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Veterans Roundup: The Future of VA isn’t Just About a Secretary, Just Who Is Influencing VA Decision Making, Congress Takes On VA Reform Again & More

Posted by Fred Wellman

‘Who the hell is this person?’ Trump’s Mar-a-Lago pal stymies VA project
Arthur Allen (@ArthurAllen202), Politico
Questions have arisen around Trump and those he affiliates himself with – for instance, a Florida doctor who is friends with Trump advisor Ike Perlmutter has had a hand in holding up implementation of the VA’s digital records system, a $16 billion contract. Politico reports that Moskowitz has joined contracting team calls regarding the electronic health records project involving Cerner. Allegedly, Dr. Moskowitz’s ill opinions of Cerner were enough to delay the VA project. Former VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin previously expressed concern about Moskowitz’s involvement and believes his objections were a contributing factor to his firing. –DD
Bottom line: One of the longest standing frustrations that many transitioning service members have dealt with is the inability to simply have their electronic medical records transferred over to the Department of Veterans Affairs from the Department of Defense. Instead, the records are printed and transferred manually, often lost, or new ones are created during the transition process. The simple inability to use a single electronic health record system for both agencies has created headaches and difficulties for hundreds of thousands of veterans so there was a lot of relief when it was announced by former VA Secretary Shulkin that the agency would implement the Cerner-based system that DoD currently uses. Here we are months later finding out that one of the biggest reasons the effort has stalled is because a well-connected individual has inserted himself into the process because he doesn’t like Cerner and if that wasn’t bizarre enough it turns out his complaints about the system appear to stem from having used an older version of the software that won’t be the one implemented by VA. In the end veterans are the ones who continue to be caught in the middle between competing inner circles. We must place veterans first and that means ensuring their health, benefits and well-being comes before politics. Hopefully, this reporting leads to an end to the interference from outsiders and the agencies are able to implement the changes needed to move forward in this important project. –FPW

More Sexual Assault Cases are Reported in the Military, But Fewer Cases are Going to Trial
Jeff Schogol (@jeffschogol), Task & Purpose
The number of military sexual assault cases being reported has risen nearly 10 percent from 2016 to 2017, but the percentage of those cases that go through the military’s justice system has dropped 17 percent since 2013. According to recent research compiled by the Department of Defense, commanders are more likely to utilize administrative action and discharges rather than refer the cases to courts-martial. According to Nate Galbreath, deputy director of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, changes made in 2012 to the Uniform Code of Military Justice now require more extensive evidence to pursue certain cases. Of the report, Lydia Watts, CEO of Service Women’s Action Network said: “An increase in reporting is only good if it leads to justice. It hasn’t. Despite the increase in reporting, actual convictions from sexual assault reports have decreased over the last three years. The military is encouraging victims to come forward, and when they do, it hangs them out to dry.” –KG
Bottom line: An increase in the number of reports of sexual assault is typically seen as a good sign that more victims are coming forward, not that there has necessarily been an increase in assaults overall. Assuming that is the case here, will that continue to hold true if victims do not feel that justice is being served? In the article, Galbreath says of the decrease in courts-martial: “Because it’s very, very challenging to go through the court-martial process and testify, victims may opt to not testify.” Hence, an increase in administrative and discharges, rather than trials. But, again, if victims find the justice system so burdensome, perhaps some additional tweaks are worth discussing to encourage victims (and defendants) to have their day in court. Administrative punishments and discharges may only go so far towards modifying future behavior or protecting future victims. With this data in hand, military jurists can hopefully work on ways to bring more balance to the justice system for all stakeholders. –LJ

‘Who wants to work there now?’ Trump’s Ronny Jackson fiasco may be the least of VA’s worries
Lisa Rein (@Reinlwapo), The Washington Post
This year alone, a handful of senior leaders have left their positions at the VA, some with and some without explanation. Several employees have taken issue with President Trump’s vision for the VA – nearly 40 senior staffers have left since the year’s start. The rapid change in leadership leaves many concerned about the inevitable setbacks to resolve pressing issues like access to timely health care for veterans and the modernization of medical records. Current VA employees who had an alliance with former secretary Shulkin now say they are heavily monitored by the Trump administration. VA officials claim these changes are “minor personnel issues,” but others are left fearful for the VA’s future. –DD  
Bottom line: Mere weeks we highlighted the toll the hiring freeze is having on the VA and its ability to fill vacancies across the civil service. Here, we see the senior executives are fleeing with few replacements in sight. The VA can’t effectively serve veterans without the human resources to do so. Systemic and endemic problems at VA won’t be fixed without leadership at higher levels to coordinate change across regions, departments and clinics. If veterans aren’t being cared for, if reforms aren’t being implemented, it’s easy to see how lawmakers might be sold on shifting more care to the private sector. It would be unfair to blame the VA here when this crisis has been manufactured by executive branch mismanagement–and the VA isn’t the only agency where this plan has been enacted. Advocates and lawmakers play important oversight roles when it comes to the VA, but increasingly it appears that oversight attention should focus on disentangling the White House’s special interests from the VA’s ability to care for veterans. –LJ

Lawmakers revive massive VA reform plan, hope for quick passage
Leo Shane III (@LeoShane), Military Times
A massive veterans policy reform bill that was nearly passed in March will once again become House lawmakers’ focus next week. The plan aims to relax eligibility standards for veterans seeking private-sector care, cover the cost of two visits a year, expand caregiver benefits to pre-9/11 veterans and evaluate existing VA facilities for closure based on certain criteria. Lawmakers are facing additional pressure with the recent news that the VA Choice program, which covers approximately 900,000 veterans’ private-sector medical appointments a month, will no longer have funding by early June. House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Phil Roe, R-Tenn said: “This legislation must be passed, and if Congress fails to act veterans will pay for that failure. [This measure] will put the department back on track to fulfilling President Lincoln’s promise to care for the men and women who have borne the battle.” –KG
Bottom line: It’s still possible that House Democrats might again stand in the way of these reforms passing, as ranking member Tim Walz hasn’t yet taken a position. However, as Military Times points out, “unlike during the omnibus debate, where additions to the massive spending deal required buy-in from House Democrats, Republicans may be able to advance this measure to the Senate without support from the minority party.” As we’ve seen with other recent successful VA reforms, like the Forever GI Bill, the pay for is the critical component to master, considering the current Congress and political climate. According to Military Times, “to pay for the reforms, the legislation would extend some VA home loan fees and extend limits on pensions for veterans living in nursing homes who also qualify for Medicaid. It also contains $5.2 billion in new funding for the VA Choice program, to extend it for another year until it is consolidated into the revamped department community care offerings.” The goal for advocates is to have this through the House by Memorial Day. –CB

VA’s next big problem: Key health care program is running out of money again
Leo Shane III (@LeoShane), Army Times
A letter written to members of Congress by acting Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie warns that the VA Choice health care program will run out of funding in early June. Estimates calculated by department officials project that the program will require $1.3 billion to continue through the fall and up to $3.6 billion to continue through the 2019 fiscal year. The Choice program, created four years ago, aims to support veterans seeking health care outside of the VA health system. Critics maintain that the program only hides systemic problems within the VA medical care system. Wilkie has called for swift action to improve services, stating that “decisive action must be taken in order to deliver on our promise to our veterans.” –NJ
Bottom line: This deadline should come as no surprise to anyone, since the VA Choice program has run up against empty coffers before. This time, it seems to have snuck up on everyone largely due to the drama surrounding the hiring and firings of VA leadership. For advocates in the space, yes, they are concerned about VA leadership, but most importantly their priorities are on funding of these critical programs that provide everyday health care to veterans. As far as the politics at play here, Military Times interestingly points out that, “for the program’s first two years, conservative lawmakers complained the program was not used enough, and that VA administrators made accessing care through the program overly bureaucratic in an effort to undermine it. But for the last two years, the opposite has been true. Twice in the last nine months, lawmakers have had to approve multi-billion-dollar funding extensions to the program while they try and finalize a larger VA health care overhaul plan.” –CB

Ranks of Notorious Hate Group Include Active-Duty Military
A.C. Thompson (@acinvestigates), Ali Winston (@awinston), Jake Hanrahan (@Jake_Hanrahan), ProPublica
Through careful investigation of chat room messages from white supremacist organization Atomwaffen, ProPublica and Frontline uncovered that six members either currently serve or had served in the U.S. Army or U.S. Navy. The confidential online chat room records indicate that Atomwaffen values the skills and experience that former and current service members bring to the group. Visillios Pistolis is one such member: an 18-year-old U.S. Marine who assaulted a counter-protestor at the August 2017 Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Va. Marine Corps Spokesperson Major Brian Block issued a statement in response to reaffirm the branch’s commitment to equality, writing that “bigotry and racial extremism run contrary to our core values” and that engaging in “supremacist or extremist organizations or activities is a violation of Department of Defense and Marine Corps orders.” Despite the Marines’ public disavowal of white supremacy, a Marine currently serving in a government intelligence agency told ProPublica that he believes “there’s a willful ignorance” at the unit level. 2017 Military Times polling data reports that 25 percent of respondents reported having encountered white nationalists while in service. These accounts and data raise questions about the Department of Defense’s enforcement policies. –NJ
Bottom line: ProPublica’s report is devastating in its detail and the fact that in the end Pistolis doesn’t deny that he is a white supremacist but that he was supposedly infiltrating Atomwaffen…on behalf another supremacist group. So, clearly he is a criminal genius and that is what is disturbing. He admitted in the chat logs the journalists reviewed that he was found out in basic training to be an extremist yet continued through training and into the Corps. The military has battled the presence of white supremacists in their ranks as far back as the 90s when military leaders were tasked to look at the types of tattoos on their troops to detect neo-Nazi and extremist associations. It appears those efforts continue to fail at preventing them from joining, but more concerning is that after being discovered they are allowed to continue in uniform. That is unacceptable and we truly hope the military takes this situation as a chance drive racists and extremists from their ranks quickly and with punishment to fit any crimes they have committed while in uniform. –FPW

After GI Bill victory, VSOs turn to reforming TAP
Natalie Gross (@ByNatalieGross), MilitaryTimes
Veterans service organizations’ are fighting the next battle for better transitions to civilian life: improving the military transition assistance program (TAP). Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-Texas) introduced a plan for TAP reform which pools ideas from other bills and opinions from VSOs. Many organizations support the bill, including client Student Veterans of America whose Vice President of Government Affairs Will Hubbard says it incorporates VSO feedback into one bill, making it “the most representative bill.” –SM

Veterans Eligible for Free Admission to GNCC Races in 2018
Racerxonline.com
Veteran Tickets Foundation (Vet Tix), a national nonprofit which distributes free event tickets to all currently serving military, including Guard and Reserve, veterans of all eras, military families and caregivers, has received a sizable donation from the Grand National Cross Country Series, which is an American Motorcyclist National Championship. The organization donated 40 weekend passes for each round of the series to Vet Tix. The series is comprised of 13 rounds, and so far, Vet Tix has already distributed 200 tickets to its users. –KG

ATX TV Festival Launches The Syndication Project Foundation
Bryn Elise Sandberg (@brynsandberg), The Hollywood Reporter
President of Student Veterans of America Jared Lyon will be participating in The Syndication Project as a moderator for the panel “On Duty.” Panelists will discuss their working partnerships, portraying active military life and culture and challenges they face when attempting to create storylines for mainstream audiences. –SM

VA ‘Doubling Down’ to Respond to Utah Veteran’s Messy Room
Julian Hattem (@jmhattem), Associated Press
U.S. Army veteran Christopher Wilson’s treatment at a VA clinic in Salt Lake City went viral after his father Tweeted photos of the overflowing trash can and plaster all over the counter and sink in his treatment room. Acting VA Secretary Robert Wilkie responded, saying the room was unacceptable and now, clinics across the U.S. are redoubling efforts to ensure they are up to standards. Wilson says the VA’s Veterans Choice program would take pressure off the VA and allow veterans to select where they receive their treatment. –SM

What it Was Like to Be One of the First Female Fighter Pilots
Kelly Kennedy (@KellySKennedy), The New York Times
In light of the recent Southwest Airlines aircraft making an emergency landing after a sudden engine explosion, Captain Tammie Jo Shults has been recognized for her stellar flying, as well as her service to our country. Shults was one of the first women to serve as a U.S. Navy fighter pilot, having flown the F/A-18 Hornet. At the time when Shults was serving in the Navy, she was not allowed to join a combat squadron and therefore switched to the Reserves. Even now that women aviators are allowed to fly in combat, only about 6.5 percent of the military pilot population is women. There are several other female fighter pilots who were “firsts” in their field throughout the military branches and many endured a similar obstacle – proving themselves as a fighter pilot, not just a female pilot. In a recent “At War” column, a number of female fighter pilots look back on what is was like to be one of the first women to serve in such a role. –DD

Military plane underwent ‘days’ of maintenance before crash near Savannah
Madison Park (@ByMadisonPark) and Steve Almasy (@CNN_SteveAlmasy), CNN
The National Guard Bureau and U.S. Air Force are currently investigating why a Puerto Rico Air National Guard WC-130 nosedived into Georgia Highway 21 on Wednesday, killing all nine crew members on board. The highway will remain closed for the time being as the site of the crash and debris field are investigated. Spokesman for the Puerto Rico National Guard, Maj. Paul Dahlen, said they are not certain what caused the crash, but that the plane was undergoing maintenance in Savannah for days before its departure to the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group in Arizona, potentially for decommissioning. –SM

Congressional Hearings

House:
Appropriations: FY 2019 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Bill 
When: 10:00 AM, Tuesday, May 8, 2018
Where: 2359 Rayburn

Veterans’ Affairs: VA Logistics Modernization: Examining the RTLS and Catamaran Projects
When: 2:00 PM, Tuesday, May 08, 2018
Where: 334 Cannon

Armed Services: H.R. 5515 – National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019
When: 10:00 AM, Wednesday, May 9, 2018
Where: 2118 Rayburn

Tradeshows and Conferences 

American Legion: Spring National Meeting (Wed – Thur, May 9-10, 2018); Sheraton Indianapolis City Centre Hotel, Indianapolis, IN

Community Opportunities 

The American Military Partner Association: 5th Annual AMPA National Gala
Who: Hundreds of the nation’s LGBT service members, veterans, military spouses and allies from across the country and around the world.
When: 6:30 PM, Saturday, May 12, 2018
Where: Washington Hilton, 1919 Connecticut Avenue Northwest, Washington, DC

Fred WellmanFred Wellman, President ScoutComms, brings us his weekly review of veteran news via The Scout Report. Fred served over twenty years as an Army officer in both aviation and public affairs. Follow Fred on Twitter @ScoutComms.

This entry was posted on Monday, May 07, 2018 11:30 am

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