Veterans Roundup: VA Choice Reform, the Latest in the Army Secretary Saga, Accountability at the VA, Telehealth, and Much More

Posted by Fred Wellman

New Hampshire veterans often forced to pick between long drives, longer waits
Ethan DeWitt (@EDeWittKS), The Keene Sentinel
The Veterans Choice program was extended last week as a result of legislation signed into law by President Trump. The program, which reimburses care from a private healthcare provider at the VA’s expense for veterans living more than 40 miles from their closest VA health center, was particularly necessary in places like New Hampshire – the only contiguous US state without a full-service VA hospital. The program causes immense frustration amongst many of its users, who report not receiving calls back from the national call center which arranges private care for Choice users. Despite these frustrations, New Hampshire congressional members are committed to fixing the program rather than scrapping it entirely, stating that they think it can fill the gaps in VA healthcare when working correctly. –KB
Bottom line: This local investigative report from New Hampshire illustrates the issues veterans in rural areas are facing with the VA Choice program. While VA Choice is intended to give veterans who can’t easily access care at a VA facility more immediate access to needed health care services, in some cases VA Choice administrators aren’t responding to veterans’ requests for referrals faster than doctors at the VA can see them. Increasingly, as stories about VA Choice like this emerge, it will become imperative for lawmakers and VA to highlight proposed reforms and how they will simply the program and make it more effective for veterans. Otherwise, VA Choice could fall victim to the same negative perceptions as VA health care itself which in turn might mean veterans seek other avenues for care. We’re looking forward to monitoring the proposed reforms advocates, lawmakers, and the VA put forward and analyzing their potential outcomes. What’s obvious is that veterans want an alternative option like VA Choice, particularly for services like mammograms that aren’t readily available at every VA facility, but the current state of the program is not exactly what everyone hoped it would be. –LJ

Workers who really do ‘support our troops’ are getting their wages slashed
Catherine Rampell (@CRampell), Washington Post
According to Ms. Rampell, contractor employees of the National Guard Bureau are resigning en masse, in response to a new contract that was won by a lowball bid based on cutting some workers pay by up to 50 percent. Employees working at Family Assistance Centers, who connect military families with legal, financial and health resources, have been directly affected by this change. The new company that won the contract, set pay rates by matching any given employee’s pay with the pay of a similar, yet lower paid, job title. Employees that have not yet resigned said they had planned to stay for many years, but can no longer afford to do so while supporting themselves under their new pay rate. ­–JG
Bottom line: We don’t often run opinion pieces in the Scout Report but this piece gets to something we see a lot in our sector and will likely see more of in coming years as planned budget cuts kick in. The fact is that many government contracts are won on little more than who can come in at the lowest cost and that’s all. These kind of re-compete contracts are the worst examples as small companies come in to take the contract away from larger ones by cutting overhead costs and salary scales for employees. Typically, they simply hire all of the incumbent company’s employees but in the case of cuts like these, then you see this talent and experience leaving even thought that is why the government likes to hire contractors in the first place. This won’t be the first story we read about these circumstances and the price for this is paid by both the employees, but worse, for the very people they are supposed to be helping as inexperienced, lower cost employees are hired to replace them. If things go badly it will take the government years to actually fire the contractor while military families pay the price. –FPW

Rate of suicide among female veterans climbs, VA says
Quil Lawrence (@QuilLawrence), NPR
While any rate of veteran suicide is troubling, the rising rate of suicides amongst female veterans is particularly alarming: female veterans are two to five times more likely than their civilian counterparts to die by suicide. This higher rate, which needs more research, could be due to a number of variables, one being the social ostracism that often accompanies instances of military sexual trauma. –KB
Bottom line: Last summer, the Department of Veteran Affairs released the largest report on veteran suicide to date. This study examined data from 1979 to 2014 and highlighted some startling facts about veteran suicide, particularly suicide amongst female veterans. That report showed that female veterans were 2.4 times more likely to die by suicide than their non-veteran peers and were also more likely to use a gun in their suicide. Suicide is an incredibly complex public health issue, and one that has been at the forefront for veterans’ health advocates in recent years. As RAND researcher Lynsay Ayer points out in this piece, one of the only ways to study suicide is to talk to those who have survived and those who work with at-risk populations. Ayer and other RAND scientists published their findings about suicide in the female veteran population after spending months interviewing 54 call responders at the VA’s Veterans Crisis Line (VCL) in Canandaigua, New York, and found that issues such as mental health, sexual trauma, family and financial difficulties were often cited by female veteran callers to the VCL. RAND reporters also found an increased incidence of self-harm amongst these women, information which they believe could help to improve suicide risk assessment protocols. As suicide prevention and intervention protocols continue to evolve and as the VA continues to invest in supporting those at risk of suicide, this type or research needs to remain a priority so that we can reduce suicides in the veteran population. –RB

Trump to establish new VA accountability office
Leo Shane III (@LeoShane), Military Times
During a visit to VA headquarters last week, President Trump signed an executive order focused on accountability for VA employees as well as instituting a task force to identify wasteful and fraudulent practices. VA Secretary David Shulkin elaborated, saying the policy will take the brakes off of current firing protocol – specifically the 30-day notice requirement before all terminations – as well as strategically downsizing the massive department which employs 365,000 people. While Secretary Shulkin believes that this executive order protects whistleblowers brave enough to come forward, many whistleblower advocates are concerned that a potential half-measure will not create the conducive environment for whistleblowers everywhere. –JG
Bottom line: In the grand scheme of VA reform, the executive order signed last week is a minor step forward that ironically creates more bureaucracy within the VA to help tackle the supposed excesses of the current bureaucracy. While the intent behind the changes is clear, it is very unclear whether a task force’s eventual recommendations will result in any substantive changes, or whether the VA will suddenly be in a position to fire a significant number of underperforming or misbehaving employees without major hurdles. Whistleblowers have expressed concern that the revised firing protocol might be abused to punish them, even as Secretary Shulkin has promised to aggressively support and protect their rights, and to investigate their claims. Ultimately, after a campaign that promised to shake up the VA at its foundation, the Trump Administration’s actions thus far—from appointing Shulkin to authorizing task forces—have not strayed very far in substance from the actions of the Obama Administration and Secretary McDonald in 2016. Rhetoric about change is one thing, and something President Trump understands well; creating measurable progress in a complex bureaucracy that is depended upon by millions of veterans is an entirely different task, and executive orders represent minor events in the life of the VA. –BW

Bills would expand VA telehealth services across state lines
Leo Shane III (@LeoShane), Military Times
Last week, a bipartisan group of lawmakers brought back legislation that aims to cut government regulation of telehealth in the VA, stating that relaxing these rules will help veterans in rural areas, as well as those veterans who cannot travel, receive much-needed care through telehealth technologies. Current rules prevent patients from accessing doctors in different states unless both are in a federal facility; the passage of this legislation would make it easier for patients that live in largely-rural states to access much-needed care from the best specialists without having to leave the comfort of their home. –KB
Bottom line: This would be a great reform to enable the VA to make healthcare more accessible to veterans all over America. VA Choice is under the microscope while lawmakers and advocates look for areas to reform, but this would be an easy fix so the VA could increase the number of veterans who can access timely care from doctors. Particularly in the area of mental health, changing the rules so doctors could treat a patient without the veteran having to travel to a federal healthcare facility to talk to their doctor would make a huge difference in the lives of veterans. Simple legislative fixes like this are the kinds of smart reforms we hope to see moving through Congress more swiftly. –LJ

Army secretary nominee addresses LGBT controversy on Facebook
Meghann Myers (@MeghannReports), Army Times
Tennessee State Sen. Mark Green took to his personal Facebook to address the backlash he has received after being nominated for Army Secretary by President Trump. Although Congress has not formally received Green’s nomination, many people are speaking out against his appointment due to his comments against the LGBT community. Known for being a religious lawmaker, Green has been quoted that as a public official, his job is to “crush evil,” referring to transgender bathroom laws. Green has also supported of a Tennessee law that would allow local governments to engage in business with private companies, even if they discriminate against their LGBT employees. –DD
Bottom line: There ways to handle controversies surrounding your nomination to be a service secretary and ways to not handle it. Green went hard after the wrong way. His post to Facebook was based on a blog post on a site called Christian Fighter Pilot that says the reason Green is being opposed is because he is a Christian. Green himself accuses “radical leftists” of being the sources of accusations about his past. So, he came out extremely partisan, which is a role that service secretaries rarely play, and he rode an argument of religious discrimination. The fact is that he is being vetted like any candidate and considering he is replacing not just the first openly gay Secretary of the Army, but one whose own nomination was delayed for months over partisan politics that was really just a thinly veiled opposition to his sexual orientation, makes Green’s complaints all the more silly. The right way to handle this would have been a simple statement saying that the comments being highlighted have been taken out of context but regardless he stands firmly for upholding the rights of all citizens to serve in the military and will fight for all soldiers no matter their color, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or otherwise. Instead, he painted a picture of a vast left wing conspiracy having the audacity to use his own words against him. Green has not been formally nominated yet and that delay is an indicator that he will not get the job as his response will likely irritate a lot of leaders and probably even Secretary of Defense Mattis who has been rigidly non-partisan in his work as SecDef. We would not be surprised to see Green withdraw his name this week. –FPW

Latest GI Bill fight could sideline a host of planned reforms
Leo Shane III (@LeoShane), Military Times
Efforts to reform the GI Bill have come to a roadblock after heated public debate between veteran advocates lead to the cancelation of an committee hearing that was scheduled on the proposed legislative changes. Student Veteran of America (SVA) and Vietnam Veterans of America, among others, came out strongly supporting reform – saying that reforms including service member buy-in would make service members more likely to use the GI Bill, while simultaneously making Congress less likely to reduce funding for it in the future. Iraq and Afghanistan veterans of America, Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion and others staunchly oppose reform. Officials from SVA are optimistic this is only the beginning of the discussion about ensuring a benefit that is so critical to the success of veterans everywhere remains available forever. –JG

Vet Tix and Semper Fi Fund unite to increase awareness of resources available to military community
Veteran Tickets Foundation (@Vet Tix), Vet Tix Press Room
Veteran Tickets Foundation (Vet Tix) is joining forces with Semper Fi Fund to provide veterans and their families with more opportunities to access community resources and lifetime support. Vet Tix grants a unique reintegration opportunity for the military community through free event tickets to all branches of service, while Semper Fi Fund provides immediate financial and emotional support to post-9/11 wounded and critically-ill service members. –DD

Afghanistan and Iraq veterans’ opioid use similar to that of civilians
Science Daily
A new study released this week provided evidence that supports the notion that opioid usage rates amongst post-9/11 veterans are similar to that of the civilian population. While the opioid epidemic is assumed to disproportionately affect veterans, this study shows that this may not be the case for young veterans, offering implications for how the epidemic should be addressed at VA facilities and other health care providers. –KB

Former House Veterans’ Affairs chairman returns to DC as lobbyist
Leo Shane (@LeoShane), Military Times
Former House Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman Jeff Miller left Congress last year but a lot has changed in all branches of government since his departure. Miller has returned to DC as a senior adviser for the firm McDermott Will & Emery to assist their lobbying efforts. While Miller is banned from doing any lobbying to Congress until early next year, federal laws do not prevent him from doing so among members of the executive branch or offering advice in the private sector. –JG

Military service boosts resilience, well-being among transgender veterans
Kim Eckart (@UWNews), University of Washington
A recent study conducted by the University of Washington suggests that prior military service among older transgender personnel may contribute to overall positive mental health. The study proposes that the military culture oftentimes presents obstacles to its members that teach resilience, which can create an experience that contributes to “identity cohesiveness.” –DD

Do women have to register for the draft? No. But misinformation spreads.
Linda Quiu (@YLindaQiu), New York Times
Back in June 2016, the New York Times published an article on the Senate’s vote to include an amendment that required women to register for the draft. Although the final version of the bill signed into law did not include this provision, the story continued to circulate around the internet and has been resurrected recently in light of Donald Trump’s airstrikes against Syria. The article has sparked outrage primarily due to peoples’ tendency to read the incendiary headline without reading the entire story. –KB

Education Secretary DeVos tours Virginia school to stress needs of military children
Maria Danilova (@m_education_ap), Associated Press
During the Month of the Military Child, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visited a Virginia elementary school where 35 percent of the student body comes from a military family. DeVos hopes to highlight the need to help military children, especially those who deal with multiple moves, and ensure they maintain a positive schooling experience when their family member is deployed. –DD

Veterans have a right to bring class actions, court rules
Sara Randazzo (@sara_randazzo), Wall Street Journal
This past week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled that veterans can file class action lawsuits through the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims against the VA, allowing veterans with similar appeals issues to fight together. This issue arose in late 2015 when a veteran attempted to bring such a suit against the VA over the long wait times to review disability claims. –KB

Meet the Woman in Charge of Customer Service for Millions of Vets
Frank Konkel (@Frank_Konkel), Defense One
VA Secretary Shulkin appointed Dr. Lynda Davis as Chief Veteran Experience Officer, where she heads up the customer service wing of the VA. The Veteran Experience Office (VEO) is made up of 182 employees focused on improving the VA’s relationship with veterans and the public. In an interview, Davis explains how the VEO is planning to utilize new technology while building new partnerships that will ultimately increase the ease of use and maximize the overall benefit each veteran gets when they interact with the VA. We have had the good fortune to work with Lynda for several years due to her work with TAPS, Student Veterans of America, and a host of leading organizations in the veteran sector and wish her the best of luck in her new role. –JG

Tradeshows and Conferences

Aerospace Medical Association: AsMA Annual Scientific Meeting 2017 (Sat – Thur, April 29 – May 4); Sheraton Denver Downtown Hotel, Denver, CO

Campaign to Change: Direction Global Summit on Mental Health Culture Change (Sun-Wed, April 30-May 3) in partnership with Los Angeles County; Los Angeles, CA (Pro Bono Client)
Congressional Hearings

Armed Services: Overview of the Annual Report on Sexual Harassment and Violence at the Military Service Academies
Who: Vice Admiral Walter E. Carter Jr., Superintendent, United States Naval Academy; Lieutenant General Robert L. Caslen Jr., Superintendent, United States Military Academy; Lieutenant General Michelle D. Johnson, Superintendent, United States Air Force Academy; Dr. Elizabeth P. Van Winkle, Performing the Duties of Assistant Secretary of Defense for Readiness, Office of the Secretary of Defense
When: 3:30 PM, Tuesday, May 2, 2017
Where: 2118 Rayburn

Armed Services: Building a F.A.S.T. Force: A Flexible Personnel System for a Modern Military
Who: Honorable James M. Talent, Co-Chair, Bipartisan Policy Center Task Force On Defense Personnel; Ms. Kathy Roth-Douquet, Co-Chair, Bipartisan Policy Center Task Force On Defense Personnel; Major General Arnold L. Punaro, USMC (Ret.), Bipartisan Policy Center Task Force On Defense Personnel
When: 2:30 PM, Wednesday, May 3, 2017
Where: 222 Russell

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 01, 2017 12:33 pm

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