AUSTIN STATESMAN: Congress to Probe VA Research Program

A Congressional committee has begun a probe of VA’s failed health research program, according to news from the Austin American-Statesman newspaper that helps show the critically important role of the media in holding VA accountable.   [Austin American-Statesman, "Congress to probe VA research after Austin Statesman investigation," Jeremy Schwartz reporting, Friday, October 17, 2014]

According to the Statesman article:

A 10-month Statesman investigation into the Waco Center of Excellence’s brain imaging program found that the VA squandered millions of dollars and six years of research opportunity just as brain injuries were spiking among U.S. service members.

The newspaper found the VA purchased a once-cutting edge $3.6 million mobile MRI scanner in 2008 without a clear plan for success, was unable to recruit enough brain imaging experts and was paralyzed by internal squabbles.

….

On occasion, critics have accused the VA of covering up research that might show links between deployments and medical problems. In 2012, a VA research advisory committee accused VA researchers of of failing to “mount even a minimally effective program” to study Gulf War illness, vastly overstating the amount spent to study the illnesses affecting Gulf War veterans and misrepresenting the state of scientific knowledge regarding Gulf War veterans’ health.

Yet compared to the VA’s medical and disability benefits branches, which have been beset by numerous scandals in recent years and months, the research arm has received relatively little scrutiny.

….

U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Waco, told the Statesman Friday that it’s time for “a broad discussion on the role of the VA in health care research” and said staffers with the House Committee on Veterans Affairs would begin scheduling a series of hearings on issues at the Waco center and beyond in early 2015.

The newspaper promised more coverage is to follow.

Read the full Austin American-Statesman article here:

http://www.statesman.com/news/news/local/congress-to-probe-va-research-program-after-states/nhmFL/?__federated=1

 

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Pentagon Report Calls Climate Change a “National Security Threat Multiplier”

The Pentagon released a landmark report this week, “asserting decisively that climate change poses an immediate threat to national security, with increased risks from terrorism, infectious disease, global poverty and food shortages. It also predicted rising demand for military disaster responses as extreme weather creates more global humanitarian crises.”  [Quote from New York Times, "Pentagon Signals Security Risks of Climate Change," Oct. 13, 2014, Coral Davenport reporting]

The preface of the U.S. Department of Defense strategy report, entitled, “2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap“, is signed by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and begins as follows:

The responsibility of the Department of Defense is the security of our country. That requires thinking ahead and planning for a wide range of contingencies.

Among the future trends that will impact our national security is climate change. Rising global temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, climbing sea levels, and more extreme weather events will intensify the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict. They will likely lead to food and water shortages, pandemic disease, disputes over refugees and resources, and destruction by natural disasters in regions across the globe.

In our defense strategy, we refer to climate change as a “threat multiplier” because it has the potential to exacerbate many of the challenges we are dealing with today – from infectious disease to terrorism. We are already beginning to see some of these impacts.

A changing climate will have real impacts on our military and the way it executes its missions. The military could be called upon more often to support civil authorities, and provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in the face of more frequent and more intense natural disasters. Our coastal installations are vulnerable to rising sea levels and increased flooding, while droughts, wildfires, and more extreme temperatures could threaten many of our training activities. Our supply chains could be impacted, and we will need to ensure our critical equipment works under more extreme weather conditions. Weather has always affected military operations, and as the climate changes, the way we execute operations may be altered or constrained.

….

Our first step in planning for these challenges is to identify the effects of climate change on the Department with tangible and specific metrics, using the best available science. We are almost done with a baseline survey to assess the vulnerability of our military’s more than 7,000 bases, installations, and other facilities. In places like the Hampton Roads region in Virginia, which houses the largest concentration of US military sites in the world, we see recurrent flooding today, and we are beginning work to address a projected sea-level rise of 1.5 feet over the next 20 to 50 years.

….

At home, we are studying the implications of increased demand for our National Guard in the aftermath of extreme weather events.

….

Politics or ideology must not get in the way of sound planning. Our armed forces must prepare for a future with a wide spectrum of possible threats, weighing risks and probabilities to ensure that we will continue to keep our country secure. By taking a proactive, flexible approach to assessment, analysis, and adaptation, the Defense Department will keep pace with a changing climate, minimize its impacts on our missions, and continue to protect our national security.

The full 20-page U.S. Department of Defense report, entitled, “2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap”, is available for download here.

Posted in Climate Change, National Security Articles & News, Veterans Articles & News | Leave a comment

Ex-Chair of Federal Gulf War Panel Says Concerns Remain

The recently “rotated out” chairman of the federal panel charged with overseeing health research related to veterans of the 1991 Gulf War was quoted extensively today in an Arizona Republic news article, expressing reasoned concerns regarding the approach of VA staff to Gulf War health research.

Legislation to transfer most of the oversight of the committee from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to Congress passed the U.S. House by unanimous consent earlier this year.  The bill, H.R. 4261, the Gulf War Health Research Reform Act, has stagnated in the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

Led by Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee has yet to schedule a hearing on the bill despite having had the bill since June 2, 2014.

From the article:

[ex-Chairman James H.] Binns detailed his apprehension about the committee’s revolving membership in a four-page memo to members of Congress and veterans associations on his final day as chairman, Sept. 30.

“I leave the committee gravely concerned about the future of Gulf War illness research,” he wrote.

“From here on, neither the Secretary, nor Congress, veterans service organizations, veterans themselves or the public will know the whole truth behind VA Gulf War research. In the absence of an independent, knowledgeable body, staff will operate unchecked, and its campaign to revive 1990s fictions that Gulf War veterans have no special health problem will likely prevail.”

….

Binns’ final memo has been circulated widely among veterans associations, said Rick Weidman, executive director of policy and government affairs for the Vietnam Veterans of America.

Veterans organizations are lobbying Congress to pass legislation that would have the Gulf War committee report directly to Congress rather than to the VA.

Weidman said it may seem like an extreme step, but VA administrators’ actions were out of line during the Gulf War committee’s last two-day meeting in Washington.

“It really was bizarre because you had the staff of the VA from the environmental-hazards and public-health section trying to drive their agenda. And their agenda is that there is no such thing as Gulf War illness; that it’s all psychosomatic,” he said.

The move to replace the Gulf War committee members came despite a request to McDonald by House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and four other members, including Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz., to retain the Gulf War committee members. The lawmakers sent their request Aug. 20.

Read the full Arizona Republic article here:

http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/arizona/investigations/2014/10/09/va-seeks-new-voices-concerning-gulf-war-illness/16955417/

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VCS in the News: Guarded Optimism on New VA Secretary, Need to Reach Deeper

As new U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Bob MacDonald passes his two-month mark in office, the news media have begun trying to determine whether or not he is likely to be effective in redirecting VA to a more accountable course.

The Belleville, Illinois News-Democrat published a Sep. 28, 2014 article authored by veteran reporter Mike Fitzgerald, entitled: “Are VA reforms working? Metro-east veterans weigh in“.  The article said, in part:

MAKING A DIFFERENCE?

Nationally, longtime critics of the VA say it’s too early to tell if the reforms that Obama signed into law are making a difference.

After all, the VA, with 731 medical facilities nationwide, is so big and serves so many patients, and handles so many claims, it could take years to assess if the reforms are making a difference.

That’s especially true when it comes to changing the system’s inbred management culture, according to experts.

The VA’s management culture lay at the heart of the latest scandal plaguing the VA. It exploded in late April, when the news media began reporting, based on a whistleblower’s disclosures, that at least 40 veterans had died while waiting for appointments at the Phoenix VA Hospital.

Congress soon jumped into the fray when it was revealed that many of the veterans who died had been placed on secret waiting lists that prevented them from obtaining needed medical care.

The covert list was part of an elaborate scheme which VA managers had devised to hide the fact that up to 1,600 sick veterans had to wait months to see physicians. By hiding these patient lists, the managers reaped millions of dollars in bonuses awarded on the basis of their supposed success in cutting patient wait times.

The scandal over the secret waiting list led to the forced resignation of former Army General Eric Shinseki as the VA secretary and the appointment of Robert McDonald as his replacement.

BIG CHALLENGES

Earlier this month McDonald announced a 90-day plan for fixing the VA’s recent woes.

Anthony Hardie, a board member of Veterans for Common Sense, of Washington, D.C., said he’s hopeful the reform law and McDonald’s 90-day initiative represent a start in the right direction.

But in view of the huge, entrenched problems afflicting the VA — including a culture of deception and a long history of “cooking the books” regarding patient care and research — there is still a long, long way to go, according to Hardie.

“I think a year or two from now we’ll be able to say, ‘Yeah, we’re beginning to see some change,” Hardie said. “And maybe five years from now we’ll be able to look back and say, ‘That was the beginning of major change.’ I hope that’s what we can say.”

A report released by the VA inspector general in August stated that no deaths at the Phoenix VA could be “conclusively” linked to long wait times.

But the main whistleblower in the VA scandal two weeks ago denounced the IG report, calling it a “whitewash.”

A similar article by Claire McNeill in the Oct. 1, 2014 edition of the Tampa Bay Times, VA secretary announces progress, promises more change“, came on the heels of a local Florida visits by MacDonald, who made stops to the Haley VA medical center in Tampa and the much maligned Bay Pines VA Regional Office in St. Petersburg.  

According to the article:

McDonald has appeared at Washington meetings that his predecessor never attended, said Anthony Hardie, a Bradenton resident on the board of directors of Veterans for Common Sense, a nonprofit advocacy group. And McDonald’s presence in the Tampa Bay area is significant, he said.

“He’s clearly making sure that he is hearing what the concerns of veterans are,” Hardie said. “I believe what the secretary is doing are very important first steps. At the same time, I’m still very guarded in my optimism.”

The secretary acknowledged the department’s deep issues.

“Too many of our employees have felt disenfranchised,” he said. “They have not been included. Too many of our veterans have been disenfranchised.”

He said the nearly 9 million veterans under VA care are the top priority, and leaders must work to ensure that veterans and employees are provided for. He called on every employee to be a whistle-blower.

“I want people to feel free to tell me what’s going wrong, and I feel the formality that may have been existing may have gotten in the way of that,” said McDonald, who freely distributes his cellphone number and said he fields calls from veterans at all hours.

Hardie said McDonald must consult all stakeholders to create real change in the department.

“It’s like turning around a battleship, and it will be a long time before we know if the captain of the battleship is successful,” Hardie said. “It feels like he’s doing the right thing in terms of listening, but he needs to reach deeper.”

That “deeper” included reaching out to former VA employees-turned-whistleblowers, many of whom were forced out of VA employment.  One of them would be former top VA epidemiologist Dr. Stephen Coughlin, whose testimony at a March 2013 Congressional hearing rocked Capitol Hill with his insider revelations of VA cooking the books on post-deployment health research to cover-up or otherwise minimize acknowledgement of post-deployment health issues.  Those allegations were later substantiated in a very quiet internal VA investigation.

Coughlin was honored last week at an evening affair in Washington, DC hosted by the Sgt. Sullivan Center, which focuses on complex post-deployment health issues like that suffered by the center’s namesake before his untimely death.  Veterans for Common Sense was represented at the event by Anthony Hardie, VCS Board Member and one of the event’s featured speakers.

If MacDonald were to consult whistleblowers like — and including — Coughlin, collectively they could provide a great deal of insight to MacDonald in righting and reforming the VA ship.

***

Read the full cited articles here:

http://www.bnd.com/2014/09/27/3424662/metro-east-veterans-report-mixed.html?sp=/99/166/

http://www.tampabay.com/news/military/veterans/new-va-secretary-says-he-is-trying-to-put-veterans-at-the-center/2200336

 

Belleville News Democrat-Sep 28, 2014
Posted in VA Healthcare Crisis, VCS In The News, Veterans Articles & News | 2 Comments

Gulf War Advisory Committee Letter Expresses Grave Concerns to New VA Secretary

The following is reposted from 91outcomes.com with permission.

***

I ask you to please post … this letter RAC members sent to Secretary McDonald after the RAC meeting this week.  VA staff now controls what is posted to the RAC website, so this may never see the light of day otherwise.  The new Secretary should be cleaning house with the staff, not the committee.   So much for promises to fix VA’s lack of integrity.  — Joel Graves, Gulf War veteran member of the Research Advisory Committee, being replaced.

****

SOURCE:  Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses (RAC), September 23, 2014
http://www.scribd.com/doc/241187447/RAC-Recommendation-Letter-Sep-23-2014

LETTER TEXT:

Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses

 

September 23, 2014

 

The Honorable Robert A. McDonald

Secretary of Veterans Affairs

United States Department of Veterans Affairs

Washington, DC

 

Dear Mr. Secretary,

We greatly appreciate your meeting with us yesterday and asking our views. We look forward to working with you to advance research to improve the health of Gulf War veterans.

Yesterday’s meeting showed the need for this advisory committee to provide you the full story on Gulf War veterans’ health. Despite twelve years of work, the committee just yesterday, through its independent review process, noted:

1. VBA staff said that VA recognizes that chronic multisymptom illness and undiagnosed illnesses are presumed to be service-connected for Gulf War veterans. But their data show that eighty percent of these claims are denied.

2. OPH staff reported on a new review of diagnoses received by Gulf War veterans who use VA facilities, which appears to show their health problems are no different from veterans of the same period who did not deploy, but the review does not include 75,000 Gulf War veterans who served after March 1, 1991, the most toxic period, when oil well fires burned and the demolition of the Khamisiyah nerve agent depot occurred, and does not state that VA doctors were not trained to consider the illness a serious physical illness. The non-deployed also include veterans who were deployed later in other operations in the same theater and have received many of the same exposures.

3. OPH staff reported on a new survey of Gulf War veterans that shows higher rates of stress and depression than previous surveys, without mentioning that the survey was overweighted with questions on mental health and that people suffering from chronic health problems often become depressed due to their illness after 23 years, but it is not the cause  of their illness.

4. The VA press release issued after the meeting stated that “nearly 800,000 Gulf War era Veterans are currently receiving compensation benefits for service-connected issues”, without clarifying that for benefits purposes, the “Gulf War era” extends from 1990 to the present, taking in all recent Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

This underscores the need for a continued independent ongoing review process. We recommend that, for the new members you plan to appoint to the committee, you choose scientists and veterans who are independent of VA staff and who understand that Gulf War illness is not a mental illness, that you continue to provide for the committee to have its own independent staff, and that you continue to welcome the committee’s comments on all aspects of VA’s Gulf War research program.

 

Respectfully,

James Binns, chairman

James A. Bunker

Fiona Crawford, PhD

Beatrice Golomb, MD, PhD

Nancy Klimas, MD

James O’Callaghan, PhD

Lea Steele, PhD

Roberta White, PhD

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MEDIA REPORTS: The Beginning of Finally Some Truth about the VA

After a great deal of covering up, retaliation against and intimidation of whistleblowers, media reporting, Congressional hearing and inquiries, and VA delays, denial, and more covering up, finally this week it appears as though the first elements of truth are creeping out in the healthcare access scandal that has consumed VA.

A great deal more needs to be done in holding VA healthcare officials accountable.  A great deal more needs to be done to hold VA benefits officials accountable, including for inappropriate VA denial of service-disabled veterans’ disability claims, efforts to roll back the clock on Gulf War veterans’ and possibly other “presumptive” access to disability benefits, inappropriate VA benefits official’s meddling in healthcare and medical research matters, and shifting the claims wait lines from one excessively long waiting line (initial claims) to another even longer waiting line (appeals).

And, a great deal more needs to be done in holding VA’s research officials to account for confirmed whistleblower accounts that VA research officials routinely cover-up research finding that might show links between deployment health exposures and negative health consequences of those exposures, inappropriately shape VA research projects so as not to uncover links between deployment and negative health outcomes, misappropriation of funds, lying to Congress and top VA officials, and an utter inability to focus research efforts on tangible research outcomes such as improved prosthetic limbs or to develop effective treatments for post-deployment health conditions.

However, the following articles represent a new breakthrough in the armor in which VA bureaucrats have surrounded themselves.  As one Arizona Republic editorial notes below, it is the beginning of finally some truth about the VA.

Read on… and help hold VA managers and executives accountable for VA’s failures and cooking the books in nearly every aspect of VA operations.

-Team VCS

***

Associated Press: Ex-VA Doctor: Phoenix Report a ‘Whitewash’

Arizona Republic: Auditor ties VA waits to deaths

Arizona Republic Editorial: Finally, some truth about the VA.  Our View: Lengthy delays didn’t do veterans any good. Why didn’t the inspector general recognize that?

CNN:  VA inspector general admits wait times contributed to vets’ deaths

New York Times:  V.A. Official Acknowledges Link Between Delays and Patient Deaths

Washington Examiner:  Veterans Affairs IG couldn’t see records that didn’t exist for dead vets

Washington Examiner:  Delays contributed to patient deaths at veterans’ hospital, IG concedes

Washington Times:  VA official admits not every wait-list death reviewed by investigators

 

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VCS to Participate in Sgt. Sullivan Center’s Event: Rebuilding Trust, Renewing Our Dedication to Transparency in Deployment Health Science

 

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Sergeant Sullivan Center Reception: Honoring Excellence in Post-Deployment Health

Rebuilding Trust, Renewing Our Dedication to Transparency in Deployment Health Science:            Awards Ceremony 2014

“If you blow the whistle on higher ups because you have identified a legitimate problem, you should not be punished. You should be protected … problems [at the VA] require us to regain the trust of our veterans and live up to our vision of a VA that is more effective and more efficient.”   President Barack Obama, August 2014
When
Tuesday, September 23rd
6:30 PM – 8:30 PM
Where

Pew Charitable Trusts Conference Center
Washington, DC

Driving Directions

Presenters Include

(a complete speaker list will be sent prior to the event)

Robert F. Miller, MD

Associate Professor of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, Vanderbilt University Medical Center

Honoree, Excellence in Deployment Health Science 2012

Mark Lyles

Captain, US Navy, DMD, PhD, MA, MS, EdS – VADM Joel T. Boone Chair of Health and Security Studies, Naval War College

Honoree, Excellence in Deployment Health Science 2011

Jim Binns

Chairman, Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses

Anthony Hardie

Veterans for Common Sense Board of Directors, 91outcomes.com Author, Federal Advisory Committee Member on Gulf War Illness Research

2014 Honoree
Dr. Steven S. Coughlin
The Sergeant Sullivan Center Annual Awards Reception supports community building to improve diagnosis, treatment and prevention of chronic, multi-symptom, currently unexplained post-deployment health concerns. The Sergeant Sullivan Center is the only 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization exclusively dedicated to confronting and eradicating post-deployment illnesses through awareness, research, and connection. Speakers appear in their individual capacity.
Join us for cocktails and light fare, presentations, and the Award for Excellence in Post-Deployment Health Science on Tuesday September 23rd, 2014 at the Pew Charitable Trusts Conference Center in Washington, DC.

Thank your for your response, and I look forward to seeing you at the event!

Sincerely,

William Wisner / Veteran Fellowship for Mission Leadership

202-261-6562 Office
On Tuesday, September 23, The Sergeant Thomas Joseph Sullivan Center will honor former senior VA epidemiologist Dr. Steven S. Coughlin with its annual Award for Excellence in Post Deployment Health Science at the Pew Charitable Trusts Conference Center located at 901 E Street, NW Washington, DC.
Dr. Coughlin resigned his position at the VA over ethical concerns and since then through testimony and media interviews has furthered a dialogue among those dedicated to helping the VA/DoD become more effective, efficient, compassionate, and transparent in the delivery of healthcare to those who have served us in war and are recovering from toxic wounds.
 
There is no charge for this event but space is limited. Please register by September 17, 2014.
 
We encourage veterans, veteran advocates, lawmakers, active duty personnel, physicians, researchers and our friends at the VA/DoD to join us in the spirit of the President’s call to honor those who have bravely told the truth in order to bring about reform on behalf of those who have served the nation and were injured by war related environmental exposures.
Click on the link below to register or RSVP.
(PLEASE LET US KNOW ALSO IF YOU CAN’T MAKE IT)
Register Now!
I can’t make it

 

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VA Officials Spun Inspector General Report to Make VA Appear Not at Fault for 40+ Veteran Deaths in Phoenix

A new investigative report by the Arizona Republic newspaper has found that officials in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) whitewashed a report by the VA’s Inspector General regarding the depth, breadth, and scope of the healthcare access scandal that resulted in the deaths of at least 40 veterans in Phoenix alone.

According to the news article:

During a Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs hearing Tuesday, Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., challenged the language in the OIG report, suggesting it downplayed the effects of long-standing VA delays in delivering care to ailing veterans.

“I don’t want to give the VA a pass on this, and that’s exactly what this line does,” Heller said to Dr. John Daigh, assistant inspector general for health-care inspections. “It exonerates the VA of any responsibility in past manipulation of these … wait times.”

….

Based on the OIG’s cause-of-death conclusion, many media outlets cast the investigative report as vindication for the VA and as refutation of Arizona whistle-blower claims.

A Washington Post article was headlined, “Overblown claims of death and waiting times at the VA.” The Associated Press report, which appeared in publications nationwide, was titled, “IG: Shoddy care by VA didn’t cause Phoenix deaths.”

That spin on the story first circulated a day earlier when a copy of the VA’s response to the OIG investigation was leaked before release of the report. The key talking point: “It is important to note that OIG was unable to conclusively assert that the absence of timely quality care caused the death of these veterans.”

Inspector general reports are typically circulated to agency bosses prior to publication, providing an opportunity to correct errors and suggest changes.

More than a week before the Phoenix investigation was released, TheRepublic learned that a dispute had arisen over standard-of-proof language that was being pushed by VA administrators to downplay deaths in Phoenix.

….

OIG investigators corroborated virtually every major allegation of wrongdoing submitted by the two whistle-blowers. Nevertheless, the report and congressional briefing papers contain passages that appear to criticize Foote and his credibility, emphasizing that “the whistle-blower did not provide us with a list of 40 patient names.” The passage referred to VA patients Foote said died while awaiting care in Phoenix.

….

In interviews and a written rebuttal, Foote said the portion of the report about him is “false and misleading” because he and other whistle-blowers provided 24 names to inspectors and explained where in VA records to identify 16 more.

Another part of the VA report acknowledged that Foote had supplied at least 17 names and that others could not be traced because documentation had been destroyed by VA employees.

Read the full Arizona Republic news report here:

http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/politics/investigations/2014/09/10/report-phoenix-va-deaths-raises-questions/15375005/

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