October 12 Veterans News

October 12 Veterans News


‘Whole bunch’ of facts don’t support Obama’s claim that many VA bosses were fired over scandal (The Washington Post)
The Obama administration seems set on misleading the public about the number of people held accountable for the wait-time scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs. VA Secretary Robert McDonald has twice received Four Pinocchio rulings for claims about how many people his agency fired or proposed disciplinary action against. Obama was responding to a question from the widow of Army veteran Barry Coates, who advocated for changes at the VA before he died of colon cancer. Coates had waited about a year for a colonoscopy at a VA hospital — and by the time he got one, doctors found that he had Stage 4 cancer and was terminally ill. The family later sued the VA over a misdiagnosis of hemorrhoids and reached a settlement. “We heard a lot of promises about reform and accountability but still, nothing’s changed. … When are we going to actually start holding these contracted doctors and the VA employees accountable?” she asked. Was Obama’s answer correct? The VA scandal unfolded in 2014 after whistleblowers alleged that employees at the Phoenix VA hospital manipulated patient wait-time data, leading to delays in access to health care and contributing to patient deaths. The VA Office of Inspector General later confirmed the allegations and found a systemic, years-long problem. Two years later, patients are still unable to get timely appointments with specialists at the Phoenix VA. Congress passed the bipartisan Choice, Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014 in response. The legislation, referred to as the “Choice Act,” allowed more veterans to seek private care outside the VA system, and authorized McDonald to expedite disciplinary actions for senior executive service employees. It was notoriously difficult to fire senior executives at the VA — which terminated executives at one-fourth the firing rate for all federal agencies from 2008 to 2013 — and the goal was to allow the VA chief to replace bad actors quickly, especially ones connected to the wait-time scandal. The White House referred us to VA spokeswoman Victoria Glynn, who said the South Carolina VA medical center has “made significant and sustained improvement in the gastrointestinal department” where Coates had tried to get a colonoscopy. … The VA has terminated more than 4,095 employees since July 29, 2014, when McDonald was confirmed, Glynn said. But that does not capture people in charge of the facilities or people fired because of the wait-time problems. We asked specifically about senior executives fired under the Choice Act firing authority. The VA provided these actions, current as of Oct. 3:

  • Three employees removed.
  • One 15-day suspension.
  • One proposed removal that was reversed.
  • Three employees retired or resigned with disciplinary process pending.
  • Five employees resigned in lieu of an adverse action or before their disciplinary actions took place.
  • Two employees were demoted, but their demotions were reversed by the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board.

That means three senior executives, who fit Obama’s description of being “in charge” of the facilities, were fired after McDonald became secretary. Glynn said the Choice Act firing authority is not the only method for holding people accountable, so we asked how many people were removed with authority other than the Choice Act. We did not receive a response. … As of Sept. 22, the data available at the time of the CNN town hall, the VA had proposed 12 senior executive service employees to be removed or demoted under the Choice Act firing authority. Five were successfully removed. Only one removal, of former Phoenix VA director Sharon Helman, was marked as “a case involving patient wait time.” The VA attempted to discipline Helman for wait-time issues, but she ultimately was fired over failing to report thousands of dollars worth of gifts from a lobbyist. Among non-senior executives, six employees were successfully removed in relation to patient wait times: an associate director, a chief of health administration service, a chief of staff, a medical support assistant, a nursing supervisor and a chief of medical service. That means five of the six fired non-senior employees were in some type of leadership or supervising roles. No matter how many times administration officials try to spin this, the facts just don’t support them. Twice, we awarded Four Pinocchios to McDonald for exaggerating the number of people fired over their actions relating to wait times. This time, Obama said “we have, in fact, fired a whole bunch of people who are in charge of these [VA] facilities.” … Although Obama said he didn’t want to “pretend that we are where we need to be,” he did just that. The VA removed one to six people “in charge” for patient wait-time problems in the past two years. That’s nowhere near “a whole bunch.”

Fewer veterans are starting their own businesses – Here’s why it’s a problem (Inc.)
Entrepreneurship is not an easy path for anyone, but for veterans, it appears to be getting harder. That’s troubling for military-veteran business owners, of course, and for the fellow service members they would hire. But it’s also a big problem for the entire U.S. economy. Last century, a stunning 49.7 percent of World War II vets went on to own or operate a business, according to Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families. Some 40 percent of Korean War veterans did the same–creating millions of jobs along the way. But this century, while the time span has been shorter, the rate of veteran entrepreneurship has been discouragingly low. So far, only 4.5 percent of the more than 3.6 million people who have served in the U.S. military since September 11, 2001, have launched a company, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That amounts to roughly 162,000 veteran-owned businesses and, since the average such company employs about two people, an estimated 324,000 jobs. (About 200,000 people leave the service each month, adding to the ranks of veterans who may become entrepreneurs.) But if this generation were creating businesses at a rate closer to those who came home after Korea, they’d have started about 1.4 million companies already, and that would have created about 2.8 million jobs. “The differences are so stark it’s unbelievable,” says Joseph Kopser, an Army veteran and co-founder of transportation app Ride­Scout. He blames a lack of in-service mentorship for current military members, saying that too many vets now “get a job and settle” rather than launching their own businesses. There are several other explanations for the drop-off too, starting with drastic changes in the economy. Overall rates of entrepreneurship are down across the board. And gone are the days when a returning soldier could easily segue from running a platoon to running an assembly line and then move up through management, along the way gaining the necessary skills to start a business. Those manufacturing jobs have mostly vanished, eliminating what was once an important bridge from the military to the civilian world. While vets tend to be more entrepreneurial than the average person, today’s vets also have fewer resources in some areas than their predecessors did. For example, while this century’s version of the G.I. Bill is considered one of the most generous, it does not provide access to low-interest loans to start a business; the G.I. Bill of World War II did. … Beyond the economic and job-creation problem, the recent decline in new veteran businesses creates a vicious cycle for returning military personnel. Fewer veteran-founded companies means fewer jobs for veterans, and fewer employers who can create the sorts of business and psychological environments most comfortable for those returning from warfare. That means fewer bosses who understand the difficulty of reintegrating after war or the toll of PTSD or more visible war wounds–let alone offer jobs to those suffering from it. In 1996, according to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, vets founded 12.3 percent of all new businesses; by 2014, that number had sunk to 5.6 percent. And those who once served in the armed forces are 30 percent more likely than other employers to hire other veterans, according to a 2012 study from the International Franchise Association. … Todd Connor, a Navy veteran and the CEO of the Bunker Labs incubator for veteran-owned businesses, also says that veterans today may be less well-positioned to do the networking vital to successful entrepreneurship. The draft drew from all segments of society, but in this century’s all-volunteer armed forces, service members are more likely to come from military families. “As a result,” says Connor, “they are increasingly isolated from the vast majority of Americans who will not serve in the military.” That means they lack the outside networks to become successful entrepreneurs, to become role models, “to see that it is even possible for them.” … Despite all of these hurdles, some veterans are leading the entrepreneurial charge–especially over the gender gap. Women vets are starting businesses at rates that far outstrip those of their male peers, civilian and former military alike. Between 2007 and 2012, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, the number of women veteran-owned companies almost quadrupled, to about 383,000 from just 97,000. In 2008, 2.5 percent of veteran business owners were women; by 2012, that number had climbed to 4.4 percent.

“Veteran to Nurse” program helps medical veterans obtain nursing certificate (KPVI)
Idaho State University is trying to bridge the employment gap for personnel that have served in the military. ISU introduced a new program through the college of technology that helps veterans with medical training obtain a practical nursing certificate. The “Veteran to Nurse” program began at Idaho State this year and it’s one of the few offered across the country. “I love this program, it’s great.” Brittney Guinn and Richard Houx are two of the students currently going through the Veteran to Nurse Program. They were both medical specialists in the U.S. Navy and say helping people is what drives them to become nurses. “I love patient care and it was also in a community that I care about,” said Houx. “After I get my certificate I can go back on to ADRN (Associate Degree Registered Nurse) and then hopefully be registered nurse back in the community that I care about.” The “Veteran to Nurse” program recognizes and awards credit for previous healthcare knowledge and experience gained by military veterans. Students say the experience they learn while deployed translates well to the program. “It teaches you to be quick on your feet and learn to adapt to your situation because not every situation is a perfect cookie cutter world,” says Guinn. “The military is a perfect example of an imperfect world.” It is estimated that at least 1,000 service personal will separate from the military back to south east Idaho and about 20% will have some medical training. ISU hopes their program will help more veteran’s transition to civilian life and help them find jobs. “I’m so happy we have this program here in Idaho because there are so many medics and corpsmen out there that are smart, knowledgeable and skilled but they aren’t doing anything with it because they don’t feel like they have that support,” says Guinn. “To my knowledge you don’t have this anywhere else especially in this area and it was a great intensive for me to go to school here at ISU,” said Houx. The program currently has five students enrolled in the course. The length of the program varies between six to 18 months, and consists of nine classes.

Launch of new military health records system delayed until early 2017 (MilitaryTimes)
Defense officials are delaying the initial rollout of a new multibillion-dollar electronic health record system until early 2017, but insist the shift won’t hurt plans to field it throughout the military within six years or to share information with the Department of Veterans Affairs now. The new MHS GENESIS system — a $4.3 billion upgrade to the military’s current records system — was scheduled to be launched at two military bases this December. Instead, program officials announced Tuesday that it will be launched at a single base — Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington — in February, with several other locations to follow next June. They blamed the delay on compatibility and technical issues that emerged during early testing. “The time we are investing in the program now will help us ensure success in the future, providing the best possible user experience to our beneficiaries and health care providers from day one,” said Stacy Cummings, program executive officer for Defense Healthcare Management Systems. She said that the multiyear deployment schedule for the new health record system allows some flexibility in individual site launches and benchmarks without jeopardizing the overall goal of military-wide use of the system in 2022. She also said the delay will not change the price tag of the new system. Officials did not characterize the delay as a setback, but instead part of the expected process in putting a new system in place. Whether Congress sees it that way remains to be seen. Lawmakers have been critical of the Defense Department and VA for past failures to develop a shared electronic health records system, leading to continuity of care problems for troops as they transition from active-duty to veteran status. President Barack Obama in 2009 promised a better, more interoperable system for both departments, but results thus far have been slow. Cummings said that officials from both departments certified earlier this year that they have met congressional requirements for shared systems and information mandated by the end of this year, and will be able to better coordinate health records in coming years as the new MHS GENESIS system is implemented.

Report: Vets faring better in Hawaii, but there’s work to be done (Honolulu Civil Beat)
Hawaii’s veterans are receiving health care more promptly than in the past, but the U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs continues to struggle to hire and retain enough medical staff to meet the burgeoning need for services, according to a recent government report. First the good news: The VA increased staffing by 24 percent at community-based health centers in the Pacific region, including Hawaii, according to the report. About three-quarters of new patients obtained an appointment with a doctor within 30 days. The agency also significantly expanded the services it offers to veterans who are homeless. But there are also shortfalls. The agency failed to establish a planned 7,500-square-foot community services center on the Windward side of Oahu, according to the report. Three veterans committed suicide in 2014 and 2015, reflecting a need for improved suicide-prevention efforts. And there appear to be significant delays for patients seeking treatment outside of VA facilities. Logistical issues, meanwhile, remain a thorny problem for Hawaii. Veterans on neighbor islands frequently have to travel to Oahu to obtain necessary treatment and then wait for reimbursement of the cost. The national office that determines whether veterans are eligible for services is located in Atlanta, in a time zone six hours away, causing delays and miscommunication, and employees there have sometimes provided “incorrect or unclear eligibility guidance,” VA employees told the inspectors. These conclusions emerged in a report recently released by the VA’s Office of Inspector General that reviewed conditions in Hawaii, American Samoa, Guam and Saipan. About 127,000 veterans live in Hawaii and elsewhere the Pacific Basin. While the OIG investigation was underway, Wayne Pfeffer, the widely criticized head of the VA’s Pacific Islands Health Care System, abruptly stepped down from his post, citing personal reasons. Pfeffer was replaced by an acting director, Tonia Bagby, a clinical psychologist. The report by the OIG, an independent investigatory arm at the agency, was prepared at the request of U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, who serves on the Senate Armed Forces Committee. Hirono has closely followed progress at Veterans Affairs, particularly since a national scandal erupted in 2014 over reports that veterans had died while waiting months and even years for essential medical care. News reports and congressional inquiries revealed widespread deception by Veterans Affairs officials who masked the poor treatment veterans were receiving and awarded themselves bonuses. Conditions for Hawaii’s veterans were among the worst in the nation. The Veterans Affairs office eventually acknowledged that some of Hawaii’s veterans were being required to wait an average of 185 days to see primary care physicians. In August 2014, Hirono conducted a field hearing to examine conditions in Hawaii and pledged to continue to work on behalf of veterans. Hirono’s staff circulated the OIG report in a press release. “We’ve made important progress to reduce wait time, close resource gaps and improve services in the years since the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee field hearing,” Hirono said in an emailed statement to Civil Beat. “But it’s clear that this will be an ongoing fight.” The VA’s defenders say that the agency had been cash-strapped for decades because the need for services grew steadily as a result of ongoing armed conflicts around the globe, in which veterans suffered expensive, long-term disabilities. … In interviews last week, some Hawaii veterans who have criticized the VA in the past told Civil Beat that they believe that things have gotten better in the past two years. … Several veterans said they believed the agency hires too many people from the mainland who don’t adapt to the culture of the islands and the high cost of living, and soon leave. They said it would be better to recruit local people for the jobs. Other vets said they had heard that there were problems on some of the outer islands, particularly in rural areas where there are few doctors. The death of Roy Hill, a Vietnam veteran, drew public attention last month. Before he died, Hill, who lived in Kalapana on the Big Island, said doctors at the VA health center in Hilo failed to perform medical tests that would have allowed him to get treatment in a timely manner. He believed his lungs had been injured by exposure to Agent Orange in the jungles of Vietnam. VA officials have said he received good care. U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard said she visited with Hill and his wife before his death and that the story they told troubled her. “Roy’s last wish was to share his story with me and so many others in the hopes that it could lead to improved health care for all veterans,” Gabbard said in a statement. She said veterans face ongoing problems in receiving adequate health care.

Program offers yoga to veterans suffering from PTSD (KRQE)
Yoga, anyone? A local yoga class is doing more than teaching downward dog or tree pose. Its focus is on local veterans, combating an invisible wound. Every Thursday evening, Ashley Prokopiak starts her yoga class with a few rounds of breathing exercises, helping her students to center their bodies and quiet their minds. But for students in this class, Prokopiak is teaching them more than just poses. She’s helping them cope with an invisible wound left by war — a mission that hits close to home for Prokopiak. “I also have two veterans in my life who struggle with everyday activities and I have found that this helps them navigate the world after service,” said Prokopiak. Post-traumatic stress disorder affects 8 million people during a given year. It’s why Prokopiak is looking to put a dent in that statistic. She’s partnered with Dogwood Therapy, a private occupational therapy practice, to bring a veterans program called “Connected Warriors” to Albuquerque. “Yoga has been known to provide synchrony of mind body and breath, which in turn can create elements of self-empowerment and be present in what feels like chaos,” said Prokopiak. Her class is giving these veterans those tools. Prokopiak hopes opening classes like this one to more veterans will help others see that you don’t’ have to be an expert or flexible to apply yourself. Often, yoga can be as simple as sitting and breathing. It’s something veteran, Sarah Arbaugh, says has helped her tremendously. “Applying those breathing techniques to help ground yourself to understand the ground that you stand on. Like I said, taking deep breaths to help remember where you are in present,” said Arbaugh. Arbaugh served in the Air Force for six years. Prokopiak hopes that this will inspire other veterans to use yoga as an outlet or even become an instructor to help other veterans going through the same issues as they are.