June 16 Veterans News

June 16 Veterans News


House support key to ending ban on in vitro fertilization for veterans (Stars and Stripes)
Lawmakers and advocates of in vitro fertilization were focused this week on the House, where lawmakers will likely make or break an effort to end on a 24-year ban on providing the procedure to wounded veterans. Supporters scored a key victory when the Senate passed a repeal of the ban last month as part of the annual Department of Veterans Affairs budget bill. But senators on Wednesday began negotiations on a final budget bill with the House, where many conservatives still oppose allowing the VA to provide IVF because it could lead to embryos being destroyed. Two wounded veterans and their wives, with support from the Wounded Warrior Project, made emotional pleas in front of the Capitol on Wednesday and urged House lawmakers to support lifting the ban on the procedure. Earlier this week, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which represents about 1.7 million veterans, sent a letter to lawmakers asking the same. “Like I tell everybody, I’d rather stare my enemy in the face and get blown up again and again than look at the depression and how I failed my wife because I cannot give her the one thing she wants,” said Jeffrey Lynch, an Army veteran from North Carolina who was wounded twice during deployments in 2005-2008. Lynch suffered severe traumatic brain injury and underwent 130 surgeries. He and his wife Christy now have a daughter, after losing a newborn son, and are hoping to have another child. The military gives troops and their families access to IVF treatment, which seeks to fertilize eggs outside the body and can be effective in helping people with spinal, genital, urinary tract and other types of battlefield injuries have children. But the benefit evaporates when servicemembers leave the military. Congress banned the VA from paying for the procedure in 1992 due to beliefs about when life begins and the morality of discarding eggs that have been fertilized by sperm. The Senate and House formed a conference committee Wednesday and sat down to hammer out a final VA budget bill. Committee members will debate and decide whether the repeal of the ban supported by senators in May will remain in a final bill, which must be passed by Congress. The repeal, sponsored by longtime IVF proponent Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., provides $88 million to the VA to cover the procedures for veterans. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., who joined Lynch and has sponsored IVF legislation, called the ban “unconscionable” and challenged fellow House members to justify it. “Come down here meet these families tell them face to face why the government they fought for, they bled for, should not cover the health care they need to start and grow a family,” Larsen said. But the House could be unwilling to go along. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, laid out the chamber’s thinking in April with a bill designed to get around conservative opposition to IVF and the concerns over unused embryos. His legislation proposed a $20,000 special payment to servicemembers who suffer severe injuries that leave them unable to have children. Miller said the money could be used for adoption or in any other way wounded veterans see fit, leaving open the possibility of the payments being used for IVF without explicitly writing it into law. The bill has yet to advance in the House. Wounded veterans are now forced to pay for the fertility procedures – about $10,000 for a single round of treatment that may or may not be successful — from private providers outside of the VA. “We were devastated when we learned that,” said Matt Keill, an Army veteran who was shot in the neck by a sniper in 2007 and left paralyzed. Keill said his family paid $32,000 and went into credit card debt in order to have two children through IVF. Questions over the fairness of the ban have been underscored as troops have returned home from Iraq and Afghanistan with severe injuries from improvised explosive devices. Advocates estimate that several thousand veterans, as well as their families, could benefit from the treatment. “It is unacceptable that these veterans are now required to incur tens of thousands of dollars in debt to start a family or forgo having children altogether simply because VA is prohibited from treating their service-connected infertility,” Robert Wallace, executive director of the VFW’s Washington, D.C. office, wrote Monday to House lawmakers.

Supreme Court rules against VA in disabled vets contract dispute (MilitaryTimes)
The Supreme Court says the Department of Veterans Affairs has failed to comply with a law aimed at increasing the number of federal contracts awarded to small businesses owned by disabled veterans. The justices ruled unanimously on Thursday in favor of Kingdomware Technologies, Inc. The court says the disabled veteran-owned contractor should have been considered to provide services for a VA medical center. Federal law requires the VA to use a bidding process if two or more disabled veteran-owned companies can offer service at a fair and reasonable price. The VA says the “rule of two” doesn’t apply to purchases from vendors that already have contracts with the agency under a system called the Federal Supply Schedule. Justice Clarence Thomas says the rule applies to all contract determinations.

Commentary: Restoring the VA’s promise to veterans (The Hill)
Dan Caldwell, VP of Legislative and Political Action, Concerned Veterans for America: In the two years since news broke that at least 293 veterans died while on wait-lists at the Phoenix VA hospital and thousands more around the country suffered due to misconduct and negligence within the Department of Veterans Affairs’s Veterans Health Administration (VHA), the sad fact is that not much has changed. In fact, the situation is in many respects even worse. Despite countless promises and billions more in taxpayer dollars given to the VA, the excessive delays in treatment uncovered in 2014 have become more prevalent. A NPR news report just revealed that just last month there were 70,000 more patients than last year waiting longer than a month for care. On top of that, medical errors in VA clinics have increased 7 percent over recent years. In the words of an independent assessment conducted for the VA, fixing this will require “no less than a systemwide reworking[.]” The reforms passed to date, unfortunately, have mainly made minor changes without address the underlying problems. But now a real reform plan is under consideration in Congress. U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) has drafted the Caring for Our Heroes in the 21st Century Act. It’s the most serious and comprehensive VA reform proposal in decades. Before this proposal, efforts to fix the VA diagnosed the department’s problems as a lack of money. Yet the VA’s funding is constantly growing, increasing nearly 68 percent between President Obama’s first year in office and 2015. Its 2017 budget, currently awaiting congressional approval, is a record-setting $170 billion. Other policy changes have also come up short. For example, the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act, passed in the wake of the 2014 scandal, expanded veterans’ access to health-care outside the VA — but only if they had already waited too long for care or had to travel too far to receive it. Accordingly, veterans themselves have found these reforms far from helpful. The Caring for Our Heroes in the 21st Century Act is the solution to these problems. In brief, it would: put veterans firmly in control of their own health care at the VA; force the VA to become more patient-centered; and free the VA from the bureaucratic red tape that has stifled reform for years. These goals are similar to the ones identified by the bipartisan Fixing Veterans Health Care Task Force, which brought together a diverse group of respected policy experts, including former legislators and the former undersecretary for the VHA, to analyze the VA’s failings and devise solutions. One of the first changes veterans would notice under this act is true health care choice at the VA. Whenever veterans decide it’s better for them to obtain care outside the VA system — for whatever reason — their benefits will entitle them to it, no questions asked. Veterans who want to continue to use the VA can continue to do so with no additional cost-sharing. And those preferring care outside the VA would receive support to help cover their costs. Another key reform is transforming the current VHA into a government-chartered nonprofit. As it is now, veterans’ health-care often falls victim to centralized government bureaucracy. For example, veterans are waiting endlessly for care at overcapacity and strained VHA facilities, particularly those in Sun Belt states. Yet other facilities, such as those in the Northeast, are comparatively less strained. This is because the VHA lacks the ability to align resources based on actual demand in an efficient way. Giving the VHA more decision-making power would help make it more accountable and responsive to its patients. It would be able to restructure its facilities and align them around where needs are greatest. This also means more leeway to develop new, time and cost-saving information technology, such as smartphone apps that veterans could use to make appointments. One benefit of focusing on efficiency and careful use of resources means that all the reforms of this legislation can be implemented in a fiscally-responsible manner. As we’ve learned time and time again, the VA needs to fix the underlying problems with the services it already provides — not spend more to amplifyfailure. In order for veterans to get the quality, timely care they truly deserve, Congress must modernize the VA. This institution must be sustained for those who need it, but that will first require making it worth sustaining. Today, the VA treats too many men and women like numbers. With the Caring for Our Heroes in the 21st Century Act, it will treat them like heroes.

Top official says Aurora VA hospital 70 percent complete (The Denver Post)
In what was called the biggest construction failure in the Department of Veterans Affairs’ history, the long awaited Aurora hospital project is now 70 percent complete, VA officials said Wednesday. The hospital, which broke ground in December 2011 and has since exceeded costs that could be five times the initial $328 million estimate, has an anticipated construction finish date of January 2018. That date, however, doesn’t account for an “activation period,” which will involve integrating and moving medical and clerical equipment. The VA didn’t specify when the hospital will be open and fully operational as a completed facility. During a news conference Wednesday, VA deputy secretary Sloan Gibson said in the four months since his last visit, he’s “blown away” by the progress he has seen given the issues in the past, chalking up a majority of those issues to design flaws. “It goes without saying, there was quite a bit we didn’t get right here,” Gibson said. “When I see the design elements here, I see dollar signs. I think we could have done this far more efficiently.” Sloan said planning up through 2011 resulted in a “difficult relationship” between contractors, VA organizers and designers which led to “getting a lot of things wrong.” He said since 2014, they’ve been committed to “right their wrongs” with veterans and taxpayers, and to re-establish accountability, referencing the upper-level VA employees who walked away unscathed after an internal investigation from the Administrative Investigative Board. “I was committed that those individuals be held accountable, and I came close to that, but they retired before action could be taken,” Sloan said. The executives found responsible left the agency before the investigation was completed. The findings from the investigative board, which the VA set up to investigate the cause of delays and cost overruns, has been shared with an oversight committee, but will not be made public, Sloan said. He said making those findings public would be “chilling to the whole investigative process,” and would damage a process that can get to the issues at a ground level. However, the results from the second internal investigation from the VA inspector general, its in-house watchdog, will be published. It’s unclear when that investigation will conclude, as Sloan said it is still ongoing. Ralph Bozella, former president of the United Veterans Committee of Colorado, said he’s pleased there’s been more “transparency” with site progress, much more so than prior to 2014. “There cannot be accountability without transparency, and we had no transparency,” Bozella said. “I look at this site and it makes me think of those patients that could spend their last days here, so we have to make sure it’s a nice place.”

Oklahoma City VA hospital making improvements (News9)
Horror stories told by families about veteran health care has haunted VA hospitals for decades. But there are signs things have been improving in OKC. Wade Vlosich took over as CEO of the VA Medical Center in Oklahoma City three weeks ago. He said getting better access to health care, and decreasing wait times are two of his highest priorities. “I think everybody wants to do the right thing. I think we all just need to get in one direction and move forward,” said Vlosich. Jack DeLier is a World War II Veteran who will turn 97-years-old next month. He said his visit to the VA hospital last week, went much better than he would ever have expected. “It was outstanding. I was surprised and enlightened,” said DeLier. Dale Graham is a Vietnam War Veteran who founded “Veteran’s Corner” in Goldsby, 26 years ago. That organization helps veterans file the correct paperwork to get the benefits they deserve. “The VA has been under the gun for the last several years, and they should have been under the gun,” said Graham. However, Graham said the VA’s shortfalls of the past had to do with being overworked and under-staffed more than anything. He said he’s seen a dramatic improvement over the past few years. “Nobody should die waiting on health care,” said Graham. Vlosich said he plans to hire three surgeons in the near future. “We’re looking to expand in any ways that we can in order to meet the needs of veterans,” said Vlosich.

After delaying retirement, VA benefits director leaves (Federal News Radio)
The Veterans Affairs Department is losing another benefits director. Danny Pummill, the VA’s acting undersecretary for benefits, is retiring, the department announced in a release June 16. Pummill had planned to retire at the end of the last year, the release said. But he stepped into the acting undersecretary position at the request of VA Secretary Bob McDonald when the previous benefits director, Allison Hickey, resigned in October. “His hands-on approach of making veterans the center of everything we do is exactly what we are all about,” McDonald said of Pummill. “I am saddened to see him go but deeply appreciate that he agreed to stay on and lead VBA as long as he did.” Acting Principal Deputy Undersecretary Thomas Murphy will assume the position as acting undersecretary for benefits, the VA said. Pummill began his career with the Veterans Benefits Administration in 2010 after 33 years as an enlisted soldier and five years at the Department of the Army as a civilian employee. He previously served as the deputy director for policy and procedures within VBA’s compensation service, before becoming the director of the VBA/DoD program Office and then principal deputy undersecretary for benefits. He oversaw VBA’s electronic claims processing system, which the department said is helping the VA make significant strides in cutting down its backlog of disability claims. The VA ended 2015 with 75,000 unprocessed claims, down from its peak of 611,000 in March 2013. VBA has endured some sharp criticism over the past several years. Previous reports from the VA inspector general said VBA made more than $85 million in payments to veterans who didn’t have the proper evidence to prove they needed them. Most recently, the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs was unimpressed with reports that some documents related to veterans’ claims are getting thrown out at VA regional offices.