April 5 Veterans News

April 5 Veterans News

VetsHQ News UpdateVA formally proposes new limits on appeals rights for its executives (The Washington Post) Senior executives at the Department of Veterans Affairs overseeing health care programs could appeal disciplinary actions against them only through internal department channels, under a formal proposal the department has sent to Congress. While other VA executives still could bring appeals to the Merit Systems Protection Board, that adjudicatory agency would have to give more deference to the department’s decisions, under the proposal. The proposed bill, first reported by the Government Executive site, is the latest in a series arising from the scandal over appointment scheduling and patient care at VA—and is less sweeping than an earlier “discussion draft” from the department. A law enacted two years ago in the immediate wake of those disclosures limited the appeal rights for VA’s Senior Executive Service members, the layer between political appointees and mid-level managers. Compared with federal employees in general, they have a shorter notice period and less time to file an appeal. Also, the discipline stands if the hearing officer does not issue a decision overturning it within 21 days, and there is no right of further appeal to the three-member merit board and then into federal court. Despite those limits, the MSPB—which functions like an internal government court system—recently overturned the department in three highly publicized cases, one a proposed firing and two proposed demotions. In reaching those decisions, the MSPB applied its general principles for judging whether disciplinary actions are reasonable in light of the circumstances, and noted that the 2014 law barred it from imposing a lesser penalty for VA executives as it can for other employees–leaving an all or nothing choice. In a cover letter accompanying the latest proposal, the VA Secretary Robert McDonald did not specifically refer to those cases but said the department’s effort to improve service to veterans “is dependent upon the career VA leaders who provide executive level leadership for VA’s health care facilities and programs. … Under the proposal, senior executives responsible for health-care programs—the majority of the roughly 360 senior executives at the department–would be put under a separate body of personnel laws called Title 38 that applies to VA physicians, dentists and other medical professionals. That would allow the department to pay salaries above the SES pay cap, currently $185,100, but also allow appeals of discipline only to internal agency review boards. The earlier discussion draft would have applied those changes to all VA senior executives. Meanwhile, other VA executives could continue to appeal to the MSPB but those appeals would be heard directly by the three-member merit board, rather than by a hearing officer. The board would have to issue a decision within 30 days and would have to “defer to agency actions that are supported by substantial evidence, lawful, and within the tolerable bounds of reasonableness,” according to a summary of the impact. “Substantial evidence” in turn would be defined as what “a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion, even though other reasonable persons might disagree.” The measure also would allow the MPSB to reduce the penalty imposed by the department in certain circumstances. Jason Briefel, acting president of the Senior Executives Association, said that the association is studying the bill. … The proposal comes as Congress is working to revamp and update the 2014 law, which addressed numerous issues beyond executive appeals rights.

VA approves pilot program to address scheduling, service issues (Bismarck Tribune)
The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs agreed to develop and implement a pilot project over the next 30 days at the Fargo VA Medical Center to address bureaucratic delays and confusion that veterans have experienced in North Dakota when trying to schedule appointments, Sen. John Hoeven announced Tuesday. The announcement follows a roundtable Friday in Fargo with officials from the VA and Health Net. “It is imperative that we provide timely access to the health care our veterans have earned and deserve,” Hoeven said in a press release. “We have reached an agreement between the VA, the Fargo VA Medical Center and Health Net to implement a pilot project over the next 30 days that aims to address the serious scheduling issues our veterans and their health care providers have faced.” Hoeven also introduced a bill that would eliminate paperwork and extensive reporting requirements that make it difficult to contract with the VA. Last week, he met with nursing home directors in Bismarck to discuss the Veterans Choice Improvement Act, which would increase veterans’ access to long-term care facilities in rural and urban communities. The pilot program in Fargo will be developed and implemented within 30 days, and it will be ongoing thereafter pending evaluation.

Cheyenne VA sees reforms after confirmed appointment manipulation (Wyoming News)
Almost two years after launching an investigation, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has concluded that staff at the VA Medical Center in Cheyenne, Wyoming, deliberately misrepresented wait times for veterans seeking medical appointments. In an April 1 report, the VA’s Office of Inspector General found that a manager in the local hospital’s business office canceled and rescheduled veterans’ appointments, “thereby making the reported wait times of veterans to appear to be less than they actually were.” The practice is believed to have run from 2011 to mid-2013 at a time when VA medical centers were trying to meet a mandated 14-day maximum wait time for veterans seeking appointments. The investigation was launched in June 2014 following the discovery of a June 19, 2013, email written by a local medical center program coordinator that “appeared to articulate a method of ‘gaming’ the scheduling system” in order to meet the 14-day timeframe. The investigation initially focused on a multi-specialty outpatient clinic administered by the hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado. But it grew to implicate staff in Cheyenne as well. According to the Office of Inspector General’s report, investigators spoke with the program coordinator who wrote the June 19 email. He told them a manager at the Cheyenne VA business office – a woman unnamed in the report – had instructed him to cancel appointments and reschedule them for the same date and time. That made it appear the 14-day maximum wait period was being met. The business office manager also was interviewed by investigators. At one point they tried to get her to explain some entries pertaining to scheduling that were cited by a former lead medical support assistant in August 2012. “When asked if she thought this was a manipulation done solely for the sake of getting to the 14-day number, she responded, ‘Yes,’” the report reads. She also agreed when asked by investigators if she believed such actions amounted to “‘gaming’ the system.” But she denied being instructed to do so by anyone higher up in local hospital administration, nor was she aware of any specific disciplinary actions for failing to meet the 14-day appointment limit. Samuel House is a spokesman for the Cheyenne hospital. He said the report was long anticipated, but both Cheyenne and the national VA have been working to address the problem since the investigation was launched. “We didn’t wait for it to come out before we started making changes,” House said Monday. First, House said that while the final report did not find evidence that the manipulation was coming from further up the chain of command, six medical center employees were implicated in the scheme. … He also said the system has since changed so its scheduling goals are more manageable, and there are now enough staff to meet those goals. … Today, he said, the goal is to meet a veteran’s appointment needs within 30 days. House added that’s easier now, thanks to the hiring of 13 more physicians and 59 more nurses at the medical center and its clinics.

Utah congressmen call for more veteran resources in Northern Utah (KUTV)
Utah veteran advocates have been calling for more mental health services in Northern Utah. Now they’re getting some help from Utah’s Congressional delegates. An estimated 45,000 veterans live north of Salt Lake County. Many of them are forced to commute to Salt Lake City for mental health treatment, which means, by choice, some vets go without. “I’m aware of a number of guys that go down to vet centers for counseling and the more convenient you can make it, the better off its going to be. No doubt about it,” says Terry Schow, National Executive Committee member of the American Legion and an outspoken advocate for Utah veterans. Schow has been pushing Congress and Veteran Affairs officials to establish a veteran’s center in Ogden for 10 years. Currently, there are three veteran centers in Utah: Salt Lake City, Provo and St. George. The offices are typically located in strip-malls, where veterans can discreetly pop-in for a visit with mental health professionals, trained to help with difficulties that come after returning from military service and war. “If they’re feeling depressed or concerned they can go in and talk to someone,” says Schow. “I’ve seen 30, 40, 50 years then all of a sudden something will trigger it. They need that mental health counseling and it’s okay to get that counseling.” In 2012, Utah Congressmen sent a letter to the former Secretary of Veteran’s Affairs, Eric Shinseki. Last month, Senators Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch, along with Rep. Rob Bishop, followed-up with the new administration, by sending a letter to active secretary, Robert McDonald.

Florida bill aims to give vets credit for experience in the military (WCTV)
With around 1.5 million veterans calling the sunshine state home, Florida continues to make its claim as the most veteran friendly state in the country. Now, Governor Scott has signed a bill that aims to help expand college opportunities for military men and women in the state. It started at sea. Veteran Adam Cerullo found his love for helping others while working as a physical therapy assistant while in the Navy. “Unfortunately, a lot of the programs that the military has for training do not roll into the civilian sector equally as far as licensures,” said Cerullo. So 45-year-old Cerullo is back in school at Tallahassee Community College in hopes of starting a new career. He say’s it’s not as tough as the military. “I know how to prepare, I know what I need to do, I know what I need to do to get that good grade,” he said. Now lawmakers want to make it easier for veterans to earn college credit. Lawmakers passed and the Governor signed a bill that would give credit for more exams military men and women take while in uniform. “There’s no boundary when you put on the uniform in the United States of America, you’re an American soldier, sailor, marine, airmen, or coast guardsman. You serve the nation, and that benefit that you earn should be something that goes from one state to the other,” said Retired Colonel Mike Prednergast, the outgoing Secretary of the Department of Veteran’s Affairs. The bill also expands the in state tuition waiver to more veterans. Cerullo hopes it’ll create more opportunities for those who served. “I’m just so glad that Florida is able to help recognize a lot more of the training that the veterans have already gone through,” he said. The law goes into effect July 1st.

Veterans Choice now giving Texas vets more healthcare options (KXAN)
Access to health care has become a bigger challenge for veterans nationwide. In Texas, some veterans wait months to schedule an appointment through the VA system. Seton Healthcare Family, one of the largest health care providers in Central Texas, is now taking on the Veterans Choice Program. The program debuted in 2014 to help reduce delays by scheduling appointments with private facilities when the VA couldn’t provide treatment quickly. … The Veterans Choice Program received a lot of criticism shortly after it started; with some saying the program hasn’t resolved the backlog of veterans waiting to get care. Despite the challenges, Seton Healthcare Family has decided to opt into the program. Garza said Seton hopes to lead the charge for other health care systems to do the same across the state, but some veterans are saying it may be too late. … The Veterans Choice Program was created by Congress as a three-year pilot program, ending in the the fall of 2017. Since the program started, the VA reports that more than 21,000 appointments have been made using the choice program. Texas is the second highest state for veterans needing medical appointments. In order to qualify for the program veterans must live more than 40-miles driving distance from a VA facility or are unable to schedule an appointment within 30 days.

Veterans support center opens Wednesday in Franklin, New Jersey (New Jersey Herald)
The grand opening of the Kosa Veteran Support Center will be held Wednesday with Rep. Scott Garrett attending the 10 a.m. ribbon-cutting ceremony. The center is located at 48 Wyker Road, and the ceremonies will feature Frank Quadrino, community outreach manager for the VA New Jersey Healthcare System, who will discuss benefits available to veterans. Two seminars, one at 3 p.m. and a second at 6:30 p.m., will instruct veterans on how to access and navigate through the Veterans Administration system and will include information on benefits available to widows and dependents of veterans. There will also be discussion of homecare and adult day care benefits. State Sen. Steve Oroho and state Assembly members Parker Space and Gail Phoebus, all from the 24th District, and Franklin Mayor Nicholas Giordano have also been invited to attend the opening ceremonies. Sussex County Clerk Jeff Parrott will be available to pre-screen veterans on what they will need to receive a veterans ID card which provides many business and service discounts, not only in Sussex County, but at locations across the country. The center also is home to the Veterans’ Clothing Closet which has new and slightly used clothing available. Zufall Health, a new medical and dental clinic in Newton, will have its dental van at the center for the opening day and will offer free dental check-up to all veterans. Appointments for the exam are available by calling Jim Mastrangelo at 201-953-0278. The center is named in honor of Lt. Col. (ret.) Ernie Kosa, who served as an Army chaplain from 1952 to 1973, serving in both Korea and Vietnam as well as at posts in other countries and the U.S. When he retired from the Army, he moved to Sussex County and served for 20 years as the county’s mental health, drug and alcohol administrator, as well as serving as interim pastor of several churches in the area. The center is sponsored by the Catholic Family & Community Services.

VA will open veterans center in Helena, Montana, in the fall (The Republic)
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says it will open a Vet Center in Helena in the fall. VA officials said in a statement Tuesday that the center will provide counseling to veterans and active-duty military, including National Guard and Reserve personnel, who have served in combat or experienced sexual trauma while in service. It also will provide services to military families, such as counseling for family members of soldiers who died while on active duty. Sen. Jon Tester’s office says vet center services include mental health screenings, suicide prevention, drug and alcohol assistance, employment assistance and education training. The Montana Democrat says the centers play a critical role for military and their families. U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke also praised the VA announcement.

VA to build new primary care facility in Memphis, TN (WREG)
Changes are coming as to where Mid-South veterans can get their medical care. A new facility is set to open in the Nonconnah Commercial Park on Nonconnah Boulevard near the airport. An empty building will be renovated into a primary care facility. “They say I got diabetes now. They checking up on me,” said Sam Taylor Jr., a Marine who served in Vietnam. Taylor is one of the thousands who visit the Veterans Affairs main campus on Jefferson, and he said changes make him uneasy. “It will be a long way for me cause I stay up here on Hollywood then I gotta catch the bus and go down there. Then it takes the bus all day long just to get there,” said Taylor. The VA is releasing few details about the proposed primary care facility. An estimated $2.5 million is expected to be poured into the empty building. “I mean veterans they need the VA, gotta have it,” said Justin Cummings who was visiting the VA Monday. While nationally the VA has faced scrutiny, it’s no secret the Memphis chapter has been under fire too. In January 2015, a report from the Office of Inspector General was released citing the Memphis VA Center for 27 issues including expired medications on crash carts, and for having missing dates and signatures on the daily inspection logs from 2014. In late February of this year William Mills was appointed as the new director because of under performance at the center. While veterans WREG talked to Monday had plenty of frustrations to express, they’re hoping for some good news. “You know there obviously needs to be come big changes. I know they just got a new director and hopefully that’s a step in the right direction,” said Cummings. The VA said they hope to be completed with renovations by late Summer or early fall but no official word yet on when it will open.