Veterans Roundup: A New Direction for VA Leadership, the DC VA Hospital Struggles, Blue Water Navy Veterans Closer to Benefits and More

Posted by Fred Wellman

Memo: VA finds ‘deteriorating’ conditions at DC hospital
Nikki Wentling (@nikkiwentling), Stars and Stripes
In January, the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Washington, D.C. was labeled a high risk and flagged for administrative review. According to a recent memo, the hospital has not improved over the last six months despite assurances from VA officials that issues were being addressed and the hospital is one of 16 facilities with a one-star rating out of 170 VA hospitals nationwide. Of particular concern to Carolyn Clancy, the then-Deputy Under Secretary for Health for Organizational Excellence, were access to care at the hospital, mental health care services, employee morale, and generally avoidable mistakes. –SM
Bottom line: It’s no secret that individual VA hospitals around the country continue to struggle to show improvements against the metrics set forth by the agency’s DC headquarters. Yet, of all the VA hospitals in the country, the one in DC should stand out as an exemplar with all the eyes of departmental leadership, Congress, VSOs, and the administration nearby. So perhaps, given all of that, it shows just how difficult it can be at the hospital-level to right the ship. With so many stakeholders close at hand, though, there should be no shortage of helping hands with potential solutions to ongoing problems. Given the large population of veterans in the DC area, there would certainly be no shortage of thankful veterans if the objective quality of care improved at their local VA. –LJ

New Veterans Affairs chief plans to reassign, sideline Trump loyalists now in power
Lisa Rein (@Reinlwapo), The Washington Post
Three sources confirm that new Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie has plans to reshuffle senior VA political appointees in leadership roles at the Department. With these reassignments, Wilkie aims to assuage congressional leaders’ fear that the department has become increasingly politicized amid changes made by then-Acting Secretary Peter O’Rourke. Wilkie recently spoke with President Trump while aboard Air Force One to go over his recommended personnel changes. Wilkie’s spokesperson, Clara Gleason, has not publicly confirmed any reassignments, writing in an email that “any leadership changes will be announced next week.” However, the proposed changes have already received praise from advocacy groups including AMVETS. AMVETS Communications director John Hoellwarth released a statement commending Wilkie for his “desire to serve veterans first.” Sources believe that Wilkie plans to name current general counsel at VA, James Byrne, as acting deputy secretary. Other rumored changes include shifting John Ullyot from public and intergovernmental affairs to internal communications and moving current press secretary Curt Cashour to another role within the Trump Administration. –NJ
Bottom line: In the last year, more than 26,000 full-time employees left the VA, most either quitting or retiring. Much of this is perceived to be due to the internal political turmoil and inconsistent leadership, since Shulkin’s firing in March. Wilkie’s plan to shift many of the higher-ranking VA officials into different roles may be just the disruption necessary to relieve the political pressure. In addition to hemorrhaging full-time employees, there are also many high-ranking positions that still need to be filled. As the Post points out, there is still no permanent deputy secretary, no undersecretary for VA’s health system, no deputy undersecretary for health, no assistant secretary for information technology and dozens of other senior-level positions. –CB

VA raises opposition to bill extending benefits for Blue Water Navy veterans
Nikki Wentling (@nikkiwentling), Stars and Stripes
In a hearing on Wednesday, the Department of Veterans Affairs asked senators to vote against a bill that passed in the House unanimously in June. The legislation would extend benefits to Vietnam veterans who served off the coast and are now claiming illnesses due to Agent Orange exposure. VA undersecretary of benefits Paul Lawrence explained VA’s stance: “We oppose this bill because the science is not there, and we depend on science. We care, so we keep looking.” The legislation would cost $1.1 billion in increased benefits over the next 10 years, plus an estimated $500 million in administrative expenses related to handling and processing the claims. The proposed “pay-for” is a fee hike for service members and veterans using the VA home loan program. –LB
Bottom line: This is an extremely difficult issue to confront. On one side, you have the general lack of empirical evidence that Navy veterans on ships off the coast of Vietnam were exposed to Agent Orange. On the other side, you have an array of Navy veterans who firmly believe that they suffer from ailments that were caused or contributed to by exposure to Agent Orange. Sailors who served on the ground or on river patrols are covered by the VA, because the evidence of possible exposure is much clearer given the relative proximity of those individuals to the locations where Agent Orange was deployed. Among those arguing against extending benefits is former VA Secretary Anthony Principi, who was one of those “Blue Water Navy” veterans. Looking beyond the debate itself, there is a broader question: how far can the VA extend benefits and eligibility for benefits before it runs out of funding and has to seriously cut corners? We’ve already seen the Choice program blow through its budget multiple times and engender debates about making cuts in other areas of the VA budget; adding another $1-$1.5 billion of unplanned costs is not pocket change for the VA. This is also a different discussion than the debate raging over burn pit exposure in Iraq and Afghanistan. In those cases, the exposure is not in dispute, but the effects of exposure are. For Blue Water Navy vets, the effects of exposure are understood to be quite serious, but the evidence of exposure does not seem to exist. I have not studied this issue enough to pass down even amateur judgement, but I will say that we cannot view this issue in isolation; it must be considered alongside the broader VA budget issues and the importance of maintaining—when possible—consistent scientific and medical standards for assessing when and how the VA provides additional support to specific groups of veterans. –BW

Team RWB Virtual Ruck Fundraiser
GORUCK is joining forces with Team RWB for a virtual fundraiser, Ruck Your Colors. The virtual fundraiser works through donations based on the distance an individual pledges to ruck. John Pinter, Team RWB Executive Director, looks forward to Ruck Your Colors: “I am psyched to partner with GORUCK on their Ruck Your Colors virtual challenge! Together, on this challenge, we hope you are inspired to push yourself and celebrate our nation’s veterans while doing it!” –LB

Lawmakers demand Pentagon drops GI Bill transfer limits
Leo Shane III (@LeoShane), Military Times
Lawmakers are criticizing the Defense Department’s plans for next year that would make service members who have been in the ranks for more than 16 years unable to transfer their GI Bill benefits to their dependents. IAVA CEO Paul Rieckhoff said the limitations “hurt our readiness, hurt our recruitment, hurt morale, and are bad for military families.” Now, lawmakers are asking that DOD revert to its original transfer eligibility. –SM

Trump Picks Marine Vet To Take Over Veterans Affairs IT
Aaron Boyd (@Federal_IT), Nextgov
President Trump named Marine Corps veteran James Gfrerer as the VA’s assistant secretary for information technology.  If confirmed, Gfrerer will leave his current post in the private sector as the executive director of Ernst & Young’s risk and cybersecurity office. His prior experience includes time with the Departments of State and Defense and more than 21 years in the Marine Corps. The VA office of the CIO has been vacant for more than a year as the agency has been beset with scandals. –KG

Pentagon braces for massive change to officer promotions
Leo Shane III (@LeoShane) and Tara Copp (@TaraCopp), Military Times
With the signing of the 2019 defense authorization bill later in August comes unprecedented changes to the military officer personnel system. The law allows for the early promotion of some officers and permits others to stay in the military at the same rank for more time than currently granted in the up-or-out system. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Legislative Affairs Robert Hood remarked, “we’re really changing a system you grew up in, if you’re uniformed military.” While some caution that these new guidelines might lead to “cultural friction” among those in military, Hood maintains that he has not yet heard major pushback on these changes. Hood hopes that these new rules give senior leaders “more flexibility to move some things around.” Officials at the Pentagon expect President Trump to officially sign the bill sometime this month. –NJ

Congressional Hearings

None this week.

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, August 06, 2018 11:22 am

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