June 8 Veterans News

June 8 Veterans News

Three more Phoenix VA officials fired
Three more administrators at the Phoenix VA Health Care System have been fired in the aftermath of investigations that focused on a breakdown in service to veterans and retaliation against hospital employees who tried to report mismanagement and corruption affecting patient care. The Department of Veterans Affairs on Wednesday identified the terminated employees as Lance Robinson, assistant director at the Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center; Brad Curry, the chief of Health Administration Service; and Dr. Darren Deering, the hospital’s chief of staff. According to a VA news release, they were removed for “negligent performance of duties and failure to provide effective oversight.” None of those fired could immediately be reached for comment. They have a right to appeal. “We have an obligation to veterans and the American people to take appropriate accountability actions as supported by evidence,” VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson said in a news release. “While this process took far too long, the evidence supports these removals and sets the stage for moving forward.” The personnel actions come more than two years after whistleblowers and the media exposed a huge backlog in medical appointments, as well as data manipulations that covered up delays in care. Audits and investigations subsequently revealed that the wait-time scandal was systemic throughout the VA. Then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki was forced to resign amid the controversy, which also prompted reform legislation and an effort to overhaul the Department of Veterans Affairs. Until Wednesday, former Phoenix VA Health Care System Director Sharon Helman was the only person fired in connection with the Arizona mismanagement. Helman is seeking reinstatement despite a federal felony conviction. Members of Congress and veterans’ advocates have complained for months that other hospital administrators who were accused of wrongdoing remained on leave, and had not been disciplined or fired. Robinson and Curry were initially suspended in mid-2014 based on Inspector General reports that tied them to the wait-time controversy, and also linked Robinson to whistleblower retaliation. Through legal counsel, he has denied wrongdoing. In January, Robinson’s attorneys demanded that the department either fire him or put him back on the job. A few weeks later, Robinson and Curry were taken off administrative leave and given alternate work assignments pending disciplinary decisions. Two months later, VA headquarters issued termination notices to all three administrators, and Gibson acknowledged their cases had become “a distraction to the progress being made” in Arizona and across the nation. In the news release with Wednesday’s announcement, VA officials included a long list of changes at the Phoenix VA, and nationally. That includes increased staffing, extended hours, outsourcing of appointments and other reforms to speed up and enhance medical care for veterans.

House proposal would give VA hospitals to nonprofit corporation (Stars and Stripes)
The nation’s veterans hospitals would be transferred from the Department of Veterans Affairs to a government-chartered nonprofit corporation under a plan floated Tuesday by a House lawmaker. The proposal unveiled by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., who is the House GOP conference chairwoman, terminates the Veterans Health Administration’s role in hospital care, medical services and other health care and creates a Washington, D.C.-based corporation and board of directors to take its place. Her draft legislation, which was published for discussion and not yet introduced, also creates three new categories of health care coverage, with all new veterans given access to private care. It could be the most profound overhaul in the department’s history and comes as Congress continues to grapple with delays and dysfunction in the VA’s nationwide network of hospitals and clinics more than two years after a scandal over long wait times for care. “With the never-ending wait times and the VA secretary doubling down on his comparison to Disney, the time has long passed for the VA to make the necessary changes to ensure that our veterans are treated effectively, seen efficiently, and cared for with respect,” McMorris Rodgers said in a released statement. “Veterans should be freed from a system that offers them little or no choice.” VA Secretary Bob McDonald caused a furor on Capitol Hill in May when he compared veteran waits at hospitals to lines for amusement rides at Disney parks. At first, he defended the statement but later apologized. McDonald was appointed to fix the VA’s many problems, including bottlenecks for veterans seeking health care, but many lawmakers are getting frustrated by what they see as a slow pace and steady stream of missteps by the department. The VA’s Health Administration now runs more than 1,700 hospitals, clinics and care facilities that serve nearly 9 million veterans. It is the nation’s largest integrated health care system. That health care arm of the VA would turn over its facilities, staff and responsibilities to a newly created Veterans Accountable Care Organization, which would be run by a board of directors including the VA secretary, eight members appointed by Congress, and two members appointed by the president. At least five of the 11 members would be veterans. Meanwhile, all new veterans would be enrolled into VetsCare Choice, which covers private health care, and veterans who are already enrolled in the VA system could opt in or stay with their existing coverage. Veterans older than 65 will be enrolled in coverage that will defray Medicare payments. “With this draft legislation, my goal is for veterans to have the ability to choose what health care plan best fits their individual needs,” McMorris Rodgers said. “This proposal should serve as the starting point for putting veterans in charge of their health care.” The concepts in the bill were partly influenced by the conservative leaning group Concerned Veterans for America, which has been calling for a major overhaul of the VA. The group said it will give all veterans in the VA system the ability to choose where they receive care. “The reality of the VA’s failure is undeniable. The department is not structured to provide timely, sustainable care to veterans, and is in desperate need of ‘system-wide’ reform,” the CVA said in a released statement. Other VA reform efforts are winding their way through the House and Senate. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is pushing to permanently allow veterans to seek health care outside the VA by making the Veterans Choice program permanent. That $10-billion program was created in the wake of the department’s 2014 national wait-time scandal when whistleblowers said veterans were dying while waiting for care. Veterans are eligible for a Choice card if they cannot get a VA appointment within 30 days or live more than 40 miles from a VA facility. It aimed to dramatically increase access to private hospitals and doctors, though the rollout has been rocky and wait times for care can still be long for veterans.

Senate enhances chances of removing certain military discharges (The Detroit News)
The Senate approved Tuesday an amendment to make it possible to remove certain “less than honorable” military discharges for behaviors that are now associated with mental problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder from the records of veterans of wars that have been fought after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks. The amendment directs military Discharge Review Boards to “give liberal consideration to petitions for changes in discharge status to honorable if the service member has PTSD, TBI (traumatic brain injury) or related conditions in connection with their military service.” Veterans who experienced traumas related to sexual misconduct in the military are included in the proposal. The amendment was approved by the Senate on voice vote on Tuesday after it was attached to a defense funding bill that has been dubbed the National Defense Authorization Act. The Senate is expected to pass the broader defense funding measure later this week. Amendment supporters said the approval is a step toward correcting the records of thousands of veterans who have received non-honorable discharges during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars that have been fought since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It would turn into law certain principles that former Obama Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel declared in a memo. “I am pleased that the Senate passed this amendment to support brave men and women who are suffering from mental health trauma experienced during their military service,” said Democratic U.S. Sen. Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township, a former lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve. “This amendment will help ensure veterans are treated fairly when petitioning their discharge status, and in turn, upholds America’s commitment to our men and women in uniform, who answered the call of duty in defense of our nation,” Peters continued. The freshman Michigan senator is the lead sponsor on the legislation to remove the less-than-honorable discharges from the records of post-Sept. 11 veterans with Sens. Steve Daines, R-Mont.; Thom Tillis, R-N.C.; and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. The lawmakers said certain veterans who unfairly receive less-than-honorable discharges from the military have been cut off from benefits such as GI college benefits and Department of Veterans Affairs home loans that are typically given to military members who return home from war. Veterans groups praised the Senate for approving the amendment to change the status of veterans who experience mental traumas in the post-Sept. 11 wars. “Too often, we see our men and women in uniform erroneously receiving administrative discharges as a result of mental health concerns that need treatment, not punishment. And while there have been efforts to correct these wrongful discharges, the Fairness for Veterans Act is needed to continue addressing this issue,” Tom Porter, legislative director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said in a statement.

Montana VA director resigns amid investigation of leadership (Montana Standard)
The director of the U.S. Veterans Affairs’ Montana Health Care system is resigning as the agency conducts an internal investigation into allegations of senior leadership misconduct. John Ginnity (Gih-NET’-ee) wrote in a letter to VA staff Wednesday that his last day will be July 8. His letter did not specify a reason for his resignation, though he said his family and his health are his main priorities. U.S. Sen. Steve Daines’ office released a letter Wednesday from VA Under Secretary for Health David Shulkin that said the agency is investigating allegations of senior leadership misconduct at the Fort Harrison medical center. The letter does not say that Ginnity was a subject of the investigation, and VA Montana spokesman Mike Garcia says Ginnity’s resignation is not related to it.

$275M pledge will fund free mental health facilities for veterans, families (MilitaryTimes)
It took a lot for the Marine veteran who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan early in the wars to walk into the Military Family Clinic at NYU Langone Medical Center for help. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury for more than 10 years without a diagnosis, he sought treatment only after his employer recommended it. As a diplomatic security officer at the United Nations, “Al” was failing to handle ongoing pressures of the job. He asked that his full name not be used to protect his privacy. “I started having problems at work, and I’ve been in treatment ever since,” said the former corporal. “The more you actually start processing everything that you have seen and experienced, the farther along you are on the steps to healing.” The Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at NYU Langone is open to veterans and family members, including spouses, children, parents and significant others, even if their military loved ones refuse to seek treatment. The facility also accepts veteran patients whose other-than-honorable discharges keep them from getting care at a Veterans Affairs medical facility. In the next four years, the network will grow to comprise 25 clinics across the U.S., the vision of billionaire hedge fund manager Steven Cohen, who pledged $275 million in April to fund the project. The goal is to offer free mental health services to veterans, National Guard and Reserve members, families — anyone whose mental wellness has been affected by military service, according to Dr. Charles Marmar, director of the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Veterans Center for the Study of PTSD and TBI. “The need is enormous,” Marmar said. “One in two post-9/11 veterans don’t want to get care at the VA, and many more don’t want to go to the VA for privacy reasons.” An estimated 1 in 5 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have symptoms of PTSD or depression, and more than 327,000 suffered some degree of brain injury. The VA provides mental health treatment and services for affected veterans at its medical centers and clinics as well as 300 Vet Centers. But many veterans, including those with “bad paper discharges,” can’t go to the VA. And Vet Centers, which serve combat veterans, provide limited counseling to family members, primarily offering marriage counseling to spouses. The Military Family Clinics fill the gap, Marmar explained. “We don’t ask any questions about discharge status. The VA has very little flexibility to help those veterans,” he said. Last month, two Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinics opened in Texas — one in San Antonio and the other near Dallas. Later this year, two more, in Los Angeles and Philadelphia, are scheduled to open. The idea is to treat post-9/11 veterans to ward off future health problems that are associated with untreated mental health conditions, such as physical illnesses, substance abuse, unemployment and homelessness. But no one will be turned away, said Anthony Hassan, Cohen Veterans Network executive director. … The VA has been under fire for the past several years for ongoing delays in providing prompt health care to its patients. Increasingly, VA also has been criticized for being unable to treat veterans who were dismissed from the service for misconduct that may be related to undiagnosed combat-related mental health conditions. By law, these veterans with other-than-honorable discharges are ineligible for VA care. But the Cohen Military Family Clinics plan to provide services to this underserved population, Hassan said. … As part of the larger Cohen Veterans Network, Cohen Veterans Bioscience and the Military Family Clinics will work hand in hand to understand patient needs and assess research goals. Patients will be able to to participate in studies run by the research arm but will be under no obligation to do so, according to organizers. Hassan said the Military Family Clinics will offer a variety of treatment and services, including medical care, therapy and counseling.

Knoxville veterans clinic falls short on some required services (Knoxnews.com)
The veterans’ outpatient clinic in Knoxville failed for years to provide patients with access to some mental health specialists and services mandated by the federal government, a new government report concludes. The William C. Tallent Outpatient Clinic delayed providing specialized “peer” support services for mentally ill veterans, failed to immediately follow up on patients discharged from a post-traumatic stress disorder group, and postponed offering required outreach services to incarcerated veterans, according to the inspector general’s office of the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department. The clinic didn’t begin offering the peer support services until June 2013, the report said, even though the VA has required that such individual or group counseling be available at all of its medical centers and large outpatient clinics since 2008. The clinic didn’t make outreach services available to incarcerated veterans until August 2014, even though the VA has mandated them since 2009. The report, released Tuesday, concludes an investigation of the facility that began nearly two years ago. Government inspectors reviewed the clinic’s records and interviewed its managers and administrative staff during a two-day visit to the facility in March 2015. All concerns cited in the report have been addressed, said Dan Snyder, acting director of the Mountain Home VA Healthcare System. The Knoxville clinic is one of nine operated by the system. “I don’t think the report is real timely,” Snyder said. “The things in that (report) that were true are not true today.” The Knoxville clinic now has two specialists providing peer support services, which are designed to help veterans develop skills to manage their recovery, improve their quality of life, support their personal goals and achieve independence, Snyder said. Another specialist at the clinic is responsible for offering direct outreach, assessment and case management for incarcerated veterans in Knox County and surrounding counties, he said. The report noted various reasons for the delays in hiring the specialists. Snyder said providing services has remained a challenge for the Knoxville clinic, which has an enrollment of 18,000 patients and is the largest and fastest-growing of the system’s nine clinics. … The investigation into the Knoxville clinic began in August 2014 at the request of Tennessee’s two U.S. senators, Republicans Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, and U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan Jr., a Knoxville Republican. … The report said inspectors were unable to substantiate some allegations against the Knoxville clinic, including one that the clinic often took three to five days to release to detention facility staff the list of medications for incarcerated veterans.