Exclusive: 'The VA is two-faced.' Whistleblowers say managers are trying to silence them on Veteran care
WASHINGTON – Three Veterans Affairs health care professionals who reported patient care issues say the agency continues to try to silence them, jeopardizing Veterans and undercutting a key Trump promise of whistleblower protection.
They work at different sites – in the Phoenix area, Baltimore, and Iowa City, Iowa – yet the VA response has been similar. All were stripped of assigned patient-care and oversight duties, and they suspect VA managers are retaliating against them for speaking out, and sidelining them to prevent them from discovering or disclosing any more problems with Veteran health care.
In exclusive interviews with USA TODAY, their assertions contradict proclamations by agency leaders and President Donald Trump that VA employees who disclose wrongdoing at the agency are being celebrated and not scorned.
"The VA is two-faced: What it says it does and what it actually does are two entirely different things," said Katherine Mitchell, a physician who reported shortfalls in care at the Phoenix VA that earned her a federal "Public Servant of the Year Award" in 2014.
Mitchell is scheduled to testify at a congressional hearing Tuesday examining the treatment of whistleblowers at the VA. She will be joined by Iowa City CT technologist Jeffrey Dettbarn, who blew the whistle on mass-cancellations of diagnostic test orders, and Baltimore VA psychologist Minu Aghevli, who reported Veterans had been removed improperly from wait lists for opioid-addiction treatment.
Mitchell said the retaliation against her and others who speak out sends a signal to other employees to keep their mouths shut and "jeopardizes the health and safety of every Veteran in the system."
"Whistleblowers who are brave enough to report problems serve as a vital safety net for Veterans," she said. "If people can’t identify problems, Veterans will suffer and die. That’s what it boils down to."
Trump's accountability order
Trump signed an executive order creating a VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection and then a law making it permanent in 2017. Early reviews were promising – within several months, the office had delayed disciplinary actions against 70 VA employees who disclosed alleged wrongdoing.
But the VA inspector general has since launched a wide-ranging investigation of the office’s handling of whistleblower cases and reports of problems.
The Government Accountability Office issued a report last July that said the office allowed officials accused of wrongdoing or retaliation to be involved in investigations of the accusations – calling into question their independence and findings. And leadership at the office has turned over multiple times, causing confusion and disruption.
In response to inquiries from USA TODAY, VA spokesman Randall Noller issued a statement Wednesday saying the agency "welcomes the inspector general’s oversight."
"For the last several months, we’ve been cooperating closely with the IG on its assessment and encouraging the office to release its report as soon as possible," he said.
An assistant secretary who took over the office in January, Tamara Bonzanto, plans to use its findings as a "roadmap" for improving office operations, Noller said. In the meantime, she has been "working on a number of key improvements."
"These include providing timelier resolutions, more responsive recommendations and enhancing communications with whistleblowers," he said.
Noller declined to say what policies are in place to ensure the office doesn’t allow managers accused of wrongdoing or retaliation to be involved in investigating the accusations. Noller also declined to comment on assertions made by Aghevli, Dettbarn and Mitchell, citing federal privacy laws.
Whistleblower advocates say they haven’t seen much difference in recent years. Jacqueline Garrick, founder of non-profit peer-support group Whistleblowers of America, said more than 190 VA employees have contacted her since 2017, complaining about retaliation for speaking out about problems at the agency, most about how Veterans are treated.
She said those who have gone to the Trump-created whistleblower protection office for help said the office's employees turned around and investigated them instead, launching "counter accusations and further retaliation."
She said Bonzanto told her in February she planned to "reset" the office’s operations. Still, Garrick said, "I haven’t seen any real sign of that."
She and other advocates also are slated to testify before Congress Tuesday at the hearing before the House VA Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations examining whistleblower concerns.
Backlogs and lists
In Iowa City, Dettbarn noticed something was awry in 2017 when patients showed up to get CT scans but orders for the tests had been cancelled in the computer system.
He reported the problems to administrators, who later admitted they had been mass-cancelling diagnostic test orders as part of a national effort to clear out a backlog of out-dated or duplicate orders.
Weeks after Dettbarn reported his concerns that orders had been cancelled without contacting patients or a medical review to determine if Veterans still needed the tests, he was removed from his job and then transferred to another position, pending an investigation – of him.
He said he has been spending all day every day making copies and doing other paperwork ever since, nearly two years later. Dettbarn went to the whistleblower protection office for help, but said he didn't hear back for months on end. "As far as I know, I'm still under investigation," he said.
He wants to go back to caring for patients, and he worries about being away from the diagnostic clinic for so long.
"There's nobody there to watch out for the Veterans," he said. "They've got everybody else scared to say anything. Who's taking care of those patients?"
In Baltimore, Aghevli began reporting problems with wait lists five years ago, at the same time a national scandal unfolded about VA wait times following revelations that Veterans died while they waited for care at the VA hospital in Phoenix.
Aghevli, coordinator of the opioid-addiction treatment program at the VA Maryland Health Care System, reported being pressured by supervisors to remove Veterans from a wait list for treatment and schedule them in an "imaginary clinic" so the list would appear shorter.
"Suddenly our wait list went from being well over 100 to being minimal, I mean, well under 20," she said.
A review of her allegations by the VA inspector general later concluded Veterans were removed from the list and placed in "non-count" status, even though they still wanted opioid-addiction treatment at the Baltimore VA.
But Aghevli said she quickly became "unpopular" with supervisors who turned around in the ensuing years and investigated her repeatedly, tried to transfer her, and threatened to shut down her program – which serves roughly 400 Veterans. She said they excluded her from meetings, changed her hours, and at one point, detailed her to clerical duties.
Through it all, she continued to report patient care problems when she came across them – including improper discharges, short-staffing and medication issues – to her supervisors, to the inspector general and to members of Congress.
"If I see somebody not getting adequate treatment, or not getting treatment that's clinically indicated, I will speak up about it," Aghevli said.
But she said she is still being retaliated against. In April, Baltimore VA officials once again moved her out of her job to a data entry post and stripped her of her clinical privileges, pending investigation. Aghevli said the reason they gave was that she had visited a Veteran patient in a non-VA hospital after he had suffered a health crisis, a situation that ostensibly could give rise to charges she was practicing at a hospital where she didn't work.
Aghevli called the explanation "nonsensical." She is going public with her story for the first time. "I just am not sure what else to do," she said.
She wants protections for whistleblowers expanded and strengthened. "I would like other people to not go through this," she said. "It's been really awful."
Noller, the VA spokesman, declined to comment on her case as well as Dettbarn's and Mitchell's unless they signed waivers of their rights under federal privacy laws. Mitchell and Dettbarn declined, fearing further retaliation.
Aghevli's lawyer, Kevin Owen, agreed on the condition the waiver be negotiated with VA general counsel. He said Friday that agency lawyers had not contacted him.
'I will not back down'
In Gilbert, Arizona, Mitchell has endured more subtle retaliation.
After she reported poor training and inadequate triage at the emergency room at the Phoenix VA, she reached an agreement with VA officials to move to a new job assessing health care quality and efficiency at facilities in the region.
"I was hoping to improve patient care on a wider scale," said Mitchell, who was a nurse before becoming a doctor.
But she said that, with very few exceptions, she hasn’t been allowed to perform those oversight duties. Mitchell has had to resort to helping Veterans "under the table" – in some cases, receiving reports confidentially from VA employees, taking it upon herself to investigate, and then writing reports to regional administrators.
They included flagging poor care provided by a neurologist who was later removed, a facility’s failure to biopsy a potentially cancerous skin lesion and radiation oncology treatments delayed by short-staffing.
"They were not happy,” she said of administrators, but they didn’t stop her and facilities appeared to take actions to address the problems. Still, she said, VA employees told her they were "actively being discouraged from talking" to her.
Since 2018, Mitchell has been in charge of implementing an initiative to complement medical care with yoga, acupuncture and other methods to improve Veterans’ health.
"They don’t want me involved in any patient safety problems – any problem of any significance, they want to keep me away from it," she said.
Mitchell has asked another federal agency that helps whistleblowers for help, the Office of Special Counsel, and is speaking out again about problems in the meantime that she says are jeopardizing Veterans.
"As a physician, nurse, and basically as a human being, I will not back down if someone’s health or safety is being threatened," she said.
The name “Procopio” now represents a major victory for tens of thousands of Vietnam War Veterans thanks to the case, Procopio v. Wilkie.
WASHINGTON – Alfred Procopio Jr. said he learned perseverance from his parents, who “never took no for an answer.”
“He was very tenacious,” Procopio said of his father. “He didn’t give up. My mother, she was a fighter, too. I was raised that way — to stand up for what you believe.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., signs the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019, during a ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday, June 18, 2019. At right looking on are Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, and the committee's Ranking Member Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn.CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES
It’s that spirit that kept Procopio pursuing his case, through years of rejection, to prove to the federal government that his chronic illnesses were caused by exposure to Agent Orange during his service in the Vietnam War. Procopio, a so-called Blue Water Navy Veteran, worked aboard the USS Intrepid, an aircraft carrier that went into the territorial seas off the coast of Vietnam.
Blue Water Veterans — who served on open sea ships off the shore of Vietnam but did not step foot on land — have been blocked for decades from the same Department of Veterans Affairs benefits afforded those who served in Vietnam or its inland waterways. The government argued there wasn’t enough evidence that poisonous herbicides contaminated the water used on their ships.
That changed in January, when Procopio won his case.
The Department of Justice decided in May to not challenge the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in favor of Blue Water Veterans. Congress approved legislation last week clarifying that those Veterans are eligible for VA disability benefits. Lawmakers sent the bill to the White House on Tuesday, where it’s awaiting President Donald Trump’s signature.
The name “Procopio” now represents a major victory for tens of thousands of Vietnam War Veterans thanks to the case, Procopio v. Wilkie.
The man himself is happy about the court decision but unsure whether he’ll be around long enough to witness much of its payoff. He was 61 when this process began. Next month, he’ll be 74.
“They appealed it so many times, I thought, ‘How long are they going to deny it? Until we’re all gone?’” Procopio said. “There were a lot of guys who I served with who were older than me, and I know they’re not around.”
Recently, the battle over the future of Veterans healthcare increased in intensity because arguably the two most prominent politicians in the country weighed in on the issue, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and President Trump.
At a town hall in April, Ocasio-Cortez criticized the Trump administration’s efforts to expand healthcare choice for Veterans through the Department of Veterans Affairs and said in regards to the VA that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” It isn’t surprising that Ocasio-Cortez would vigorously defend the VA while attacking reforms meant to give Veterans more private healthcare options. Many of her ideological partners, such as Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., consider the VA a model government-run healthcare system and a positive example of “socialism in action.”
A week later, Trump responded to Ocasio-Cortez with a tweet that seemingly agreed with her assertion that the VA is performing well. Underlying his tweet was the implication that the uptick in performance is due to legislation he signed into law that increased choice for Veterans and accountability for VA employees — bills Ocasio-Cortez and her allies have criticized.
This exchange between the president and AOC predictably set off a debate about who was right and who was wrong about the VA. Unfortunately, in a world of 280-character tweets and cable news segments that are clipped and shared without context, it is difficult to convey a nuanced position about any public policy issue, including the future of the VA. The reality is the VA is neither completely fixed nor completely broken but is instead an institution at a crossroads with an opportunity to break the cycle of reform and failure that has plagued it since its inception. This is especially true with the recent launch of the Veterans Community Care Program which, if properly implemented, will substantially increase healthcare freedom for Veterans through the VA and improve access to medical services.
Even as someone who has been highly critical of the agency for years, I have to admit the VA has made some improvement since the deadly 2014 waitlist scandal.
Between 2014 and 2017, according to a study by the JAMA network, wait times across the VA have generally gone down. However, this decrease occurred while the VA increased the number of private sector appointments by over 50%, demonstrating better use of non-VA providers and the introduction of the albeit imperfect Veterans Choice Program helped improve wait times for Veterans.
Despite this good news, the VA still faces many systemic issues that need to be dealt with. Too many VA hospitals are delivering sub-standard care and hundreds of thousands of Veterans are still waiting long periods of time for appointments. Additionally, most of the VA’s healthcare facilities are over 50 years old, meaning not only are the buildings increasingly aged but they are not in locations best suited to serve the more dispersed Veterans population of the future.
The VA MISSION Act, signed into law last year by Trump, was designed to address these issues. Over the next few years the VA will continue implementing the law, and it faces its first major test with the rollout of the Veterans Community Care Program.
It is critical for the future of Veterans healthcare that the VA properly implement all the major components of the VA MISSION Act. Failure to do so will undermine the Trump administration’s VA reform agenda and compromise healthcare for millions of Veterans. In addition, any attempts to roll back the VA MISSION Act by members of Congress who oppose giving Veterans more healthcare choice — like Ocasio-Cortez — should be strongly resisted.
Finally, as more Veterans get care from outside of the VA, elected officials at the state and federal levels must explore ways to eliminate barriers standing in the way of Veterans making full use of their new private sector healthcare options. Critical reforms include expanded use of telehealth (as Virginia did) and repealing certificate-of-need laws (as Florida did this year). These and other patient-centered reforms, expand access to health care for both Veterans and non-Veterans while encouraging innovation.
The VA has improved since 2014, but challenges remain. We all want Veterans to get the care they need and deserve. To achieve that, everyone needs to acknowledge that VA healthcare still needs some major improvements and to commit ourselves to ensuring the necessary reforms are made.
Last week, VA implemented changes to community care under the VA MISSION Act. The changes included expanded eligibility for community care and a new urgent care benefit. As part of our outreach and engagement efforts, we collected the top questions received from Veterans and provided answers to each one below. Our goal is to make it easier to access the care you have earned.
General health care
- When can I receive community care? Eligibility for community care depends on your individual health care needs or circumstances. You should discuss community care eligibility with your VA care team to determine if you are eligible. This video provides a quick overview of Veteran community care.
- Can I get dental care through the MISSION Act? Eligibility for dental services has not changed under the MISSION Act. You should talk to your VA care team about eligibility for dental services. Click here for more information about dental care.
- How does a community provider know I am eligible to receive community care? If your VA care team has determined that you are eligible for community care and you chose a community provider, VA will send the provider a referral and authorization prior to you receiving care. You must receive approval from VA prior to obtaining care from a community provider in most circumstances.
- I was authorized for community care under the Choice program. What happens now? The Choice program expired on June 6, 2019, and specific Choice eligibility for community care is no longer being used. If you were eligible for community care under Choice, you should speak with your VA care team or a VA staff member at your local VA medical facility about updated eligibility for community care. This video also provides a quick primer regarding community care eligibility under the new Veteran community care program.
- How do I become eligible for the urgent care benefit? You must be enrolled in VA health care and have received care through VA from either a VA or community provider within the past 24 months to be eligible for the urgent care benefit.
- How can I find an urgent care provider? To find an urgent care location in VA’s contracted network, use the VA facility locator at https://www.va.gov/find-locations/. Select the link entitled “Find VA approved urgent care locations and pharmacies near you”.
- What is the difference between urgent care and emergency care? Urgent care consists of medical services provided for minor illnesses or injuries that are not life-threatening such as strep throat, pink eye, or influenza. Emergency care consists of inpatient or outpatient hospital services that are necessary to prevent death or serious impairment of health such as severe chest pain, seizures or loss of awareness, heavy uncontrollable bleeding, or moderate to severe burns.
- Do I have to pay a copayment if I receive urgent care that relates to my service-connected condition? Copayments for urgent care are different from other VA medical copayments. Copayments for urgent care depend on your assigned priority group and the number of times you visit any urgent care provider in a calendar year. Visit the Urgent Care webpage for more information about copayments.
- How do I get prescription medication related to an urgent care visit? VA will pay for or fill prescriptions for urgent care. For urgent care prescription medication longer than a 14-day supply, the prescription must be submitted to VA to be filled. For urgent prescriptions written by an urgent care provider, you can fill a 14-day supply of medication at a contracted pharmacy within the VA network, in VA, or at a noncontracted pharmacy. If a noncontracted pharmacy is used, you must pay for the prescription and then file a claim for reimbursement with your local VA medical facility.
Click here for detailed information on community care and urgent care.
VA's Veterans Experience Office receives 2019 Fed Health IT Innovation Awards
For the second straight year, nine VA programs were recognized for innovations in federal health technology.
Initiatives ranging from text messages to remind Veterans of their appointments to programs that help modernize business practices, VA’s programs were among winners honored on June 11 at the FedHealthIT Innovation Awards.
Two of those programs, Vet360 and Veterans Signals (VSignals), were designed to transform the experience that Veterans have when they interact with VA.
Vet360 improves VA systems by synchronizing and sharing Veteran data across the VA enterprise, giving VA customers control, visibility and ownership of their information, and employees the up-to-date information they need to personalize interactions and provide excellent customer service.
Having updated and accurate contact information may seem simple, but it is critical to excellent customer service. Having Veterans’ correct phone numbers and addresses on file across VA’s three administrations means that Veterans receive important and timely information, such as appointments, benefits information, and prescriptions or medications.
More than four million Veteran contact information profiles have been created or updated since May 2018, and more than 175,000 of those updates were made online through VA.gov.
Maintaining the correct contact information is especially important because VA has improved its ability to listen.
As part of a deliberate strategy to leverage customer experience data to empower exemplary VA customer service, VSignals gives Veterans the option to provide feedback in real time.
The VSignals platform gathers feedback from Veterans, eligible dependents, caregivers and survivors. It then provides that feedback to VA leaders for process improvement, but also sends that feedback directly to the point of interaction to enable resolution. For example, feedback about a Red Coat Ambassador at the Cleveland VAMC would not only be used when assessing the Red Coat Ambassador program across VA, but is also sent directly to the Cleveland VAMC for immediate response.
To date, the VSignals has sent out over 15 million surveys and received 3 million total responses. Most Veterans will receive a VSignals survey after their Veterans Health Administration appointment at a medical center or clinic.
When Veterans leave free-text responses in VSignals, the Artificial Intelligence (AI) engine automatically analyzes the feedback to detect sentiment, determine which topics Veterans are mentioning and predict what might be emerging before they intensify into long-term concerns. VSignals also routes responses to the Veterans Crisis Line and National Call Center for Homeless Veterans when Veterans leave feedback indicating they might be at risk for suicide or homelessness. To date, over 691 suicide crises and 343 homelessness crises have been sent to VA experts who can provide additional resources to those Veterans in need.
Both of these projects are working toward even greater accomplishments, as Vet360 will be expanding, adding new business lines and VA systems, so Veterans’ military service, eligibility for VA services and benefits, and socio-economic and demographic data are automatically synchronized across all VA systems.
VSignals will also be adding the Digital Comment Card, a web-accessible tool to capture Veteran thoughts and comments about their VA Medical Center experiences. Their feedback is submitted in their own words, in near real-time, with 24/7 convenience.
These programs are key components of the effort to modernize VA systems and transform the interaction between the Veteran and VA.
Congress is investigating widespread abuse of Veterans by some VA police whose acts of abuse include body slamming Veterans resulting in death.
Last Tuesday, the House Committee on Veterans Affairs held a hearing exposing new details of body slamming of Veterans and other uses of excessive force. Are they watching too much WWE on break? Why are these reports surfacing?
One example was a 65-year-old Veteran who tried to leave a VA facility who was blocked by VA police. Rather than deescalating the matter, VA police body slammed the elderly man.
The family of that Veteran won a $500,000 settlement from VA after filing a tort claim.
“They pretty much took him, slammed him to the ground, hit his head and he ended up dying,” said Democratic Rep. Gilbert Cisneros, a vocal critic of the VA police.
Another elderly Veteran at a VA in Missouri recently died after being slammed to the ground by VA police resulting in his death. There, the Veteran was behaving erratically, possibly due to symptoms of stroke.
“I mean really what are they doing over there,” Cisneros asked. “Why are we having these situations where individuals are being injured or hurt or killed?”
One Veteran was slammed to the ground after a spinal cord surgery.
Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-NY, addressed the confrontation.
“He was literally body slammed onto the ground, with his arms twisted behind his back,” Rice said. “This is someone who was post spinal surgery – he informed them of that, ‘I can’t breathe, I just had spinal surgery.’”
Officers kept the man on the ground and refused to take off his handcuffs. A physical therapist attempted to deescalate the matter by informing the police that the Veteran was not a threat, but the police refused to stop.
That Veteran was later prosecuted federally based on false and fraudulent allegations from a VA clinician about the altercation. That employee apparently illicitly entered the Veteran’s medical records and input false information.
What do you think happened to the employee?
Poor Management Blamed
A recent audit of these confrontations revealed poor management and staffing shortages had a lot to do with the confrontations. The agency plans to employ training improvements as well as new security management strategies.
Since 2014, I have covered this topic of improper and aggressive treatment of Veterans putting both Veterans and other clinicians at risk.
For the second year, nine U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) programs were recognized for innovations in federal health technology during an awards ceremony in Washington, D.C.
Initiatives ranging from text messages to remind Veterans of their appointments to programs that help modernize business practices, VA’s programs were among 29 winners honored June 11 at the FedHealthIT Innovation Awards.
“One of the cornerstones of VA’s modernization is IT innovation,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. “We are proud to receive these awards and look forward to continuing our advancements in IT to allow us to better serve Veterans and their families.”
The nine VA programs include:
Solor – uses off-the-shelf software to convert complex language into user-friendly terminologies. This simplification represents a shift in how software developers consume terminology, enabling collaborative improvement in medical knowledge, patient care and patient safety. This simplification helps with interoperability, a key challenge in health care.
Veterans Signals (VSignals) – is a continuation of the award-winning VOICE Veteran Experience program and is an effort by VA to create an enterprise-level Customer Experience (CX) solution for the collection of Veteran feedbackused to improve the Veteran Experience.
Benefits Integration Platform (BIP) – is a modern, flexible, cloud-based IT platform that improves the way VA manages and provides Veteran benefits, healthcare and memorials.
Light Electronic Action Framework (LEAF) – is a simple solution for digitizing paper-based forms. LEAF empowers any VA user to streamline business activities, increase transparency and enable real-time data and status tracking.
Enterprise Software Asset Management Program – tracks and manages IT software assets throughout their life cycle, enabling VA to reduce costs, identify trends and improve software investment decision making. The program earned recurring A’s on VA’s Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) scorecard.
Digital Transformation Center – improves VA’s ability to support Veterans through rapid, incremental improvements in IT capabilities. An agile development approach enables a regular cycle of capability upgrades and enhanced functionalities by leveraging Software as a Service, Platform as a Service and other emerging technologies.
Vet360 – is the authoritative source of Veteran contact information. After verifying their identity, Veterans can add or edit their contact, personal and military service information via the new VA.gov website. Correct contact information is important for VA health care (prescriptions, appointment reminders, lab and test results), disability compensation, pension benefits, claims and appeals. Up-to-date information is also critical for VA employees to provide personalized interactions and excellent customer service.
VEText – is an interactive mobile solution to remind Veterans of upcoming appointments through text message. The goal was to offer Veterans an easy way to confirm or cancel appointments. VEText has reached over 6.15 million Veterans, processed more than 1.76 million cancellations and has helped decrease the overall national no-show rate by nearly 2 percent.
Lighthouse – VA’s Application Programming Interface (API) program empowers our partners to build innovative Veteran-centered solutions. In the last year, VA launched a developer portal and APIs for: benefits submission and tracking; navigation to and information on VA facilities; electronic verification of Veteran status on commerce, job and third-party benefit websites; and better access to and visibility of Veterans’ health information, ranging from allergies, diagnostic reports and lab results to medications, procedures and more.
VERO BEACH, Fla. (CBS12) — Doctors say lives and time are going to be saved thanks to a new rules with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Until now, Veterans getting treatment covered by the VA had to drive hours to the nearest VA hospital. A new rule passed by President Trump means Vets can go to a local doctor and the VA will still foot the bill.
Robert Howell is born and raised in Vero Beach. His family is there, his friends are there, but his doctor is all the way in West Palm Beach at the VA hospital and he goes there a lot.
"Most of the time at least twice a month," said Howell.
Robert travels there because of what he got while serving in the Army during the Vietnam War.
"Parkinson's, which was from Agent Orange," said Howell.
Why make the long drive? Before now if Veterans wanted medical bills to be paid for they had to trek to the nearest VA hospital, even if it wasn't nearby. Robert goes there to save money.
"Probably over $100,000," said Howell.
But now he can stay in Vero Beach due to a new VA rule that just started. The Mission Act allows Vets who live 30 minutes or more away from a facility to get treatment through private healthcare options-and the VA still foots the bill.
"It's good that you can do that. Just go here, to your local hospital, your local doctors," said Howell.
Robert says he and his Veteran friends will definitely be taking advantage of this new rule.
"My next appointment's in July, I think around July 18, I'm going to look into it," said Howell.
Doctors in Vero Beach say this is a safer option for Veterans so they can get healthcare sooner and don't have to be at risk driving on the road. And with this new change comes a change for doctors who will be seeing more Veterans. They'll be getting reimbursed for Vet medical bills through Tri-Care West. CBS12 News talked to a doctor in Vero Beach about how smoothly this transition will go for local physicians.
"There will be some hiccups, I'm sure along the way, but they'll be smoothed out. I think it's a real benefit to the Veterans who need access and care," said Dr. Christopher Olenek.
The Department of Veterans Affairs now has a policy requiring Veterans in wheelchairs to switch to ones provided by the facility during emergency room visits to make sure they're not hiding guns, a top VA official testified Tuesday.
The policy was adopted following a February incident at the West Palm Beach, Florida, VA Medical Center in which a double-amputee patient pulled a weapon from his motorized wheelchair and fired at least six shots in the emergency room, wounding a doctor in the neck and injuring two staff members, said VA official Renee Oshinski.
Oshinski said the wheelchair transfer policy is directed at all VA medical centers, but she couldn't vouch for how many had put it into effect besides the West Palm Beach facility.
However, "we are asking at all sites that, when people come to the emergency department, they be put in a wheelchair that is owned by the medical center," said Oshinski, the acting deputy under secretary for Health for Operations and Management at the Veterans Health Administration.
Oshinski testified at a House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations hearing on "Examining VA's Police Force" and security issues at VA facilities.
She was questioned by Rep. Brian Mast, R-Florida, an Army Veteran of Afghanistan who lost both legs to an improvised explosive device.
Mast noted that there was a suicide at the West Palm Beach VA facility in February in addition to the shooting incident, adding that VA Secretary Robert Wilkie at the time pledged "a complete review of our security protocols."
In response, Oshinski said a construction project is underway at West Palm Beach to broaden coverage by security cameras and "to make sure parking facilities are patrolled."
Other members at the hearing cited instances of alleged use of excessive force and misconduct by the VA police.
Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-New York, cited the case of a constituent, Afghanistan Veteran Jean Telfort, who said he was "body slammed" by VA police while recovering from spinal surgery after getting in a dispute with staff at the Northport, New York, VA Medical Center.
Telfort also said he was brought up on federal charges over the incident, which stemmed from a dispute with a medical support assistant at the hospital.
In response, Frederick Jackson, from the VA's Office of Security and Law Enforcement, said, "One incident of the use of force is one too many."
But he defended the actions of the VA police at Northport.
Agents interviewed Telfort at length after the incident and also interviewed witnesses. "Based upon what the police said to him and what Mr. Telfort said, the witnesses thought that the officers acted properly," Jackson said.
Oshinski told Rice "how difficult it was to listen to what you described during your discussion, and I am so sorry about what happened. And I wish we could go back and do it over again."
In his prepared statement for the subcommittee, VA Inspector General Michael Missal said his previous reports on the VA police force found that the "VA failed to develop adequate threat assessments and written policies" for its police, "which contributed to security vulnerabilities."
"Common challenges identified in these and other OIG reports, such as staffing shortages, the splintering of oversight responsibilities, confusion about roles, and lack of clear guidance can undermine VA's well-intentioned goals and objectives" for its police, Missal said.
In her own prepared statement, Oshinski said that the VA's police often encounter "trained military Veterans suffering from medical and psychological traumas." Their training emphasizes defusing situations rather than resorting to force, she said.
"Due to the unique policing environment, all VA police officers receive specialized training at the VA Law Enforcement Training Center" in North Little Rock, Arkansas, Oshinski said.
"VA police officers are taught the necessary skills to resolve incidents in a humane, respectful manner," she added.
Currently, the VA has about 4,200 police officers, about 700 short of the level authorized, Oshinki said. The average salary is about $53,000.
The Department of Justice decided not to continue VA’s lawfare against Vietnam War Veterans called Blue Water Navy Veterans who are now eligible for certain benefits based on herbicide exposure off the coast of Vietnam.
The herbicides in question are known to cause respiratory cancers, Parkinson’s disease, heart disease, and a garden variety of other terminal problems. Rather than fight the claim until all Blue Water Veterans die, the government will now own up for the cost of war.
With the DOJ stepping aside, up to 90,000 Veterans will be eligible to receive valuable VA benefits that could be worth thousands each month. While the new benefits will cost taxpayers an estimated $1.1 billion, perhaps taxpayers should think twice about supporting wars where we harm our troops using poisons.
This is great news for Veterans, even though rumor has it the agency is in no position to give up its pattern and practice of using meritless claims to oppose these Veterans.
In January, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled 9-2 in favor of the Navy Veterans affected by herbicide exposure but who did not set foot on Vietnam soil or travel in its inland waterways. The decision broadened what it means to have “served in the Republic of Vietnam.”
The underlying case, Procopio v. Wilkie, was that of a Veteran named Alfred Procopio, Jr., who sought service-connection for his prostate cancer and diabetes.
The agency put forth an argument against Procopio that the court’s majority concluded had “no merit”. How about that? The agency fought Procopia, a 73-year-old Veteran with terminal illnesses, for over ten years based on an argument that lacked merit.
Lawfare Against Vietnam War Veterans
How much money did taxpayers save by the agency fighting a claim with a meritless argument? Should VA be allowed to pocket the interest they earned on the money that otherwise should have gone to Veterans including Procopia?
All Americans should look hard and long at the process of paying out disability backpay if they want to solve any backlog.
Presently, government finance gurus have an incentive to fight claims using meritless arguments because the agency does not pay interest on the money it wrongly withholds.
There is no penalty for this behavior other than possibly paying severely discounted attorney fees if the Veteran is successful in an appeal at court.
After thirty years, the Veteran may receive his backpay, if he lives long enough, but the backpay is paid out using yesterday’s dollars – – not today’s dollars – – and not today’s dollars plus interest.
Basically, the Veteran may still win the benefits, but the benefits are literally worth a lot less the longer VA denies the benefits.
How It Works
If you were denied benefits at 100% in 1974, wrongly, that meant you missed out on $554 per month. That amount would have increased incrementally each year, and you would have the enjoyment and use of that money during that time.
If denied for 45 years, like a Blue Water Veteran, you are now entitled to $3,057 per month. If you win the benefits now, you are NOT ENTITLED, the backpay at the current value of 100%. Oh no, but our court system has long held that such a decision is akin to charging VA interest.
Here is a quick breakdown of the difference:
- Payment @ today’s dollars: $1,650,780
- Payment @ yesterday’s dollars: a lot less
Okay, I am not going to calculate that because it would take forever to tally each year for 45 years, but just note that it is substantially less, perhaps less than half, what the Veteran would receive at today’s dollars.
Meanwhile, any savvy finance guru could invest the money withheld from Veterans in capital markets to earn revenue while Veterans go without benefits for 45 years. The interest off the money withheld is essentially how large insurance companies earn revenue for shareholders each year literally using the “Delay, Deny, Defend” model of insurance claim adjudication.
Sounds a lot like “Delay, Deny, Hope that I die,” right?
Does that seem like an All-American approach to how we treat those we call on to protect our interests abroad and at home?
Where Are The Lawmakers?
Each year we hear lawmakers come up with the next big thing to help Veterans, but they never address the underlying incentive that is truly creating the most perverse, anti-American incentive harming Vets each and every day.
What do you think? Is it time to penalize the federal government when it acts in an anti-American way against Veterans?
We focus a lot of attention on other matters, but it seems that disincentivizing the use of meritless litigation should be at the time of the list.
Oh, and in case you think VA will now do the right thing – – I have heard the agency is already developing a battle plan to block these claimants with yet another meritless argument even more nonsensical than the last.
But, since there exists an incentive to maintain this course of lawfare, why not?