NPR Series Shines Light On VA ‘Choice’ Program


Quil Lawrence – NPR reporter. Photo courtesy of NPR.

National Public Radio reporter Quil Lawrence took the lead on an investigation into the Veterans Health Administration plan to lessen wait times at VA medical clinics and hospitals by allowing veterans to see private medical providers.

It was called the “Choice Program.”

However, as the title of the first three stories shows, the hastily assembled program left veterans without more medical options: “How Congress And The VA Left Many Veterans Without ‘Choice.'”

Another part of the investigation looked at how attempts to improve the system has instead prolonged wait-times for veterans trying to get a medical appointment: “Despite $10B Fix Veterans Are Waiting Even Longer To See Doctors.”




Chairmen Call for Wholesale Change in VA Health Care

The official  photo of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.

The official photo of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.

The House Committee on Veterans Affairs has set a hearing Oct. 7 at 10 a.m. to discuss A Call for System-Wide Change: Evaluating the Independent Assessment of the Veterans Heath Administration.

The 168-page Independent Assessment was also the focus of a joint statement released Friday, Sept. 18, 2015 by Rep. Jeff Miller (FL-R), Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, and U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson (GA-R), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

“When we requested an independent assessment over a year ago, many of the failures at individual hospitals were well-documented. However, we all feared that they were just the tip of the iceberg. This in-depth review justifies those fears, and validates Congress’ efforts for years to investigate and uncover the many serious issues preventing the Department of Veterans Affairs from providing America’s veterans with quality, timely healthcare. The VA can no longer deny that its problems, as outlined in this report, are deep-seated and systemic. From delays in care and scandal cover-ups, to rampant unaccountability and a lack of leadership, the VA is an organization challenged at every level.

“This is not just another report to sit on a shelf collecting dust. Failing to act on its findings would be a great disservice to the men and women who have worn the uniform and to the values that make our nation great.

“We know that the Commission on Care will be closely examining these assessments and recommendations, and we look forward to the commission’s plan to end this continuing national tragedy. As the assessment confirms, fixing the VA will require a lot of time and hard work. This report is yet another reminder that it is far past time for President Obama to come to the table and work with Congress to transform the VA into an organization worthy of those it serves.”

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 Innovation Cuts Paperwork, Offers Flu Shot Options

Courtesy of VA

Courtesy of VA

Veterans in Florida, southern Georgia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands can now get a flu shot at any of more than 800 Walgreen’s locations and the drug store can electronically forward their immunization record to the VA.

It’s a pilot program, being tried out in the Veterans Integrated Service Network 8 (VISN8). It requires no paper record, no remembering at the next VA health care appointment.

Enrolled veterans can still receive a flu shot at no cost during their regularly scheduled VA visit, on admission into a VA facility and at a VA walk-in flu station. There’s usually a charge for a flu shot at a pharmacy or private health care provider outside of the VA unless the veterans’ private insurance or Medicare covers the cost.

Veterans who are in the Florida, VISN 8 region can find details on the pilot program at their local VA medical center or clinic, or go to and at the VISN 8 home page here.

Information in this report was provided by Douglas Trauner, the Entrepreneur in Residence for the VA Center for Innovation.

A Push to Rename Bay Pines VA after Bill Young

Photo courtesy of Bay Pines VA.

Photo courtesy of Bay Pines VA.

An estimated  100 members of Congress are expected to attend the funeral service Thursday in Largo, Florida for Congressman Bill Young.

He died last week at 82 with the distinction of being the longest serving Republican in Congress.

As a tribute, Congress is considering a bill to rename the Pinellas County Bay Pines VA Medical Center after Young.

On the Senate side, US Sen. Bill Nelson is sponsoring the legislation.

“Of course Bay Pines was something that he (Young) cared about,” Nelson said. “He cared about veterans. He cared about the veterans’ health care system. He was one of the premiere appropriators when it came with anything that had to do with military and veterans. And so, this is a very appropriate naming of a federal facility.”

Nelson expects the House to pass their bill this week adding that the Senate will take up the renaming measure next week.

VA Budget Proposes a 10 Percent Increase for Veterans

VA-logo2The President has proposed a $152.7 billion budget for the VA. Unlike other federal agencies, that would mean an 10.2 percent increase over the current year according to the Veterans Health Administration.

The additional money will pay for three major goals: eliminating the disability claims backlog, expanding access to benefits like health care and ending homelessness among veterans.

Eliminating the Claims Backlog

Using people and a $291 million investment in technology in the coming fiscal year, the goal is to eliminate the backlog and process all claims within 125 days with 98 percent accuracy. That’s the goal of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

  • $136 million for Veterans Claims Intake Program (VCIP); and
  • $155 million for the next generation of the electronic claims processing system Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS).

Expanding Access

Whether its making health care more accessible to veterans in rural areas or expanding veterans’ college transition programs, there’s funding to expand access. Some examples:

  • $460 million in home telehealth funding, which helps patients monitor chronic health care problems through innovative uses of the telephone, a 4.4 percent increase over the current year;
  • $422 million for women-specific medical care, an increase of nearly 14 percent over the present level;
  • $799 million for the activation of new and enhanced health care facilities;
  • $16 million for the construction of three new national cemeteries; and
  • $8.8 million for “VetSuccess on Campus” at 84 facilities, a program that helps Veterans transition to college life.

Ending Veterans Homelessness

This is a  strategic goal for the VA – to end homelessness among Veterans in 2015.  The budget request targets $1.4 billion for programs to prevent or reduce homelessness, which includes:


  • $300 million for Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) to promote housing stability;
  • $278 million for the HUD-VASH program wherein VA provides case management services for at-risk Veterans and their families and HUD provides permanent housing through its Housing Choice Voucher program; and
  • $250 million in grant and per diem payments that support temporary housing provided by community-based organizations.

Major Health Care Costs

The budget proposal also covers the health care costs for more than 6.5 million veterans and items like:

  • $6.9 billion for mental health;
  • $4.1 billion for health care for Veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn;
  • $2.5 billion for prosthetics;
  • $601 million for spinal cord injuries;
  • $246 million for traumatic brain injuries;
  • $230 million for readjustment counseling; and
  • $7.6 billion for long-term care.

Bay Area VA Clinics Re-Open after Isaac Passes

Tropical Storm Isaac on September 30 at approx...

Tropical Storm Isaac on September 30 at approximately 1947 UTC. This image was produced from data from NOAA-9, provided by NOAA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s “situation normal” for veterans living along the west coast of Florida.  Outpatient  and community clinics associated with both Bay Pines VA Hospital in St. Petersburg and James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa resume normal operations Tuesday.

Both veterans hospitals cancelled clinic appointments with Tropical Storm Isaac blowing into the Gulf.

For those who like tracking hurricanes, you can follow real time “Tweets” from researchers aboard a Hurricane Hunter at @HRD_AOML_NOAA. The Hurricane Research Division (HRD) is a part of the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory (AOML).

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