus negotiations. It has not been in the more recent discussions. … The measure is one of more than 20 veterans-related bills which have passed the House but stalled in the upper chamber in recent months. Isakson has not indicated which will be included in his final omnibus proposal, beyond promising there will be accountability provisions in the bill. Both Miller and Isakson have said they hope to have the veterans omnibus passed through Congress and to the president before Memorial Day. It remains to be seen whether the accountability fight derails that timeline.

Enewetak Atoll cleanup vets hope long-shot ‘atomic veteran’ bill becomes law (Stars and Stripes)
Congress is considering a bill that would create a special “atomic veteran” designation for the men and women who worked to clean up nuclear waste from a South Pacific atoll nearly 40 years ago, a move that Maine veteran Paul Laird says was a long time coming. But Laird, a 59-year-old from Otisfield who served with the U.S. Army’s 84th Engineer Battalion on Enewetak Atoll and who is a three-time cancer survivor, said that the bill has only a slim chance of becoming law — and that is not acceptable to him. As of now, only 30 co-sponsors have officially signed on to the bill, which is a number the Mainer said does not seem like enough. “We are not seeing people jump up and down to get onboard,” he said earlier this month. “We’re a little disappointed. We’re trying however we can to get the word out, but people just don’t seem to think it’s very important.” The bill, H.R. 3870, is called the Atomic Veterans Healthcare Parity Act, and was introduced last November by U.S. Rep. Mark Takai, D-Hawaii. It was referred to the House subcommittee on health on Nov. 6 and has not advanced any farther on its legislative path. The website GovTrack.us, which follows Congress, only gave the bill a 5 percent chance of getting out of committee and a 1 percent chance of being enacted into law. Veterans such as Laird and Jeffery Dean of Belfast want to be designated as so-called atomic veterans so that if they are diagnosed with one of several specific cancers or nonmalignant conditions they can be entitled to compensation or free medical care through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. With this designation, they would not have to prove their cancers were caused by radiation and would likely have an easier time getting a disability rating from the VA. Laird and Dean were among approximately 6,000 American soldiers tasked with rehabilitating the atoll between 1977 and 1980 before it was returned to the people of the Marshall Islands. The tiny island was the scene of more than 40 nuclear tests from 1948 to 1958, and when the two Mainers were among those told to clean it up with little protective gear, they believe they became contaminated with radioactive dust. … Although the VA could on its own grant what the Enewetak Atoll veterans are asking, so far the agency has not indicated there is a lot of interest in doing that. Last year, a VA spokesperson told the BDN that the agency does not have any data indicating veterans should be concerned over radiological safety and that radiation exposures were “as low as reasonably achievable.” Members of Maine’s congressional delegation reached on Wednesday said that they believe the veterans should be helped. U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree has signed onto the bill as a co-sponsor and will be added to the official list of co-sponsors when Congress goes back into session next month, according to Willy Ritch, her spokesman. On Wednesday, Ritch said it is impossible to predict the passage of legislation. … U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin said on Wednesday that he has made it a priority to help ensure that veterans are fully supported in every capacity. … U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King issued a joint statement Wednesday, saying they planned to look closely at the proposed House legislation.

Mindfulness training may treat veterans with PTSD (Tech Times)
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the scourge of the veterans, is a real illness. Seemingly without an off-switch, it can replay terrible thoughts and memories over and over again in the patients’ minds. Mindfulness – a mind-body technique focusing on in the moment attention and awareness – offers a ray of hope to PTSD sufferers, with a new study showing how it could change veterans’ brains and help them find the off-switch to that endless loop of negative memories. Researchers from the University of Michigan Medical School and VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System studied 23 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan wars. They split them into two groups assigned to different forms of therapy: nine participants received regular therapy such as problem solving and group support, while 14 of them were given mindfulness training. The mindfulness group saw greater improvements in symptoms through decreased ratings on the standard PTSD scale. While many reported easing symptoms, the mindfulness group revealed surprising brain changes. “The brain findings suggest that mindfulness training may have helped the veterans develop more capacity to shift their attention and get themselves out of being ‘stuck’ in painful cycles of thoughts,” says Anthony King, the study’s lead researcher. Before the mindfulness practice, the veterans’ brains had excess activity in regions involved in threat or external stress response – signifying the endless loop of thoughts in PTSD. However, based on functional MRI results after they learned mindfulness, their brain networks, those involved in thoughts and that of directing and shifting attention, developed stronger connections. At the end of the two-hour, weekly mindfulness course for four months, the mindfulness group showed increased brain connections, particularly the area leading one to purposely move attention to think or act upon something. Those with the greatest relief grew the most brain connections. These findings, said King, offers the potential to help PTSD patients who might initially reject therapy that involves trauma processing, allowing them to regulate their emotions and better process their traumas. … King reminded, however, not to use mindfulness in isolation and to seek out providers specially trained in PTSD management. Mindfulness sessions, for instances, can sometimes trigger a flare-up of symptoms, making trained expertise necessary. The findings were published in the journal Depression and Anxiety. Among Iraq War veterans alone, 11 to 20 percent are afflicted with PTSD symptoms every year, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. These include concentration problems, extreme sensitivity to all sounds, nightmares, fear, and disorientation. A study in the Netherlands in 2015 warned that PTSD can exhibit a spike of recurrence even five years after soldiers returned home from being deployed in Afghanistan, making long-term recurrence a more critical aspect of care.

Iraq veterans strive to be first combat amputees to climb Everest (Stars and Stripes)
Chad Jukes lost part of his right leg after a roadside bomb explosion in Iraq in 2006. The same happened to Thomas Charles “Charlie” Linville when he was a Marine in Iraq in 2011. Now Jukes, a former Army reserve staff sergeant, and Linville want to defy their disabilities in the most extreme way — by climbing the highest mountain in the world within the next two months.  They could be the first combat amputees to reach that summit. … The men are part of two separate teams climbing for two different veterans support organizations. Both climbing parties are taking the less-traveled northern route to the summit out of Tibet and will likely come in contact with each other. That route has a soaring final approach to the top that keeps climbers in the so-called death zone more than 26,000 feet high for up to 24 hours or longer — a region where the human body can no longer acclimate and begins to decline. It will be Linville’s third attempt to climb the 29,029-foot mountain with a veterans organization called The Heroes Project. The former Marine attempted in 2014, but climbers were pulled off the mountain after an avalanche killed 16 Nepalese guides. Linville tried again last year, but the season was canceled after an earthquake struck Nepal, killing 8,000. In January 2011, Linville was a member of a Marine bomb-disposal unit working in Afghanistan when he stepped on a buried explosive. After a series of surgeries to deal with his damaged right leg, the limb was amputated below his knee in 2013. He and Jukes don’t know each other, though they wish each other well. But the circumstance of two separate efforts to put the first combat amputee at the top of Everest has raised criticisms. Tim Medvetz, who founded The Heroes Project in 2009 to help combat amputees by working with them to climb difficult mountains, says the group sponsoring Jukes’ climb, U.S. Expeditions & Explorations (USX), is trying to “steal Charlie’s thunder.” The co-founder of USX, Army 2nd Lt. Harold Earls, who said he came up with the idea independent of The Heroes Project efforts to climb Everest, denies this and says he hopes to link up with Medvetz and Linville during the climb. “There’s no point in having a group of veterans not working together,” Earls said, 23, from Cumming, Ga. He said the key focus of the USX effort is to raise awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide in the Army. Nearly 270 active-duty servicemembers killed themselves last year, continuing a trend of unusually high suicide rates that have plagued the U.S. military for at least seven years, the Pentagon reported Friday. … USX’s goal is similar to The Heroes Project. USX works to assemble small teams of veterans and active-duty servicemembers to participate in adventure expeditions to foster teamwork and form lasting bonds that often flow from combat experiences, Earls said. The group has raised $178,000 toward the Everest climb. Earls, Jukes and Ping Medvigy will make the ascent with a guide, three sherpas and climber/filmmaker David Ohlson, who will shoot a documentary. The expedition begins Thursday, and the team hopes to reach the summit the week before Memorial Day.

New Charlotte VA Health Care Center opens this week (The Charlotte Observer)
Sloan Gibson, deputy secretary of Veterans Affairs, will be the keynote speaker at the ribbon-cutting for the Charlotte VA Health Care Center at 1 p.m. Friday. Tours of the new outpatient clinic, 3506 West Tyvola Road, will be available to the public after the ceremony until 3 p.m. The new $104 million, five-story brick-and-glass building, at the intersection of Cascade Pointe Boulevard and West Tyvola Road, opens Wednesday. One of the largest VA health centers in the country, it will offer outpatient services only and become home to some of the doctors and nurses who have been working at the Charlotte VA health center at 8601 University East Drive. The University-area clinic will continue to operate on a scaled-down basis, offering primary care. But veterans who need specialty care will be referred to the new health center, which will offer some new services, such as dialysis, physical therapy and MRI testing.