Veterans Town Hall for Bay Pines VA Healthcare System

Bay Pines VA Medical Center

Bay Pines VA Medical Center

Here’s an opportunity for veterans and their family members who want to share ideas, compliments and complaints with the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System and St. Petersburg VA Regional Office.

It’s a town hall, scheduled Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2014 as part of the “improved communication” called for by new VA Secretary Robert McDonald.

The goal is to hear directly from veterans.

Outreach workers will be available to help veterans with eligibility and enrollment questions beginning at 8:30 a.m. The main program will follow at 9 a.m. featuring presentations by the two directors. Then, there will be a panel of VA representatives to field questions and comments from the audience that will last until 11 a.m.

The event is scheduled in the JC Cobb room located on the first floor of the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center, 10000 Bay Pines Blvd., Bay Pines, FL.

USO Opens Its First Center Inside Tampa’s VA Hospital

Tampa’s James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital officially opened a USO Day Room July 1, 2014 located next to the Spinal Cord Injury Center where there are many long-term patients.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Tampa) plays air hockey with one of the veterans inside the new USO Day Room at James A. Haley VA Hospital.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Tampa) plays air hockey with one of the veterans inside the new USO Day Room at James A. Haley VA Hospital.

This is the first time a USO center has been built inside of a veterans’ hospital. Senior Vice President of the USO John Hanson said that although the 1,900-square foot space is not the largest USO center, its impact will be “profound.”

“I’ll be honest with you. This is an experiment for us,” Hanson said. “Our entire focus for 73 years, more than 73 years, has been on lifting the spirits of active duty troops and their families. This center is going to serve those needs. It’ll also serve the needs of veterans who come here and the active-duty troops recovering from injuries. It’s going to be their place.”

The day room includes a large screen television for games and movies, a “Kids Corner,” a pool table and an air hockey game.

The USO Day Room includes a play area for smaller children as well as a large, flat-screen television. The idea is to make it feel like home for active-duty troops and veterans with long-term stays in the VA.

The USO Day Room includes a play area for smaller children as well as a large, flat-screen television. The idea is to make it feel like home for active-duty troops and veterans with long-term stays in the VA.

Haley VA Hospital Director Kathleen Fogarty said that the features contribute to the therapy of military patients in the Spinal Cord Injury Center, and give them a “home-like situation.”

Several local Taco Bell restaurants raised $30,000 during their “Freedom Bells” fundraiser for the Armed Forces Families Foundation (AFFF) which contributed to the USO project. The AFFF Managing Director Nick Peters said the donation is a testament to military appreciation.

“When you think about it,” Peters said, “we raised twice as much money for the Armed Forces Families Foundation as we do for Boys & Girls Club and World Hunger, which are great charities, but it gives you a sense of the affinity for the military.”

The USO World Headquarters donated $25,000 to the project, and the Tampa Kiwanis donated $2,500 for the “Kids Corner.” Prior to the Day Room, patients’ time with family was spent in their their hospital rooms.

Special Counsel Says VA Is Downplaying Deficiencies

Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner at the U.S. Office of Special Council.

Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner at the U.S. Office of Special Council.

In a six page letter to President Obama dated June 23, 2014, Carolyn Lerner, head of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, detailed 10 cases where the VA admitted serious deficiencies in patient care yet denied it had any impact on the veterans’ health, public safety or patient rights.

 In one case, the VA’s OMI (Office of the Medical Inspector) said it could not find “a danger to public health and safety,” although its investigators confirmed that nearly 3,000 veterans at a VA facility in Fort Collins, Colorado, were unable to reschedule canceled appointments, including veterans whose “routine primary care needs were not addressed” as a result.

Another case brought forward by a VA psychiatrist showed that a patient with a 100 percent service related psychiatric condition was in the Brockton, Massachusetts mental health care facility for seven years before treatment recommendations were noted on his chart.

Another veteran with “significant” mental health issues waited more than eight years after being admitted before receiving a psychiatric evaluation.

The letter also details significant problems at the VA facility in Jackson, Mississippi and found the administration’s response “unreasonable.”

  • A shortage of providers caused the facility to frequently cancel appointments for
    veterans. After cancellations, providers did not conduct required follow-up, resulting in situations where “routine primary care needs were not addressed.”
  • The facility “blind scheduled” veterans whose appointments were canceled, meaning
    veterans were not consulted when rescheduling the appointment. If a veteran subsequently called to change the blind-scheduled appointment date, schedulers were instructed to record the appointment as canceled at the patient’s request.  This had the effect of deleting the initial “desired date” for the appointment, so records would no longer indicate that the initial appointment was actually canceled by the facility.
  • At the time of the OM! report, nearly 3,000 veterans were unable to reschedule canceled appointments, and one nnrse practitioner alone had a total of975 patients who were unable to reschedule appointments.
  • Staff were instructed to alter wait times to make the waiting periods look shorter.
  • Schedulers were placed on a “bad boy” list if their scheduled appointments were greater than 14 days from the recorded “desired dates” for veterans.

“… in the fantasy land inhabited by VA’s Office of the Medical Inspector, serious patient safety issues apparently have no impact on patient safety.  It’s impossible to solve problems by whitewashing them or denying they exist,” chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, Florida Congressman Jeff Miller (R-Pensacola), released in a statement on the OSC Letter to President Obama.

You can read the letter to President Obama and the in-depth analysis of the Jackson VA Medical Center.

 

 

Jolly to Take Veterans’ VA Stories to Washington

Navy veteran Robert Barrie talks with Cong. David Jolly about getting the USS NOA on the VA list for Agent Orange exposure.

Navy veteran Robert Barrie talks with Cong. David Jolly about getting the USS NOA on the VA list for Agent Orange exposure.

Florida Congressman David Jolly (R-Seminole) asked for and got an earful from local veterans this week. He invited them to his office in Seminole where they shared stories of their experiences within the VA health care system.

The veterans were offered immediate assistance from Jolly’s staff, VA representatives and volunteers from veteran service organizations.

And Jolly, who serves on the House Veteran’s Affairs Committee, promised to take the veterans’ stories back to Washington with the aim of improving the system. Yet, a survey of those who stopped by Jolly’s office showed that 68 percent rated their VA care from excellent to adequate.

More than 180 veterans came to Jolly's Seminole Office, and a majority rated their  VA care from adequate to excellent.

More than 180 veterans came to Jolly’s Seminole Office, and a majority rated their VA care from adequate to excellent.

But there were plenty of veterans who were not so pleased. Among them, two veterans looking for help – not for themselves – but for other their fellow veterans.

Navy veteran Robert Barrie wore his blue polo-shirt inscribed with Tin Can Sailor – USS NOA. He’s president of the Navy Destroyer USS NOA reunion group that has more than 300 members.

“We served in Vietnam in 1969,” Barrie told Jolly. “We were in a place called Qui Nhon Harbor. We are trying to get the ship qualified for Agent Orange.”

The congressman watched as Barrie opened a notebook filled with letters, photos and the ship’s deck log to prove his point. They are documents, Barrie said, will qualify his crew-mates for VA coverage of 15 diseases associated with Agent Orange exposure.

Barrie complained the VA has repeatedly misplaced the documents and have yet to qualify the USS NOA as a “brown water” ship that cruised along the Vietnam coast and up the rivers exposing crews to Agent Orange spraying.

Robert Barrie holds a notebook stuffed with documentation he said shows the USS NOA served in coastal regions of Vietnam and was exposed to Agent Orange.

Robert Barrie holds a notebook stuffed with documentation he said shows the USS NOA served in coastal regions of Vietnam and was exposed to Agent Orange.

“Have you ever used a congressional inquiry?” Jolly asked.

“No. We’ve been submitting these things into the VA,” Barrie responded.

“We’ll get the inquiry done in the next three to four weeks,” Jolly said.

He promised to write a letter about the USS NOA directly to Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson in the next two week and ask that he pay specific attention to the problem.

Also armed with documents, Vietnam veteran Al Kelly handed Jolly two well-worn pieces of paper – a discharge form and a citation for the Silver Star.

It was not Kelly but his brother-in-law recommended for a Silver Star while in the infantry in Vietnam. He provided ground fire during an attack, while severely wounded, so his entire company could move from an open rice paddy to the cover of the woods.

“Forty-five years of untreated PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). He ended up in prison. He did 23 calendar years locked up,” Kelly said. “And when he got out, he applied for his assistance.”

Al Kelly asked Jolly to help get PTSD treatment for his brother-in-law, a Vietnam veteran.

Al Kelly asked Jolly to help get PTSD treatment for his brother-in-law, a Vietnam veteran.

“So, when he attempted to receive care after he got out what was the experience?” Jolly asked.

There was no response, no letter, no treatment, his brother-in-law never made it into the system.

Six months lapsed and Kelly’s brother-in-law had an incident with a girlfriend, was charged with a parole violation and put back in prison.

All Kelly wants is to make certain his brother-in-law gets treatment for his PTSD as soon as he is released from prison. And again, Jolly promised to follow up.

Kelly and Barrie are no different than tens of thousands of veterans across the country – veterans looking after their fellow veterans – determined to get them the best of care.

VA Begins Search for New Health Administrator

Deputy VA Secretary Sloan Gibson at the April opening of the new James A. Haley VA Polytrauma Center.

Sloan Gibson in April is now Acting VA Secretary.

The Acting Secretary of Veterans Affairs Sloan Gibson hung out the “Help Wanted” sign today to find a leader who will as he puts it “will be a change agent and deliver necessary reforms to provide our Veterans timely access to the world-class healthcare they’ve earned and deserve.”

Gibson said the new VA health administrator must have a sense of urgency and seriousness of the reform that is ahead.

A commission of health experts started today reviewing candidates for the next Under Secretary for Health for the Veterans Health Administration.

The commission includes:

  • Nancy Adams, RN, Major General Retired, American Academy of Nursing Fellow
  • Garry Augustine, Washington Headquarters Executive Director, Disabled American Veterans
  • Delos Cosgrove, M.D., President and CEO, Cleveland Clinic
  • Lt. General Patricia Horoho, Army Surgeon General and Commander, U.S Army Medical Command
  • Kenneth W. Kizer, M.D., M.P.H., Distinguished Professor and Director, Institute for Population Health Improvement, University of California Davis Health System
  • Jennifer Lee, M.D., Virginia Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services
  • John E. Prescott, M.D., Chief Academic Officer, Association of American Medical Colleges
  • Jose D. Riojas, Chief of Staff, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
  • Bob Wallace, Executive Director, Veterans of Foreign Wars

 

Tampa VA Gives TBI Veterans the STAR Room Treatment

VA speech and language pathologist Kathryn Kieffer

Haley VA speech and language pathologist Kathryn Kieffer explains how the sensory therapies are used in the STAR room.

The Veterans Affairs scandal over delayed medical appointments and secret wait lists is still unfolding. And there’s been plenty of evidence that there are systemic problems at VA medical facilities throughout the U.S.

Yet, even the VA’s toughest critics note that most of the VA medical staff are hardworking, dedicated professionals.

“I believe that the majority of VA’s workforce, in particular, the doctors and nurses who provide our veterans with the care they need, endeavor to provide high-quality health care,” said Florida Congressman Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, Thursday at a hearing on VA bureaucratic barriers.

The medical staff at Tampa’s James A. Haley VA Polytrauma Center was acknowledged in April for their “cutting edge” care that helped revive Army Ranger Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg from a severe brain injury.

A device to stimulate auditory and visual responses from TBI veterans.

All sorts of devices are used to stimulate brain-injured veterans like this flag-shaped button that when pressed makes the toy monkey clang its cymbals.

“He (Remsburg) arrived comatose with a severe, traumatic brain injury and long odds for recovery. But VA’s remarkable medical staff never gave up on the effort to jump start his brain,” said  Sloan Gibson in April as then deputy VA secretary at the opening of the new Haley Polytrauma Center.

Gibson is now acting VA secretary having taken the reigns after the resignation of Secretary Eric Shinseki.

“They tried a countless variety of sensory approaches to bring him to consciousness everything from aroma therapy to sitcoms on TV,” Gibson said. “Three months later, Cory became one of seven out of 10 patients with severe traumatic brain injury who’d come back to life through VA’s ground breaking emerging consciousness program.”

Those sensory therapies, used by the medical staff, have been brought together in the new, Haley Polytrauma Center. The STAR Room,  an acronym that for the Sensory Technology Awareness Room, is designed specifically for patients who are minimally conscious or emerging from severe brain injuries.

A wall projection of colors acts as a visual stimulant for veterans with TBI.

A kaleidoscope of colors is projected on the wall of the STAR room as visual stimulation for brain-injured veterans.

Speech language pathologist Kathryn Kieffer welcomed visitors into the STAR Room during the open house in April. It was dimly lit in hues of purple and pink.

Kieffer pushed a large, flag-shaped button that activated a toy monkey which clanged its cymbals and squeaked.

“We have over here an eye gaze device,” Kieffer then demonstrated how by just looking at a button written with the word “yes” – it generated the computer to say “yes.”

The STAR room has a multi-sensory environment with a myriad of technologies to stimulate all the patient’s senses from auditory to tactile. Kieffer pointed to one of the bubble tubes. They are clear cylinders filled with liquid. A light underneath changes colors as small bubbles percolate upward.

Deputy VA Secretary Sloan Gibson at the April opening of the new James A. Haley VA Polytrauma Center.

Deputy VA Secretary Sloan Gibson at the April opening of the new James A. Haley VA Polytrauma Center.

“The bubble tubes also have some vibratory properties to them so you can touch them and get some tactile feedback,” Kieffer said.

The STAR room was not available when Cory Remsburg was at Haley, but many of the therapies were and much of the medical staff. And those dedicated professionals now have the STAR room and the story of Cory Remsburg to motivate other severely wounded veterans to not give up.

You can hear the story on WUSF Public Radio.

A Cross-Country Freedom Ride for Wounded Warriors

Air Force Academy graduates Steve Berger and Craig Anders co-founded the Project Road Warrior Ride.

Air Force Academy graduates Steve Berger and Craig Anders co-founded the Project Road Warrior Ride.

There’s nothing quite like the freedom of the road and the adventure of discovering what’s around the next turn. That independence is what inspired two Air Force Academy buddies to plan a cross-country motorcycle ride next month.

But the Project Road Warrior Ride is unique because most of the riders are military members from the Care Coalition, an organization that cares for wounded, ill and injured members of the U.S. Special Operations Command.

Air Force Academy graduate Craig Anders now serves with the Care Coalition.  He’s a former pilot who as he put it “suffered one too many concussions” which led to a seizure and epilepsy.

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A Can-Am Spyder, a three-wheel roadster motorcycle. The company is providing eight Spyders for the wounded warriors to ride from Seattle to Tampa in June.

“That immediately disqualified me from ever again flying for the Air Force,” Anders said. “That was tough, that was really tough and being that it was a seizure it also disqualified me from driving a car for a while. My wife had to drive me to work and my friends had to drive me to work and for a long time you kind of feel you’re more of a burden than of use.  That’s a hard thing to get past for a lot of folks.”

Anders said one day he’d had enough. To recapture a measure of independence, he bought a bicycle and began riding 15 miles each way to work.

“Then, I went and found a friend to take me flying again and we went skiing again,” Anders said. “I’m lucky. I had my seizure. I got stabilized on medicine and eventually I was able to do many of the things, except for flying, that I used to be able to. For some folks, they’re not that lucky.”

Now, his mission is to help other injured military members regain their sense of control. So, Anders teamed up with his Air Force Academy buddy Steve Berger.

Their first idea was to ride in the Scooter Cannonball Run from Alaska to New Orleans.

The Spyder's controls are in the handles making it easier for riders who don't have use of their legs.

The Spyder’s controls are in the handles making it easier for riders who don’t have use of their legs.

That idea morphed into a fund-raiser. Then, they decided to invite members of the Care Coalition to ride along. They finally decided on establishing their own ride that would start in Seattle and finish in the Tampa Bay area, home to the Care Coalition and two of their major sponsors, Barney’s Motorcycle and Marine and Quaker Steak & Lube in Clearwater.

Anders and Berger co-founded the non-profit organization, Project Road Warrior. For their first event, they will take along eight riders from Care Coalition, travel across 12 states, over two mountain ranges, touch two oceans and the Gulf and all  in 10 days.

“People don’t really realize how rehabilitation can be in the form of adventure,” Berger said. “We’ve got some of these type-A personalities. They’re thrill seekers, they want to do something that’s extreme. They want to do something that is over the top. And riding 10 days across the United States, yeah it’s on Can-Am Spyders, but that’s still going to be a challenge.”

The Project Road Warrior tent, courtesy of Barney's Motorcycle and Marine, was one of the popular spots during bike night at Quaker Steak & Lube in Clearwater.

The Project Road Warrior tent, courtesy of Barney’s Motorcycle and Marine, was one of the popular spots during bike night at Quaker Steak & Lube in Clearwater.

Barney’s Motorcycle helped bring aboard the national company Can-Am that is providing the Spyders, three-wheel motorcycles.

Berger is a civilian now who organizes auto shows for Motor Trend. But he’s looking forward to getting to know the eight coalition members on the ride.

“I was a rescue pilot in the Air Force. So anytime I was doing work in combat it was because someone was having a really bad day. They got shot or they got hit by an IED and we’re flying them to get the care that they need,” Berger said. “So for me personally, I think I’ve seen a lot of these people on the worse part of their day. I want to leave that behind me and find them on some of the better parts of their day the better parts of their lives.”

Beyond helping his fellow troops, Anders also hopes to dispel the impression held by some that injured members of the military are somehow broken.

Selling the Project Road Warrior t-shirts was one way they funded the cross-country trip for eight members of the Care Coalition.

Selling the Project Road Warrior t-shirts was one way they funded the cross-country trip for eight members of the Care Coalition.

“These kinds of events help people see that they’re resilient. They’re capable,” Anders said pointing to the Project Road Warrior poster that features the eight riders. One is a soldier who lost both his legs to an IED but continues in active duty with the Army, another is partially paralyzed, still others have balance issues because of head injuries.

“You have guys like Anthony (Radetic). He was hurt, he was injured. He’s in a wheelchair, but he’s also the first guy to land a back flip on a sit-ski,” Anders said.

Project Road Warrior plans to leave Seattle June 5 and arrive in Tampa June 14, 2014. You can follow their route and adventures on their website.

In between, the group plans to ride the back roads through Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Louisiana and then make three stops in Florida.

They’ll conclude with a big fund-raiser and party at Quaker Steak and Lube. The trip is funded minus things like a communications system which Berger would like to get for safety reasons. But they’re also looking to build funds for next year’s ride and other adventures like maybe a Jet Ski trip around Florida.

You can listen to the story at WUSF News or download the podcast.

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