Veterans Roundup: No Budget Increase for VA (but Increased Firing Authorities), How Firing the FBI Director is Impacting Veterans, and More

Posted by Fred Wellman

A shot against post-traumatic stress disorder
Sandra Lamb, Scientific American
A new clinical trial taking place at the Denver VA hospital uses a bacterium typically found in the GI tract to combat symptoms of PTSD. Early trials on animals showed that mice injected with this bacterium were typically more resilient in the face of stress compared to those who did not receive the injection. The final results of these tests are expected to come out May 2018. –KB
Bottom line: Two major takeaways from this article: the VA has traditionally been, and should continue to be, a leader in medical research, and the VA also seems to be continuing to prioritize mental health at the macro level. We’re always eager to see more research into innovative PTSD treatments and this one is particularly interesting given recent findings about the ways gut microbes affect our brains and overall health. Of course, this is also the same VA whose leader Secretary Shulkin testified at a hearing that he won’t wait for research results to be published when he has heard from veterans that a treatment works—in that case, he was talking about therapy dogs. That’s good news in a field where it takes on average 17 years for new medical protocols to become widely adopted by doctors. Research and patient advocacy can complement each other. Studies like this one offer new ideas and potential relief for veterans while advocates must continue pressing VA to turn research results into action. –LJ

New Veterans Affairs Chief: A Hands-On Risk-Taking ‘Standout’
Dave Philipps (@DavePhilipps) & Nicholas Fandos (@NPFandos), The New York Times
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Dr. David Shulkin is committed to getting the VA back on course and operating at acceptable standards of efficiency. Shulkin, a doctor still seeing patients in-person and virtually, has dedicated his life to finding the most cost healthcare processes. In this recent interview with the New York Times, Shulkin expressed his tendency to take bureaucracy and the status quo head-on while coaching teams under him to produce necessary results. –JG
Bottom line: There is a simple reason that Dr. David Shulkin was confirmed in a 100-0 vote by the Senate and has gained the support of almost all the veterans service organizations—he gets stuff done. He came into the Obama Administration VA under Bob McDonald and carved his own reputation for making things happen and happen fast. So, when he was elevated to the top job no one expected less and to date most seem happy with his efforts. Shulkin doesn’t like bureaucracy and he remembers that everything the VA does is for one reason: to take care of veterans. He is aware that veterans often bring a unique mix of physical ailments andoften mental challenges to bear in the treatment room and that focusing on taking care of those issues is what matters. If a veteran can get eyeglasses at the mall why are we wasting government resources to do that when he needs mental health care and a prosthetic leg more? That kind of laser focus on what matters is why he is hailed as a changemaker with the right focus by both political parties and why many of us are more optimistic about the future of the Department of Veterans Affairs than probably any other aspect of the new administration. –FPW

Court rules key VA SES firing and appeals authority unconstitutional
Nicole Ogrysko (@nogryskoWFED), Federal News Radio
Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled that it was unconstitutional to have the administrative judge’s decision in disciplinary action for a VA senior executive be final. The ruling stemmed from a petition started by Sharon Helman, who was previously dismissed soon after the passage of the Veterans’ Choice Act. She appealed the dismissal to the Merit Systems Protection Board, but at the time, the Choice Act made the initial judge’s decision final. The federal judge’s decision in this ruling comes in the wake of more reforms aimed at speeding up and streamlining the firing process for misbehaving VA employees. –KB
Bottom line: This ruling comes as little surprise to anyone who followed the issue last year, when the VA under then-Secretary Bob McDonald questioned its ability to fire senior executives due to concerns about the legality of the fast-track processes instituted in response to the original VA wait time scandals. The Court of Appeals obviously spotted similar issues with the process. Now the ball is in Congress’ court to enact carefully-worded legislation that works around legal concerns to empower the VA without trampling existing adjudication rights of employees. The House, as Ogrysko notes, has already passed the VA Accountability First Act. Late last week, a bipartisan group of senators in turn introduced the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, which “features a sped-up firing process for misbehaving employees, a mechanism for stripping those workers of ill-gotten bonuses, and an endorsement from key congressional leaders.” Given the positive feedback the Senate bill has already received from House Republican leaders, there is a good chance that if the Senate bill can win passage, any differences between the two chambers will be quickly ironed out, and VA Secretary David Shulkin will have new authorities for fast-tracking firing decisions that will supposedly be able to stand up to judicial scrutiny. Resolving this issue will help take off the table one area of constant criticism for the VA, though time will tell if Shulkin is prepared and capable of telling more than a handful of underperforming employees “you’re fired!” –BW

Transgender cadets at military academies can graduate but not serve
Tom Vanden Brook (@tvandenbrook), USA Today
A transgender cadet from the Air Force Academy and a transgender cadet from West Point are set to graduate this year, but will not be allowed to commission into their respective services yet. Although the former defense secretary, Ash Carter, repealed the ban on transgender troops currently serving, the policy to accept new troops is still in the works. With more than 6,500 transgender troops already serving, the next steps in this process are scheduled to be implemented policy later this year. –DD
Bottom line: You are probably reading this and thinking the same thing we are: “wait…what?” How can they be perfectly well supported at the military academies, which are military units and institutions, but can’t be supported in the larger services? It’s not logical and it’s not appropriate. The entire situation has that smell of bureaucratic intransigence that is the special skill of the vast Department of Defense way of doing business. So, while the rules barring transgender service members from remaining in uniform or joining have been repealed under former Secretary Ash Carter, the implementation of those guidelines that would govern their service are yet to be issued and, to be honest, are about as likely as a unicorn flying over the Capitol to be issued under the Trump Administration. So, at least one cadet will graduate in a few weeks without a military job to take like all of their classmates and nobody seems to have a clue how to proceed. –FPW

New VA head: It’ll take longer to end veteran homelessness
Jennifer McDermott (@JenMcDermottAP), Associated Press
VA Secretary David Shulkin says decreasing veteran homelessness will remain a priority for his department, while also acknowledging that there is still much to do before reaching functional zero. A major challenge is 
the cost of housing in major cities that have the highest populations of homeless veterans – specifically Los Angeles. Shulkin plans to utilize the HUD-VASH vouchers, which were started in 2008 and have demonstrated clear impact and efficiency in decreasing veteran homelessness. Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, one of the first states to end veteran homelessness, believes that the Trump Administration can end veteran homelessness during this presidential term. –JG
Bottom line: For months, the community of organizations serving homeless veterans has quietly wondered just what this new administration meant for their programs. There has been a lot of talk about disbanding the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, which has been vital to coordinating action across the government to benefit homeless veterans, to mentions of increasing funding for homeless veterans in the skinny budget write-ups. No one was quite sure what the future would hold and while we won’t say this article answers every question, it is encouraging to see Secretary Shulkin devote some national media attention to the issue. Ending veteran homelessness was a major undertaking of the Obama Administration and it remains an unfinished one. Will the Trump Administration see this as an opportunity to do finish something Obama started and claim credit for it while also doing something great for veterans? Or will ending veteran homelessness become more talk than action? Our client the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans are bringing together hundreds of homeless veterans advocates for their annual conference at the end of May and we anticipate this community will have lots to say about what comes next. –LJ

FBI director firing delays key VA health care hearing
Leo Shane III (@LeoShane), Military Times
In a surprising twist, Donald Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey led to a delay in VA Secretary David Shulkin’s testimony on the Veterans’ Choice Program. Shulkin was supposed testify on the program’s behalf Wednesday, but his hearing was postponed due to a procedural process whereby the Democrats blocked normal business in the Senate as a response to Comey’s firing. –KB
Bottom line: Just moments before a hearing during which Secretary Shulkin was scheduled to testify, Senate Democrats declined to give permissions to hold any events, a move designed to protest the White House’s firing of FBI Director James Comey. Generally speaking, the permissions are a routine part of business on the Hill; however, the current political environment is anything but routine. Seemingly unconnected issues are regularly being connected by political posturing on both sides of the aisle. SVAC members also unsuccessfully tried to have a waiver granted for the hearing, to no avail. Secretary Shulkin has made numerous public statements on his hopes for the VA writ large as well as how the agency will need to reform given the current fiscal environment and its mission. Given the importance of the Secretary’s testimony on VA reforms and the Choice program, we hope that this meeting is expediently rescheduled. –RB

VA secretary promises big changes on a tight budget
Leo Shane (@LeoShane), Military Times
In a discussion with senators, VA Secretary David Shulkin has come out against routine annual federal budget increases for the VA. Shulkin says that it is time for the VA to pursue goals of higher efficiency with the resources in place instead of resorting to the unsustainable practice of consistently asking for a larger budget each year. The VA annual budget has seen increases every year since 2001, including the current White House’s proposals for the fiscal 2018 budget. –JG
Bottom line: As we noted in last week’s Scout Report, Secretary Shulkin has made promises to expand both mental health programming and caregiver programming, two rather expensive programmatic changes, without a detailed plan as to how he will make it happen. We are still looking forward to seeing a more nuanced plan as to how the VA will expand programming. According to Shulkin, maximizing efficiency and renewed capacity to partner with the private sector will be key in continuing improvement in the agency without further expanding its annual budget. There is also discussion of closing older and underutilized VA facilities as a matter of cost-savings. Realistically, more money doesn’t always equal better services for our veterans. In the same vein, keeping funding at the same level doesn’t mean services will decline, but there must be a clear-cut plan of attack for the VA to continue to support our veterans, caregivers, and survivors. –RB

RallyPoint Adds Retired Army Major General Bruce K. Scott to Board of Advisors
PR Web
In an effort to expand their education opportunities, RallyPoint – the leading online platform for service members and veterans – has brought retired Army Maj. Gen. Bruce K. Scott on their distinguished board of advisors. Gen. Scott is currently the President and CEO of The George and Carol Olmsted Foundation and he is committed to fostering educational excellence among young service members. –AB

Stalled hearing leaves reservists waiting for a solution to GI Bill restrictions
Alex Horton (@AlexHortonTX), Stars and Stripes
Almost 4,700 reservists who have been or are being deployed will not be eligible for GI Bill benefits, based on a current DoD position. The Pentagon’s reasoning falls under their use of a policy that allows the DoD to make deployment decisions that increase operational use while cutting associated cost. Will Hubbard, Vice President of Government Affairs at Student Veterans of America (SVA), emphasized that we should look closely at why reservists would receive less benefits than active duty service members performing the same duties. ­–JG

National Survey Highlights Importance of Community Events for Veteran Reintegration and Overall Well-Being
Veteran Tickets Foundation (Vet Tix) announced their 2016 annual survey results, with participation from more than 44,000 currently serving military personnel and veterans. The results provide crucial data on a need for positive reintegration opportunities among transitioning service members and military families. Significant data shows there is a need for organizations like Vet Tix in the military community to provide a way for veterans to spend quality time with military peers and their families. –DD

Veterans aren’t as hard to serve as we say
Tara García Mathewson (@TaraGarciaM), Education Drive
James Schmeling, executive vice president of Student Veterans of America (SVA), says that the National Veteran Education Success Tracker (NVEST) proves veterans have a higher graduation rate than traditional 4-year college students; this is contrary to the common public perception that veterans struggle with completing higher education. Schmeling continues to offer advice to transitioning service members and universities that would help ensure higher rates of academic success for non-traditional students. –JG

Win a Walk-On Role in Shooter with Ryan Phillippe & Omar Epps
The Elizabeth Dole Foundation, (@DoleFoundation)
Actors Ryan Phillippe and Omar Epps from the hit TV show Shooter, will fly two individuals out to Los Angeles for a walk-on role in the show. The lucky guest stars can win the opportunity by donating to charity via the Omaze platform. This opportunity will benefit The Elizabeth Dole Foundation’s initiative, Hidden Heroes, which highlights military caregivers and their challenges to find tactical solutions to their obstacles, and The Mission Continues. For more information on how to enter, visit the sign-up page. –DD

Marine Corps takes new step to separate troops caught sexually harassing others
Dan Lamothe (@DanLamothe), The Washington Post
In an effort to end sexual harassment in the Marine Corps, the Corps announced in an administrative message this past week that it will begin reviewing anyone involved in a substantiated sexual harassment case for separation from the service. This move comes not only as a response to the Marines United scandal, but also in response to harsh criticisms of Marine officials who failed to take action in previous instances of sexual harassment. –KB

MLB investigating Dodgers for alleged discrimination in termination of war veteran Nick Francona
Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan), Yahoo Sports
After recent allegations of discrimination against Marine Corps veteran Nick Francona, Major League Baseball has opened an investigation with the Los Angeles Dodgers. As the team’s former assistant director of player development, Francona’s contract with the Dodgers was terminated shortly after he sought out an assessment with an organization to help treat the invisible wounds of war. While Francona has been offered a pair of monetary settlements, he has turned both of them down. –DD

VA officials still searching for fixes to caregiver stipend program
Leo Shane (@LeoShane), Military Times
The VA has extended the deadline for the internal review of their caregiver program to “provide clarity” on the program’s enrollment policies and requirements. Considering reports that caregivers were getting dropped without any justification, Secretary David Shulkin announced the program review last month, as well as a cease and desist for all VA facilities that were removing caregivers from the program. Currently 22,000 individuals are enrolled in the caregiver stipend program, which provides money to families of severely injured post 9/11 veterans to cover costs associated with each veteran’s injuries. The report is scheduled to be released the week of June 19. –JG

Tradeshows & Conferences

Special Operations Forces Industry Conference: 2017 SOFIC Conference & Exhibition (Tue – Thur, May 16-18, 2017); Tampa Convention Center, Tampa , FL

Special Operations Medical Association: SOMA 2017 Scientific Assembly (SOMSA)
(Sun – Thur, May 21-25, 2017); Charlotte Convention Center, Charlotte, NC

Congressional Hearings
No hearings this week

Other Events

Armed Services Arts Partnership: Veterans Comedy Show at The Torpedo Factory
Who: Veterans, service members, and military family members from DC Metro Area.
When: 7:30 PM, Friday, May 19, 2017
Where: Torpedo Factory, 105 N. Union St., Alexandria, VA 22314

Task & Purpose: The State Of War Reporting In 2017
Who: C.J. Chivers, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist, Anna Therese Day, Award-winning independent reporter, Anand Gopal, Award-winning author, journalist, and political violence scholar, Adam WeinsteinTask & Purpose senior editor and Navy veteran
When: 6:30 PM, Monday, May 22, 2017
Where: Columbia University, Graduate School of Journalism, 2950 Broadway, New York, NY 10027

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 15, 2017 11:24 am

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