American Legion is “appalled” by conditions at Jackson VA facility

WASHINGTON (Nov. 14, 2013) — Daniel M. Dellinger, national commander of The American Legion said he is “appalled” by conditions at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical center in Jackson, Miss.

A Nov. 13 congressional hearing focused on a variety of serious, ongoing problems at the G.V. (Sonny) Montgomery VA Medical Center (VAMC), including poor sterilization procedures, understaffing, misdiagnoses and poor management practices.

“The VA facility in Jackson has failed in its responsibility to protect veterans who depend on it for their health care,” Dellinger said. “When pieces of bone are still attached to surgical instruments that are being used on other patients, putting the lives of our veterans at risk, it is time to overhaul the entire hospital and remove – not transfer – the responsible parties.”

The hearing, held by the House Veterans Affairs’ Subcommittee on Oversight & Investigations, examined a variety of serious problems at the Jackson VA center and featured testimony by two “whistleblowers”: Dr. Phyllis Hollenbeck, M.D. and Dr. Charles Sherwood, M.D. Hollenbeck is a former physician of family medicine at the Jackson VAMC, and Sherwood was chief of ophthalmology there.

Each witness described a situation at the Jackson facility plagued with deficiencies. Hollenbeck alleged the Jackson VAMC had about 19 nurse practitioners (NPs) in its primary care unit, but only three doctors (including her). She estimated that about 85 percent of primary-care patients were getting medical care from NPs instead of physicians – and that patients were frequently unaware they were not being seen by doctors.

A July report made by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) found that 75 percent of the Jackson VAMC’s primary-care staff were NPs (the average VA-wide is 25 percent).

“We’ve got a VA medical center in Jackson that has about a three-to-one ratio of nurse practitioners to physicians in its primary care unit,” Dellinger said. “According to OSC, that ratio at comparable facilities is one nurse practitioner for every three doctors. How did things get so grossly incompetent in Jackson?”

A Nov. 12 story by CNBC focused on poor sterilization procedures at the Jackson medical center that left bone fragments on instruments. The allegations were made by an orthopedic surgeon who used to work at the facility; he spoke to CNBC on the condition of anonymity.

“When you have VA medical staff who are afraid to reveal their identities to the public, you know that a culture of fear and reprisal probably exists in the Jackson medical center,” Dellinger said. “That is no way to honor the memory of Sonny Montgomery, one of the strongest advocates for veterans to ever walk the halls of the Capitol.”

Dellinger noted that VA gave bonuses last year to Joe Battle, the Jackson VAMC’s director, and to Rica Lewis-Payton, who directs the South Central Health Care Network (of which the Jackson facility is a part). “This is rubbing salt into the wounds of our veterans being treated in Jackson.”

U.S. Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner, in a Sept. 17 letter to President Obama, recounted the findings of two OSC reports done in July on allegations made by Hollenbeck and Sherwood.  She wrote that “VA has consistently failed to take responsibility for identified problems. Even in cases of substantiated misconduct, including acknowledged violations of state and federal law, the VA routinely suggests that the problems do not affect patient care.”

As an example, Lerner mentioned that, while the Jackson VAMC was under investigation, its director publicly stated that issues at the facility were minor and “did not impact patient care.”

“Such statements fail to grasp the significance of the concerns raised by Drs. Hollenbeck and Sherwood,” Lerner wrote, “and call into question the facility’s commitment to implementing necessary reforms.”

Congress has asked the Jackson VAMC to provide it with a report on the current situation within 30 days. Dellinger said The American Legion has asked VA for a copy of that report, as well as an update within the next few days on conditions at the Jackson facility.

“It is inexcusable for any VA facility to operate under conditions that place the lives of America’s veterans in danger,” Dellinger said. “We expect the individuals who are responsible for the conditions at the Jackson medical center to be held accountable.”

Members of the Legion’s System Worth Saving Task Force will visit the Jackson VAMC next January to evaluate the quality of its health care, and will conduct interviews with administrators, medical staff and patients.

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Contact: Marty Callaghan:202-263-5758/202-215-8644, mcallaghan@legion.org. A high resolution photo of Nat. Cmdr. Dellinger is available at www.legion.org.

VA Resuming Normal Operations as Government Shutdown Ends

WASHINGTON (October 17, 2013) – Employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs are working to resume normal operations as quickly as possible.  Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) regional offices are re-opening their doors and
resuming public contact services for Veterans today.

“With the shutdown over, we are all very grateful that the Nov. 1 benefit checks will go out to approximately 5 million Veterans and other beneficiaries as scheduled,” said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki. “We at VA are working quickly to resume normal operations in order to fulfill our solemn obligation – to ensure that Veterans receive the benefits and services they have earned through their service.  I want to thank all of our VA employees for their dedication and resolve during this difficult period.”

During the government shutdown, VA medical centers, clinics, and other health services remained open.  Due to the shutdown, VA claims processors were unable to continue working 20 hours of overtime per month to reduce the backlog of claims, 0vertime that has helped VA significantly reduce the disability claims backlog by more than 190,000 claims over the last six months.  Mandatory overtime will resume immediately and will continue as planned through Nov. 16, at a minimum.

“In the coming weeks and months, we will fight hard to regain ground lost as a result of the government shutdown,” said Shinseki.  “We remain committed to eliminating the disability claims backlog in 2015.”

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Commander thankful shutdown is halted

WASHINGTON (Oct. 17, 2013) — American Legion National Commander Daniel M. Dellinger expressed relief Thursday after a 16-day partial shutdown of the U.S. government came to an end at midnight. The shutdown had idled  thousands of Department of Veterans Affairs Regional Offices throughout the country and threatened to suspend disability payments to veterans at the end of this month.

“On behalf of our nation’s veterans, I am thankful that the U.S. government has reopened,” Dellinger said. “The American Legion and all veterans were certainly difference-makers in this temporary resolution. Veterans, members of the U.S. Armed Forces and their families should not have been made to suffer or worry about how they were going to pay their bills, feed their families or stay in school during this standoff. Congress and the White House have to work together now to find a lasting solution before last night’s agreement expires.”

Dellinger added that VA claims processors and The American Legion’s service officers, many of whom were denied access to federal buildings during the shutdown, must work quickly to regain lost ground in serving the nation’s veterans, particularly those waiting for decisions on VA benefits claims. “We were finally seeing progress against the VA backlog when the shutdown began,” Dellinger said. “Now, VA must get back to work and – with help of The American Legion’s nearly 3,000 service officers
nationwide – regain momentum and continue reducing the backlog. In the meantime, VA employees, The American Legion and the entire military and veterans communities  will be looking to our nation’s elected leaders to achieve a lasting solution.”

With nearly 2.4 million members, The American Legion is the nation’s largest veterans service organization.

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Contacts: Marty Callaghan:202-263-5758/202-215-8644, mcallaghan@legion.org or Craig Roberts: 202-263-2982/202-406-0887, croberts@legion.org. A high resolution photo of Nat. Cmdr. Dellinger is available at www.legion.org.

The American Legion Child Welfare Foundation awards over $644,005 in grants

INDIANAPOLIS (Oct. 16, 2013) — The American Legion Child Welfare Foundation, in its 59th year, has awarded $644,005
to 21 non-profit organizations.  These grants, determined during the annual meeting of the Board of Directors, held at the Sheraton Hotel City Centre in Indianapolis, Indiana on Sunday, October 13, 2013, have been awarded to support worthwhile youth-serving projects and to assist in the dissemination of information to the general public and specific target groups.  The
following is a brief summary of the grants awarded for 2014.

Autism Speaks of New York, New York was awarded $32,350 for their project, “100 Day Kit for Newly Diagnosed Families.” This grant will provide information kits on Autism and will encourage early intervention and supportive services. The Sons of the American Legion sponsors this grant.

Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation of Baltimore, Maryland was awarded $25,000 for their project, “Healthy Choices, Healthy Children Booklets.” This grant will produce booklets to assist adult mentors and law enforcement personnel in teaching  teamwork, leadership, communication and personal responsibility to the kids they serve. The American Legion Auxiliary sponsors this grant.

Chadwick Center for Children and Families at Rady Children’s Hospital of San Diego, California was awarded $40,350 for their project, “Disseminating Best Practices for Preventing Child Abuse and Family Violence.” This grant would provide a webcast of a multidisciplinary conference on child abuse, as well as brochures and email blasts.

Children’s Hospital & Medical Center Foundation of Omaha, Nebraska was awarded $14,000 for their project, “Period of PURPLE Crying Injury Prevention Program.” This grant will underwrite the production of an infant injury prevention program that will include the distribution of DVDs and educational booklets. The Sons of The American Legion sponsors this grant.

Cornelia de Lange Syndrome Foundation of Avon, Connecticut was awarded $18,287 for their project, “CdLS Education Toolkit for Parents and Professionals.” This grant will provide toolkits, with information about this syndrome, to parents and
professionals.

Face the Future Foundation of Chicago, Illinois was awarded $6,575 for their project entitled, “Family and Public Support Program for Children with Craniofacial Birth Defects.” This grant will produce and distribute an informational video to assist parents with reducing their child’s challenging behaviors and increase social and self-control skills. The American Legion Auxiliary sponsors this grant.

Father Flanagan’s Boy’s Home (aka Boys Town) of Boys Town, Nebraska was awarded $35,500 for their project, “Boys Town National Hotline Online Awareness Campaign.” This grant will fund an internet publicity campaign to promote awareness of the Boys Town National Hotline. The Sons of The American Legion sponsors this grant.

Joe Foss Institute of Scottsdale, Arizona was awarded $10,000 for their project, “Veterans Inspiring Patriotism Program.”  This grant will provide students with copies of the United States Constitution and Declaration of Independence. The Sons of The
American Legion sponsors this grant.

KS&A (Klinefelter Syndrome and Associates) of Pine, Colorado was awarded $20,000 for their project “Genetic Information Kits for Newly Diagnosed Children with X and Y Chromosome Variations.”  This grant will provide informational booklets to parents of children with chromosome variation. The Sons of The American Legion sponsors this grant.

National Alliance of Child Abuse Prevention Funds of Seattle, Washington was awarded $25,260 for their project, “Bringing the Protective Factors to life in your Work – a Resource for Action.” This grant will produce toolkits for trainers to educate professionals and caregivers to help prevent child abuse and neglect. The American Legion Auxiliary and The Sons of The American Legion sponsor this grant.

National Autism Center of Randolph, Massachusetts was awarded $50,000 for their project, “Evidence-Based Educational Interventions in Public School Settings for Children with ASD.” This grant will produce and disseminate information to support an intervention program targeted towards schools and special education dministrators. The American Legion Auxiliary sponsors this grant.

National Braille Press of Boston, Massachusetts was awarded $18,500 for their project, “Just Enough to Know Better: A Braille Primer.” This grant will produce a Braille primer for sighted parents to teach their blind children to read. The Sons of The American Legion sponsors this grant.

Organization for Autism Research of Arlington, Virginia was awarded $67,400 for their project, “Autism Tuned In.” This grant will develop an interactive, web- based program to enhance the lives of children with autism. The Sons of The American Legion sponsors this grant.

Partnership for Food Safety Education of Arlington, Virginia was awarded $20,600 for their project, “Phase II of the BAC! Fighter National Youth Campaign.” This grant will develop online resources to educate the public about foodborne illnesses and safe food handling. The Sons of The American Legion sponsors this grant.

Prevent Child Abuse America of Chicago, Illinois was awarded $14,383 for their project, “Helping Offenders Prevent Child Abuse and Assist in Healthy Development of Families.” This grant will underwrite the printing and distribution of a special baby journal aimed at preventing child abuse.

Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide, Inc. of Freehold, New Jersey was awarded $30,100 for their project, “Remote Delivery of Lifelines Suicide Prevention Program to Schools.” This grant will promote Lifeline Suicide Prevention Program in public schools through online training.

Songs of Love Foundation of Forest Hills, New York was awarded $25,000 for their project, “Songs of Love Outreach Project.” This grant will produce and disseminate brochures and update the organization’s website to promote awareness of the services offered. The American Legion Auxiliary sponsors this grant.

The American Legion National Headquarters Americanism Division of Indianapolis, Indiana was awarded $69,000 for their project, “The American Legion National Oratorical Contest – A Constitutional Speech Contest.”  This grant will provide
scholarship money to participants in the national contest.  The American Legion Auxiliary sponsors this grant.

The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Gateway Chapter of St. Louis, Missouri was awarded $5,000 for their project, “Pediatric Patient Out Reach.” This grant will provide booklets and hospital visitation kits for families with children diagnosed with leukemia and lymphoma. The American Legion Auxiliary and The Sons of The American Legion sponsor this grant.

Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors of Arlington, Virginia was awarded $26,500 for their project, “Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors Children’s Bereavement Guide.” This grant will produce and disseminate bereavement guidebooks. The American Legion Auxiliary sponsors this grant.

Young Marines of Washington, District of Columbia was awarded $90,000 for their project, “Young Marines Drug Demand Reduction.” This grant will underwrite the purchase and dissemination of anti-drug literature and promotional items.  The American Legion Auxiliary sponsors this grant.

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Contact: Jason Kees: 317-630-1202; admin@cwf-inc.org

Legion agrees with VA: ‘End this shutdown’

Secretary’s testimony paints bleak picture for veterans if the impasse continues in Washington.

WASHINGTON (Oct. 9, 2013) — Testifying as the sole witness in an Oct. 9 House hearing, Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Eric Shinseki warned Congress that if the federal government shutdown continues, millions of America’s veterans will stop receiving about $6 billion in monthly payments on Nov. 1.

Addressing the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Shinseki said that veterans service organizations such as The American Legion “have been, quite directly, helpful to me over the past four and a half years, and trying to help us understand how to be better at our responsibilities of caring for veterans, but also servicemembers and families, and survivors that we are responsible for.”

Shinseki said, unequivocally, that all the effects of the shutdown on his department “are negative. It is an impediment to VA’s ability to deliver services and benefits that veterans have earned through their service.” Calling the lapse in federal appropriations an “avoidable situation,” Shinseki said veterans across the country “will be harmed if the shutdown continues.”

Daniel M. Dellinger, national commander of The American Legion, said, “We understand the process and dynamic tension. However, the American Legion urges Congress and the White House to stop holding America’s veterans hostage to their political standoff. We saw several members of Congress gathered last week at the World War II Memorial in Washington. They were supporting our veterans who were being kept from visiting their own memorial. We hope those same legislators are doing  everything they can to end this shutdown.”

In the last six months, VA has reduced its disability claims backlog has been reduced by about 193,000 claims, Shinseki said. Yet the shutdown “directly threatens VA’s ability to eliminate the backlog. We’ve lost ground we fought hard to take. Roughly 1,400 veterans a day are now not receiving decisions on their disability compensation claims due to the end of overtime (for claims processors).

“If the shutdown does not end in the coming weeks, VA will not be able to assure delivery of 1 November checks to more than 5.18 million beneficiaries. And that accounts about $6.25 billion in payments that people are expecting.”

At a critical time for veterans, Shinseki said, everyone at VA “should be focusing on how best to accomplish their missions. And so I ask the committee and the rest of Congress to help us by resolving this fiscal impasse now, so that VA and our federal partners, on whom we have to rely to do our work, can get back to work full time.”

Because of the shutdown, VA was forced to furlough nearly 10,000 employees on Oct. 7 and suspend mandatory overtime for disability claims processors (who had been working at least 20 hours of mandatory overtime per month).

VA has said that such overtime by claims processors has been instrumental in helping to reduce the claims backlog, which has dropped from about 611,000 claims last March to about 418,500 at the end of September, according to VA.

Funding for veterans benefits will become exhausted within two weeks, VA reports. At that point, claims processing for compensation, pension, education, vocational rehabilitation, and employment benefits would be suspended. Benefits payments would also be halted for disabled veterans, their surviving spouses and eligible children. Tuition and stipends for hundreds of thousands of veterans and servicemembers would also be suspended.

“On 1 November, I will not be able to pay all these beneficiaries who are expecting those checks,” Shinseki said. “I need the authorization, appropriations and a budget to be able to do that. I don’t do that independently.

“What is best for veterans, and for all of us right now, is a budget for the entire federal government. Let us get back to work. The sooner we do it, the faster I get back up to full speed.”

Referring to the hearing, Dellinger said, “VA Secretary Shinseki gave Congress many grim details today about how the government shutdown is affecting our veterans, including the fact that millions of our nation’s veterans may not be receiving about $6 billion in benefits next month. The VA claims backlog has started to go up again. Our student veterans would also stop getting GI Bill education benefits.

“The secretary told Congress this is a critical time for veterans and that he can’t solve this dilemma independently. We agree with the secretary and urge Congress and the White House to act immediately to either end this shutdown or fund the accounts that ensure the well-being of so many of our veterans.”

Other programs for veterans affected by the shutdown include the Department of Labor’s Veterans’ Employment and Training Service that supports employment and counseling services for veterans. The Small Business Administration has closed 10 Veterans Business Outreach Centers nationwide, and has suspended all of its programs for veterans business development and service-disabled veterans procurement.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development is no longer issuing new vouchers for homeless veterans’ housing.

VA services that are continuing during the shutdown include health services at more than 1,700 facilities across the country, funded by advance appropriations for fiscal 2014. The American Legion pushed for federal legislation that resulted in such funding.

The Veterans Crisis Line, which has already accounted for about 30,000 life-saving rescues, will remain open on a 24-hour basis at (800) 273-TALK (8255). VA insurance processing and home loan processing will also continue.

For more information on how the government shutdown is affecting veterans, go to www.va.gov.

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Contacts: Marty Callaghan: 202-263-5758/202-215-8644, mcallaghan@legion.org or Craig Roberts: 202-263-2982/202-406-0887, croberts@legion.org. A high resolution photo of Nat. Cmdr. Dellinger is available at www.legion.org.