The Scout Report 384th Edition
Military Families and Veterans News and Analysis
Monday, September 10, 2018
This week will be marked by solemn remembrance. It will also be marked by a lot of hyperventilating about a hurricane. Look, we’re not immune either. Whiskey would be good for both.
This week’s Scout Report takes a look in particular at the storms swirling around the VA with regard to a huge number of unfilled positions, issues arising with implementing technology, and contracting issues, among others. Read on for our analysis, er, forecast?
Tradeshows and Conferences:
Air Force Association: National Convention (Sat – Tue, Sept. 15-18, 2018); Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, Oxon Hill, MD
Veterans’ Affairs: Legislative Hearing on H.R. 5413 and H.R. 6418
When: 10:00 AM, Thursday, September 13, 2018
Armed Services: Hearing: Army Futures Command: Will it help?
Who: Mr. Ryan D. McCarthy, Under Secretary of the Army, U.S. Army; General John M. Murray, Commanding General, United States Army Futures Command, U.S. Army
When: 1:30 PM, Thursday, September 13, 2018
Where: 2020 Rayburn
Veterans’ Affairs: The Role of the Interagency Program Office in VA Electronic Health Record Modernization
When: 2:00 PM, Thursday, September 13, 2018
Where: 334 Cannon
Independence Project: Veterans Study
What: A research study that helps veterans find a job.
Who:Veterans who meet the following requirements: Interested in getting a job; Discharged in the past 12 months OR have a discharge date in the next 8 months; Served at least 6 months of active duty; Be/have been an enlisted service-member between ranks E1 – E9; Have applied for a disability rating; Under 45 years of age.
When: Study participation open now!
Military and Veteran Issues:
VA officials say one in 10 department jobs is unfilled
Leo Shane (@LeoShane), Military Times
Due to provisions in the recently passed VA Mission Act, the VA released data revealing that more than 45,000 VA positions are currently unfilled – 40,000 of which are in the Veterans Health Administration. Democratic lawmakers have been urging Republicans to require VA to fill many of the open positions, saying that the openings weaken VA care and services. VA officials attribute the openings to the nationwide decline of health care professionals, and said in a statement, “There is a national shortage of healthcare professionals, especially for physicians and nurses. VHA remains fully engaged in a fiercely competitive clinical recruitment market.” –LB
Bottom line: Ever see the movie “The Perfect Storm”? Three different weather systems come together to create a massive hurricane/nor’easter that ends up causing the loss of fishermen and others off the coast of Maine. Of course, we are entering hurricane season and Florence seems to be heading our way so it’s an apt metaphor for what’s happening at VA right now. Three massive issues are coming together to lead to huge shortages of critically needed employees at VA, and especially within the Veterans Health Administration. First, there just aren’t nearly enough healthcare providers on the market in the United States and when you dig into specialties like mental health professionals it gets even worse. Second, new laws mean that the VA is capable of firing any employee faster, with less recourse for review and with little oversight so many folks are asking why they would take a job, or stay in one, where the whims of a supervisor can mean you lose your job in minutes out of all of the U.S. government agencies. Third, the public, the media, veterans, political leaders and everyone else on Earth it seems, constantly bash the VA. Why would someone leave a private sector job to serve in an agency that is under near constant attack from every corner, and even more so, from its own leadership and the very people they serve? When you have unemployment below 4 percent that means there are plenty of jobs that don’t involve being easily fired, hated by your own leadership, and paid low government wages. None of this even touches on the rumors that in many ways the Administration wants to see this crisis of few VA employees grow to justify outsourcing more to the private sector. So, no amount of yelling at the department to hire more people is going to work unless serious changes are made and that simply isn’t happening and in many ways they are getting more extreme. Meanwhile, guess who suffers: veterans and their families out there trying to ride out the storm in 50-foot waves. This isn’t a simple issue but we urge them to find solutions before it’s too late. –FPW
Delays in Forever GI Bill implementation could affect veterans’ checks
Nikki Wentling (@nikkiwentling), Stars and Stripes
In the Forever GI Bill, which took effect Aug. 1, 2018, a veteran’s housing allowance is supposed to be calculated based on the ZIP code where the student attends classes. The Department of Veterans Affairs failed to meet the early August deadline to set up the technology to ensure student veterans receive the correct housing allowance. Student Veterans of America (SVA) has heard some concerns raised by its members while VA officials told lawmakers they would update the technology by mid-August, but has yet to do so and has no estimated time for implementation. –SM
Bottom line: As SVA’s Barrett Bogue points out, the VA’s failure to meet this deadline is affecting the livelihoods of student veterans across the country, but at the moment, there isn’t exactly anyone on the VA side to hold accountable, since the VA’s chief information officer resigned in April and we are still awaiting the confirmation of James Gfrerer, who is expected to replace him. In an administration where one in 10 VA jobs is currently unfilled, it should be noted that for this particular expansion, the VA brought on 200 new workers to meet the demand. Until we get to the vague mid-August date when VA officials have promised lawmakers the technology will be updated, SVA continues to direct those impacted to the VA’s GI Bill hotline, or the White House VA Hotline. They also acknowledge that at this point that they haven’t heard from a critical mass of student veterans who’ve been negatively affected at this, but mostly from schools and representatives who are rightly concerned. –CB
Audit shows VA overpaid contractors by over $101 million for medical work
Dennis Wagner (@azrover), Arizona Republic
The VA Office of the Inspector General released an audit showing there were more than $101 million in overpayments made to VA contractors running the Veterans Choice Program in 2016-17. According to an executive summary of the report, “Because of ineffective controls, OCC (the VA Office of Community Care) failed to identify improper claims.” This is the second audit showing overpayments to contractors. The first one, released in November, found at least $89 million. TriWest President and CEO David McIntyre said the company is working on a reimbursement process. –LB
Bottom line: While it is common for stories like this to lead to accusations of contractor greed, the facts in the article show that this was caused by what everyone saw happen in the last few years: rushed implementation of a major government policy and budgetary shift, with the Choice program hitting the road before its wheels had been installed. Because of this hasty movement, the VA ended up owing the contractors hundreds of millions of dollars. In response, they moved from an individual to bulk payment system, which sped up payments but also skipped over a lot of pesky details concerning accuracy and unnecessary duplication. To their credit, TriWest told another reporter that they brought this major issue to the VA’s attention back in 2017 and have promised to pay back the overpayments with interest. At the same time, the audit found that up to 10 percent of the overpayments could have been due to mistakes by the contractors, which is disputed by the contractors. This is not a good look for anyone, but if the money gets paid back, that will be a better outcome than occurs in other situations where the government is careless with its disbursements. Of course, none of this solves anything about the steadily increasing costs of the Choice program and the pressures those costs are putting on other elements of the VA’s budget, which is going to continue to be a major source of conflict and debate even after these overpayments are resolved. –BW
Sex abuse claims raise pressure to reunite migrant families
Julie Watson (@watson_julie) and Marcos Aleman (@MAlemanAP), Albuquerque Journal
Barbara Van Dahlen, Ph.D. – founder of Give an Hour – recently spoke out on the mental health trauma some immigrant families are enduring, with children being separated from their families. Recent accusations that three children have been sexually abused while detained by the U.S. government are increasing already high levels of concern, and Van Dahlen describes the possible effects on these families as “debilitating and destructive.” –AB
3 Cornell Student Veterans Chosen for Selective Leadership Program
Mollie Cramer, The Cornell Daily Sun
Three Cornell University undergraduate student veterans have been invited to attend Student Veterans of America’s (SVA) Leadership Institute, taking place September 20-23, 2018. These three student veterans advocate for veterans’ rights and recruitment at Cornell. The Leadership Institute will allow them to partake in trainings on leadership and team building to better understand and advocate for student-veteran issues. –SM
USAA Doubles Charitable Giving, Targets Military Causes and Local Needs
Shari Biediger (@sbiediger1), The Rivard Report
In 2016, Harriet Dominique – senior vice president of corporate responsibility and corporate affairs USAA – set a goal to double the amount of USAA’s charitable giving by 2018, to benefit military-focused causes. Currently, USAA is well on their way to achieving that goal, having donated $38.4 million this year compared to the $28.4 million donated in 2017. –SM
The VA is Eyeing Ketamine As An Emergency Treatment For Patients At High Suicide Risk
James Clark (@JamesWClark), Task & Purpose
Dr. Punit Vaidya, staff psychiatrist at the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center, presented his ketamine project at the Veterans Health Administration’s Innovation: Experience last month. Vaidya launched a program at the Ohio medical center earlier this year, using ketamine infusion therapy for patients receiving treatment for resistant depression. –SM
How the VHA innovators network is turning ‘changing narrative’ of complacency
Nicole Ogrysko (@nogryskoWFED), Federal News Radio
In late August the Veterans Health Administration hosted a two-day event to highlight examples of healthcare innovation occurring at facilities across the country. VHA leaders spoke about the processes and policies driving innovation and diffusion of those innovations, including “spark-seed-spread” funding streams. And individual innovators took the stage to talk about how they were using 3D printing, storytelling and opioid overdose medications to improve the quality of care and improve patients’ lives. –BW
Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos Gives $10 Million to Super PAC in First Major Political Contribution
Reid Epstein (@reidepstein), Wall Street Journal
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and his wife gave $10 million to With Honor, a super PAC that backs veterans of both parties who are running for Congress. With Honor supports candidates who have a “common bond of service and commitment to the country.” Rye Barcott, founder of With Honor, said of the Bezoses, “They perceive themselves to be pretty nonpartisan. The idea of doing something different and disruptive appealed to them, along with our focus on values and integrity in our national discourse.” –LB
VA Working to Slash Opioid Use as Study Finds Ibuprofen May Be Just as Effective
Richard Sisk, Military.com
After a 2012 study led by the National Institute of Health concluded that non-opioid medications were equally effective at treating pain as opioids, the VA led concerted efforts to decrease opioid prescription rates. According to recent data compiled by VA pharmacies, those efforts are succeeding. Opioid prescription rates were reduced by half at the Manhattan VA Medical Center, from 11 percent to 5 percent at the Fargo VA Medical Center, and from 15 percent down to 6 percent at the CW. Bill Young VA Medical Center, among others. The physician behind the study, Dr. Erin Krebs of the Minneapolis VA Center for Chronic Disease Outcomes Research, notes that people believe opioids are most effective, underscoring the need to share the study’s findings: “So getting that word out is important,” she said. “And not just getting the word out, but saying, ‘Hey, we do have effective existing treatments for pain and we have a lot of other options that certainly are safer and mostly, probably, work better as well.’” –KG
For decades, the NFL wrapped itself in the flag. Now, that’s made business uneasy.
Adam Kilgore (@AdamKilgoreWP), Washington Post
In 1969, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle made the calculated decision to incorporate the theme “America Thanks” for the third Super Bowl’s halftime show, which included a reenactment of the Battle of New Orleans. Years later, he noted: “It was a conscious effort on our part to bring the element of patriotism into the Super Bowl.” From USO tours, to patriotic displays and acceptance of paid patriotism from the Department of Defense, the NFL has undoubtedly made conscious efforts to amplify the connection between itself and the military. Though some speculate that the NFL’s sweeping national popularity may have inevitably made it synonymous with “Americanness” and an epicenter for patriotism, growing cultural fractures stemming from player protests during the national anthem and intense political fissures have now led to mounting unease as the organization grapples with how to appease a deeply divided fan base. –KG