Good morning Legionnaires and veterans advocates, today is Friday, November 2, 2018 which is All Souls Day, Cookie Monster Day, National Deviled Egg Day, and plan you Epitaph Day. (“Blogger, attorney, war reporter, husband, father and soldier. Somehow he managed to claw his way up to mediocrity in each endeavor.”)
This Day/weekend in Legion History:
- Nov. 2, 1921: The first American Legion Auxiliary National Convention concludes in Kansas City.
- Nov. 2, 1976: Jimmy Carter, a member of Americus, Ga., American Legion Post 2, 1946 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and officer at the beginning of the U.S. nuclear submarine program in the 1950s, is elected to serve as the 39th President of the United States.
- Nov. 3, 1949: Newly elected American Legion National Commander George N. Craig’s homecoming event in Brazil, Ind., (population 9,000 at the time) includes a parade that extends six miles in length and draws more than 30,000 visitors. The event gives Commander Craig a national media stage to promote the Legion’s community-improvement “Build America Plan.” Craig, the first national commander whose service came entirely during World War II, is honored by Gov. Henry F. Schricker who proclaims Nov. 3 as George N. Craig Day.
- Nov. 4, 1980: Ronald Reagan, a U.S. Army Air Forces veteran during World War II and a member of Palisades American Legion Post 283 in Pacific Palisades, Calif., is elected 40th president of the United States. He goes on to serve two terms and leads the United States through the heart of the Cold War, a mission that culminates with the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in 1987.
TABLE OF CONTENTS:
- Military Times: Fewer veterans were homeless in 2018, after a worrisome rise last year
- Military Times: ‘Better Call Saul’ actor confesses to cutting off his own arm, lying about being a wounded war veteran
- AP: Afghan ex-president Karzai welcomes Gitmo 5 into peace talks, sees post-war role for Taliban
- Military.com: Army Under Secretary: Female Rangers Will Not Become a Recruiting Tool
- Stripes: ProPublica report: VA’s $10 billion records system software replacement isn’t going well
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Military Times: Fewer veterans were homeless in 2018, after a worrisome rise last year
By: Leo Shane III 19 hours ago
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WASHINGTON — The number of homeless veterans decreased by about 5 percent this year according to new estimates from federal researchers, an encouraging turnaround after disappointing results the year before.
Housing and Urban Development officials now estimate about 38,000 veterans across the country arewithout stable housing on any given night, roughly half the number on the streets in 2010.
The drop among female veterans in the last year was even more significant. HUD officials estimated a 10 percent drop in homelessness among that population, and credited the good news with continued commitment from federal, state and local leaders on the issue.
“Our nation’s approach to veterans’ homelessness is working,” said HUD Secretary Ben Carson in a briefing with reporters on Thursday. “Nationally we’re seeing declines in the number of sheltered and unsheltered veterans … To date, 64 local communities and three states have effectively ended veterans homelessness.”
Carson credited much of the improvement on a series of initiatives started under President Barack Obama, including the HUD-VA Supportive Housing program. That effort connects housing vouchers with local charities to provide a holistic approach to veterans physical and financial health.
Despite the positive news, veterans advocates say the number still shows significant room for improvement.
“Down is always a good thing, especially given the affordable housing crisis we’re seeing in America today,” said Kathryn Monet, chief executive officer of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. “But we still have a sense that if leadership were more committed to this issue, we could have seen even bigger decreases.”
Monet said federal funding for veterans homeless programs remains strong, but advocates worry that VA leadership in recent years has put less emphasis on the issue than in the last administration.
In 2009, then VA Secretary Eric Shinseki announced a department goal of ending veterans homelessness nationwide in five years. From 2010 to 2016, that number fell by more than 35,000 individuals, almost half of the homeless veterans population at the start of the push.
But last year, VA officials acknowledged that reaching zero homeless veterans nationwide likely was not a realistic goal. The number of homeless veterans increased from 2016 to 2017 by several hundred people, breaking the streak of positive results in the effort.
Carson and VA Secretary Robert Wilkie reiterated on Thursday that the departments are looking to end homelessness among veterans “as soon as possible” rather than setting specific timelines.
The 2018 point-in-time count estimate, gathered at the start of the year, is the first tracking President Donald Trump’s term in office.
Last year, administration officials largely blamed the yearly increase on sharp rises in homelessness in a few western states, most notably California. This year, 33 states saw a decrease, including California, which accounts for almost 30 percent of the nation’s homeless veterans population.
Wilkie, who is scheduled to visit Los Angeles in coming days, said officials there have spent the last year increasing focus and resources on the housing problem. He is hopeful that trend will continue in the future.
The full point-in-time estimate is available at HUD’s web site.
Military Times: ‘Better Call Saul’ actor confesses to cutting off his own arm, lying about being a wounded war veteran
By: J.D. Simkins 20 hours ago
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One of the most bizarre — and gruesome — cases of stolen valor came to light this week when an actor who recently appeared on a popular TV show admitted to cutting off his own arm and lying about being a wounded war veteran.
Todd Latourette, who most recently appeared in season 4 of AMC’s “Breaking Bad” prequel series, “Better Call Saul,” told Albuquerque’s KOB 4 that he sawed off and cauterized his own arm 17 years ago out of desperation to earn more acting roles.
“I severed my hand with a Skilsaw,” he said, adding that he had stopped taking medication for bipolar disorder at the time. “The state of my mind was a psychotic episode.”
The actor did wind up landing a number of smaller supporting roles afterward while maintaining a story that he had been wounded in combat overseas.
“The film industry obviously took a different angle," he said. "I was different. And so they liked that.”
But the actor now says he realizes he was only hired because of the ongoing deception, a revelation he said is tough to live with.
“I was dishonorable," he told KOB 4. "I’m killing my career by doing this. If anyone thinks this was for personal edification, that’s not the case. I’m ousting myself from the New Mexico Film Industry. And gladly so, just to say what I’ve said.”
Latourette insisted he doesn’t expect anyone to forgive him, but does hope his experience might be a lesson to someone else struggling with a mental illness.
“The power is in your hands to take your medication in the morning, or at night," he said. "This discourse of my life doesn’t need to necessarily be yours, because it happens quick… it happens quick.”
Latourette’s other on-screen appearances included the George Clooney and Ewan McGregor film, “The Men Who Stare at Goats," and the Netflix show, “Longmire.”
AP: Afghan ex-president Karzai welcomes Gitmo 5 into peace talks, sees post-war role for Taliban
By: Kathy Gannon, The Associated Press 19 hours ago
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KABUL, Afghanistan — Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who still wields considerable influence in today’s Afghanistan despite being out of office for four years, said Thursday he welcomes the entry of five Taliban leaders who were freed from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay in 2014 into peace negotiations.
Karzai, who led the country from 2001-2014, also said he now supports talks between the Taliban and the United States — but only as a step toward direct talks between the insurgents and a negotiating team representing Afghans from across society.
He spoke to The Associated Press on the grounds of the presidential palace, where he lives with his young family and meets regularly with tribal leaders, Afghan government officials and foreign notables. Just last week the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan stopped by Karzai’s office, where Karzai attached several conditions to Washington’s efforts to find a negotiated end to the protracted conflict.
He also has met with Washington’s new peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad. Since Khalilzad’s appointment last month, peace efforts have accelerated.
The five former Guantanamo Taliban detainees __ some of whom have disturbing pasts and all of whom were close to the hard-line founder of the Taliban movement, Mullah Mohammed Omar __ have come out of the shadows to join the insurgent group’s political office in the Middle Eastern state of Qatar where they will be involved in peace negotiations. They were released in 2014 in exchange for captured U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
The co-founder of the Taliban movement, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, was released from a Pakistani jail where he had been since his arrest in 2010 in a joint U.S. and Pakistan operation. His release had long been demanded by the Taliban. It came following Khalilzad’s trip to Pakistan last month, his first as a new peace envoy.
Baradar was reportedly arrested after seeking to start peace talks with Karzai without Pakistan’s involvement. In the interview, Karzai accused both the U.S. and Pakistan of foiling talks with Baradar at the time. He also said he made repeated attempts to gain Baradar’s release, but his efforts were thwarted by both the U.S. and Pakistan.
Karzai’s final term in power was marked by a prickly relationship with the United States. He bitterly criticized Washington for steamrolling ahead with development plans, without consulting Afghans, who often found projects unusable or impossible to maintain. He openly fought with the U.S. military over tactics, like night-time raids that infuriated Afghans, secret prisons and the use of drones, saying it strengthened the Taliban and weakened his government.
Karzai said he still has reservations about Washington’s intentions as it seeks to find a negotiated exit to 17 years of war, but welcomed Khalilzad in the role of peace maker.
"I believe he has all the right tools to conduct this if he is given freedom by the U.S. government to act toward peace and peace building in Afghanistan," he said.
Karzai has a history with Khalilzad, who was U.S. President George Bush’s special envoy to Afghanistan following the 2001 collapse of the Taliban-ruled government. Khalilzad, who later served as the U.S. ambassador, was a strong proponent of Karzai for president of the first post-Taliban government.
Still, Karzai told The AP that Afghans are watching this latest peace initiative.
An opponent of direct U.S. talks with the Taliban when he was Afghanistan’s president, Karzai now sees it as a necessity because the Taliban today control large swaths of the country. In a report released Thursday, Washington’s own Special Inspector General on Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said the government has ceded even more territory to insurgents and now controls just over 50 percent of the country.
"The Taliban are Afghans and no doubt they control a great part of Afghan territory and that’s a fact of life," said Karzai. "Afghanistan and the rest of the world must live with that, therefore a negotiation with them is necessary and good. Let the Americans talk to them."
Foremost among them is a warning to Washington against making deals with neighbor Pakistan, which most Afghans blame for many of their troubles and whom they accuse of aiding and giving sanctuary to Taliban insurgents.
Even as president Karzai loudly accused Washington of being in cahoots with Islamabad to keep Afghanistan destabilized to further their own interests — Washington to keep an eye on its foes Iran, Russia and China and Pakistan to keep Afghanistan as a client state.
"We will in an extremely forceful way oppose any deals between the U.S. and Pakistan on Afghanistan and Afghan destiny," said Karzai adding that peace negotiations also need to involve regional powers, most notably Russia and China as well as neighbors including Iran.
“Afghans just want peace and a sovereign country and they want to be left alone to their own, to make a living and to do better in their lives,” he said.
1 Nov 2018
Military.com | By Matthew Cox
The U.S. Army’s new wave of recruiting ads will show soldiers firing mortars, launching drones and clearing rooms. But don’t look for them to feature women earning Ranger Tabs or joining the infantry for the first time in the service’s history.
In early October, the Army’s senior leadership announced the launch of a new recruiting strategydesigned to energize accessions after it became apparent that the service had fallen short of meeting its annual recruiting goal for the last year.
The new strategy will add hundreds of recruiters and strengthen recruiting efforts in 22 major cities. The Army also recently launched a new ad campaign dubbed "Warriors Wanted," which features short, dynamic videos of soldiers in action on social media and cable networks.
But the Army’s new recruiting strategy so far does not include a plan to showcase any of the 19 female soldiers who have graduated from Ranger School, a grueling 62-day infantry leadership course notorious for pushing students to their physical and mental limits, Under Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy told Military.com on an Oct. 30 recruiting trip to Philadelphia.
Earning the coveted black-and-gold Ranger Tab is an honor that has eluded many male soldiers since the course was founded more than 60 years ago. On average, only about 40 percent of soldiers graduate from Ranger School.
McCarthy said he was proud of the successes women have achieved under the Army’s gender integration effort, the result of a 2013 directive from then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that required the services to open all combat jobs to women.
"The thing that is wonderful about this experience is we have produced 19 female graduates [of Ranger School]; they have all met or exceeded the standard of the toughest combat leadership school in the world," said McCarthy, a graduate of the course who served in the 75th Ranger Regiment during the early days of combat in Afghanistan.
"And what we have done here is increase the pool of talented people as opposed to meeting a gender-integration target. It’s one of the things I love about the Army. We don’t spike the football. We don’t have to."
McCarthy met the most recent female Ranger School graduate — Capt. Sidney Jaques of the 75th Ranger Regiment — at the October 26 Ranger graduation ceremony at Fort Benning, Georgia.
"I didn’t go out of my way, but we walked down there on the wood chips, congratulating everybody and I saw the deputy commander of the Regiment, who I know, and he grabbed me and said, ‘hey, I want you to meet her,’ " McCarthy said. "I went over I gave her a coin, I put my arm around her, got a photo. And I did it with … about 60 of the 100-some-odd graduates."
McCarthy acknowledged conflicting perspectives in how much public attention to give a soldier like Jaques.
"Part of me says, ‘well, we could put her on a commercial,’ and the other part of me says ‘well, why would I do that?’ " he said. "If anything, you know what I want to do with her — I want to put her on an airplane and send her on a deployment."
In addition to Ranger School, 394 women have graduation from the initial training courses for infantry and armor assignments. Of the number, 65 female soldiers have graduated from Armor Basic Officer Leadership Course and 52 have graduated from Infantry Basic Officer Leadership Course, according to Megan Reed, a spokeswoman for Training and Doctrine Command.
On the enlisted side, 167 females have graduated from infantry one-station unit training, 67 from armor crewman OSUT and 43 from cavalry scout OSUT, Reed said.
As of Oct. 15, the Army has 830 female soldiers in infantry, armor and fire-support specialist occupations, according to Elizabeth Chamberlain, a spokeswoman for the Army.
One of the Army’s ‘Warriors Wanted’ ads does show women in a combat role. The Oct. 29 video begins with a female soldier riding in a vehicle calling for an artillery fire mission into a radio and then cuts to soldiers loading and firing howitzers.
But it’s a sharp contrast from a recent Marine Corpsrecruiting ad from 2017 that starts with a young girl in grade school and shows how her "fighting spirit" guided her through the challenges of combat training in the Marines to the harsh realities of the battlefield.
So far at least two female Marines have graduated the punishing Infantry Officers Course at Quantico, Virginia out of the 40 who have volunteered to take on the 13-week course since it was first opened to women in 2012. The second female completed the course in June, closely following the first female to graduate the course in September 2017.
In November of last year, the Marine Corps changed the significance of the exhausting combat endurance test that occurs on the first day of IOC from a pass/fail requirement to an unscored event.
The backbreaking test, which requires Marines to march miles carrying more than 80 pounds of equipment and complete an obstacle course that includes 20-foot rope climbs and an eight-foot bar obstacle, stopped many of the females from advancing beyond the first day. Top Marine officials have emphasized that the change to the course had nothing to do with the female officers attempting it.
A female Marine sergeant recently completed the highly competitive Phase Two of Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command’s Assessment and Selection course but was passed over for selection to continue on with MARSOC training. She is now leaving the Marine Corps.
Meanwhile, Army senior leaders as well as Ranger instructors have maintained that the standards for Ranger School have remained unchanged.
In Aug. 2015, then Capt. Kristen Griest and 1st Lt. Shaye Haver, an AH-64 Apache helicopter pilot from Arizona, made history by becoming the first women to successfully complete the Ranger course.
During its three-phases, Ranger students learn how to operate in three environments — woodlands in Fort Benning, mountainous terrain in Dahlonega, Georgia, and coastal swamp at Camp Rudder in Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.
Neither Griest nor Haver earned their tabs in their first attempt at the course. Like many of their fellow male students, they were invited to start over after failing the first phase of the course twice.
About 34 percent of students who enter Ranger School recycle at least one phase of the course, adding to the student’s physical and mental fatigue, Army officials say. Traditionally, only 25 percent make it through Ranger School without any recycles, according to school officials.
"This school damn near killed me 20 years ago," McCarthy said.
But McCarthy said the Army made a conscious decision that it would not turn the successes of these women into a marketing tool for the Army.
"It’s very hard to do because we would love to do that, [and] a part of me would love to do that, the other part of me says ‘it’s flat out wrong," he said.
"These women don’t want to be treated differently … they just want to do the job."
Stripes: ProPublica report: VA’s $10 billion records system software replacement isn’t going well
ARNSDORF | ProPublica | Published: November 1, 2018
When senators asked Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie in September about the three Trump supporters who’ve been quietly shaping the agency’s agenda from the president’s Mar-a-Lago resort, he minimized his interactions with the trio, saying they’d had a single meeting on a seemingly dry subject: electronic medical records.
As unexciting as that might seem, it is a subject that will shape the agency for decades to come. The VA gave a software company a $10 billion no-bid contract to replace the agency’s records system. The new system is supposed to synchronize with data from other providers, as the VA increasingly sends veterans to private doctors instead of treating them in-house.
While Wilkie’s comments to the Senate made it sound like the so-called Mar-a-Lago Crowd — a doctor, a lawyer and an entertainment executive with no U.S. military or government backgrounds — opposed the records transition, they actually championed it, highlighting the issue to the incoming Trump White House and making it their top focus, four former officials said.
Wilkie told senators the Mar-a-Lago Crowd is no longer in contact with VA leaders. But the program they backed is still hurtling forward — and not going smoothly. A recent progress report by the software company rated the program’s alert level as “yellow trending towards red.”
The story of what’s gone wrong with the effort emerges from hundreds of pages of internal documents and dozens of interviews with current and former officials, congressional staff and outside experts. The Mar-a-Lago Crowd and the White House frustrated efforts to hire a qualified leader to run the project, according to interviews. The people now in charge have no experience in health care. They have gone against expert advice. And they have been consumed by infighting. A key lawmaker has called the program’s leadership “deteriorating and rudderless.”
The VA justified the no-bid contract on the basis that it would create “seamless care” for veterans moving between the military, the VA and the private sector. As originally articulated, “seamless care” meant improving medical outcomes and cutting costs by helping doctors make more informed decisions.
But Wilkie and his team no longer talk about “seamless care.” Instead, they say the new system will let VA doctors access records from the military — a capability that to a large extent already existed. Some doctors who raised concern about this new direction were removed from the project.
VA spokesman Curt Cashour declined to answer specific questions, saying that “efforts thus far have been successful and we are confident they will continue to be successful.” The White House didn’t provide answers to a list of questions. A representative for the Mar-a-Lago trio declined to comment. The company providing the new software, Cerner, declined to comment, but sent an email to veterans groups warning about about “negative media coverage, including a piece from ProPublica that we anticipate being published this week.”
As the VA moves ahead with the program, it’s increasingly following the lead of the Defense Department, which is already installing the same software at its own hospitals. But the DOD’s program isn’t going well, either: When four military facilities tested the software, it routed orders incorrectly so that lab tests went unfulfilled, and users swamped the help desk with more than 14,000 trouble tickets. An official DOD review in April said the software put patients’ health at risk by providing inaccurate medical data and delaying care.
People who want to protect the VA’s government-run veterans health system fear a similar failure at a VA hospital could strengthen the political forces that want to privatize veterans’ care.
“It scares the hell out of me,” said Ken Kizer, who is widely credited with rehabilitating the VA health system as its chief in the 1990s. “I don’t think the VA, given other issues, has the luxury to have something that doesn’t work.”
The software is supposed to launch in March 2020.
The Trump White House’s interest in transforming the VA’s electronic health records originated at Mar-a-Lago on Dec. 28, 2016. The president-elect asked Ike Perlmutter — the Marvel Entertainment chairman, who belongs to Trump’s Palm Beach club and contributed $5 million to a super PAC supporting his candidacy — for help delivering on his campaign promises to veterans. Perlmutter enlisted two friends: Bruce Moskowitz, a West Palm Beach physician; and Marc Sherman, a lawyer who serves as an expert witness in financial disputes. Perlmutter, Moskowitz and Sherman became known to VA officials as the Mar-a-Lago Crowd.
Their first act was to organize a summit of health care executives to advise Trump on the VA’s future. Gathered at Mar-a-Lago a few days before New Year’s, the executives brought up replacing the VA’s electronic health records, according to four people familiar with the meeting.
The VA pioneered this technology in the 1970s and 1980s, with a homegrown platform known as VistA. VistA was (and remains) popular with doctors because it was tailor-made to their needs. But over the years, the VA struggled to retain coders who could keep the software up to date. Meanwhile, the private health care industry coalesced around records systems built by a handful of software companies. In 2015, the DOD decided to adopt one of these commercial systems, made by Cerner.
For many years, the VA and lawmakers had agonized over what to do with VistA. The VA and the DOD had tried before to unify their health records, only to give up after four years and $1 billion. Changing platforms is extremely disruptive — it costs billions of dollars, leads to drops in productivity and can cause doctors to quit in frustration. Private hospital systems can justify these costs because the commercial platforms are designed to support billing. But the VA is different. In 2016, the VA commissioned an outside analysis that concluded adopting a commercial platform offered no benefit over upgrading VistA, according to six current and former officials.
Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, was in the December 2016 Mar-a-Lago meeting and is close with Perlmutter. To Kushner, it seemed obvious that the VA should go to a commercial vendor, and it should be the same one as the DOD, according to four people who discussed the matter with him. “Kushner basically said it seems like low-hanging fruit, seems easy, seems like a no-brainer,” a former senior administration official said.
Kushner declined to be interviewed. As he recounted it to congressional interns last year (according to a recording obtained by Wired): “We said, ‘Guys, we want a solution to get us on one system, this is absolutely crazy.’ They came back in two weeks with something that made a lot of sense.”
Kushner figured that putting both departments on the same system would mean that military medical records would automatically follow service members to the VA. But the DOD and the VA already had computer programs allowing them to share records. At the same time, according to industry experts, using the same vendor doesn’t automatically give doctors all the medical information they might need. “None of us knew at the time,” a former official who worked on the project said. “We thought it made perfect sense, until we looked under the hood. The premise of all of this is incorrect.”
The VA had been preparing for a competitive bidding process for a new software vendor, three former officials said. But now that Kushner wanted to put the VA on the same system as the DOD, the only vendor that could do the job was the one the DOD had already picked. That would mean giving Cerner — a Missouri-based company with about 26,000 employees and more than $5 billion in annual revenue — a massive no-bid contract.
To bypass competitive bidding, federal regulations required the agency to formally explain how the public would benefit. So in a declaration signed on June 1, 2017, then-Secretary David Shulkin defined the public benefit as “seamless health care for the nation’s veterans.” A single common platform, Shulkin wrote, “will result in improved medical outcomes, improved patient safety, and a consistent patient-physician relationship” by standardizing how doctors treat a given condition, giving them access to patients’ full medical history, and assisting them with big-data insights from across the entire system.
Trump hailed the decision as “one of the biggest wins for our veterans in decades.”
“For decades the federal government has struggled to accomplish something that should be very, very simple,” Trump said on June 5, 2017. “I’m very proud to say that we are finally taking steps to solve this situation once and for all. … No more complications.”
Knowing how tough the project would be, Shulkin and his team wanted to find a chief information officer with experience leading a software transition like this. The VA got two search firms to work pro bono and the headhunters came back with several highly qualified candidates, according to three people with direct knowledge of the process.
But the Presidential Personnel Office rejected them, the people said. In one case, the White House said its vetting turned up a court-martial during the candidate’s military service, but the candidate said that wasn’t true. In other cases, the White House never gave a reason. Instead, the people familiar with the process said, the White House proposed people who hadn’t worked in health care information technology but had worked on the Trump campaign.
Another of the candidates recruited by the headhunters was Jonathan Manis, who was the CIO of Sutter Health in Northern California. Manis, 56, had led software implementations at two large hospital systems and is a veteran. He said he was excited about the opportunity and interviewed with multiple VA officials.
But then he heard from Moskowitz, the West Palm Beach physician. Manis said he didn’t understand Moskowitz’s role, but he could tell his opinion was important, or else he wouldn’t have been on the phone.
After that conversation, Manis withdrew. He said the politics at the VA seemed too volatile for him to uproot his life and take a massive pay cut for a job that might not last. “I understood this was going to be a difficult mission, and as long as we were all committed, I wanted to lead it,” he said. “But if this thing was bouncing around so much and people were in and out, that instability, given the compensation and the unknowns, was too much for me.”
While VA officials said they found the Mar-a-Lago Crowd’s input unhelpful, their own interactions with Cerner and outside experts raised new concerns. At one meeting, according to three people present, Cerner representatives gave a flashy presentation about how well their software would share data with private providers. But Shulkin, a practicing physician, saw through the sales pitch: They were talking only about prescription data, not anything close to the lab reports and images that make up a patient’s full chart. Shulkin cut off the meeting, the people said, and told the Cerner representatives to come back with something real.
“I didn’t want to allow Cerner to think they had achieved this contract and it was for their standard product,” Shulkin said in an interview. “I was really looking to advance the field much further than that.”
The head of Cerner’s government division, Travis Dalton, declined to be interviewed. In an Oct. 30 blog post on the company’s website, Dalton said: “Cerner and the are committed to applying commercial best practices, as well as any lessons learned from our DoD experience. … The VA has unique challenges and it’s critical that end-users and stakeholders are engaged throughout the implementation process.”
In September 2017, the VA convened a panel of industry experts who made clear that Cerner’s off-the-shelf product would not on its own achieve the VA’s goal of “seamless care,” according to a presentation from the meeting. The presentation featured anonymous excerpts from interviews with hospital executives who’d led software transitions, with warnings such as:
“Assume the vendor will fail miserably.”
“Vendors are doing a B-/C+ job in thinking through safety.”
“No vendor covers it all.”
Achieving “seamless care” — the basis for the VA’s no-bid contract with Cerner — would take much more than Kushner’s vision of synchronizing records between the DOD and the VA. Seamless care, according to Shulkin’s declaration, meant tapping into all the data in a veteran’s “single, accurate, lifetime health record” to automatically suggest potential diagnoses and care plans. The document called it “computerized decision support.”
But Cerner’s product didn’t do that. Its software was primarily designed to help private hospitals bill insurance companies, a function that the VA, as the sole payer, had little use for. “Cerner is about getting the right documentation so health care systems can bill and make money,” said Heather Woodward-Hagg, a former director of the VA Center for Applied Systems Engineering. “VA is different. The focus of the VA’s electronic medical record is never about clinical documentation to support billing. It’s about giving the information to the provider at the right time to inform the best care. There are true risks to patients if they don’t do this right.”
Woodward-Hagg had been part of efforts at the VA to turn data from electronic health records into useful and reliable insights for doctors. In the end, the efforts were abandoned because of the expectation that Cerner would make them redundant, eight current and former officials said. That turned out to be wrong, because Cerner doesn’t have those features or they’re very limited, experts said.
Stan Huff, the chief medical informatics officer at Intermountain Healthcare in Salt Lake City, was among the experts consulted by the VA. “All of the advice I gave to the VA was, if you install Cerner as an off-the-shelf product, your clinicians are going to be extremely unhappy and everybody is going to ask why did you spend billions of dollars for a crappy system,” Huff said. Provided with a VA documentshowing how officials responded to his comments, Huff said, “I don’t think they took action based on what I told them.”
Shulkin delayed signing the Cerner contract to conduct more vetting. Moskowitz joined in a January 2018 session where White House and VA officials discussed the Cerner contract with industry experts; a consultant’s report summarizing the meeting incorrectly identified Moskowitz as an “Other Federal Government” participant.
Before Shulkin could finalize the contract, Trump fired him. A few weeks later, the VA got a new acting CIO: a former campaign staffer named Camilo Sandoval. Sandoval had no experience in health IT. But he did have a regular daily call with Perlmutter and kept a spreadsheet to track projects for him, four current and former officials said. He would now oversee the records overhaul.
After Shulkin’s departure, the White House and the Mar-a-Lago Crowd wanted fresh eyes to review the Cerner contract. There was even talk of having Sherman become a temporary government employee to carry out the review, two former officials said, but he declined.
Instead, the White House reassigned an official named Genevieve Morris from the Department of Health and Human Services to the VA. Wilkie (then acting secretary) signed the Cerner contract in May 2018, and Morris took over the office in charge of implementing it. She had worked on software implementations in small outpatient settings as a private-sector consultant, but she had never led anything on a large scale.
The industry experts whom the VA had consulted emphasized that clinicians need to lead the program since they’re the people who’ll actually have to use the software. “These initiatives should be regarded as clinical projects, not IT or technical projects,” said Thomas Payne, the medical director of IT services at UW Medicine in Seattle.
But tensions flared up between the VA’s clinical leadership and Morris’ implementation office. “I got dismissed from working on this because I would say ‘this is a problem.’ They don’t want to hear about any problems,” said Stephan Fihn, a former director of clinical system development and evaluation who retired from the agency in February.
When Morris’ office did try to recruit clinicians to the effort, clinicians would say they couldn’t spare the time for fear of missing or delaying appointments, according to a July email among VA officials working on the program. In another email, one of Morris’ deputies warned that unless they secured the support of clinical leadership, “We will fail.”
Officials also began encountering more shortcomings in Cerner’s product. It didn’t come with features for some of the VA’s core specialties, such as Agent Orange exposure, spinal cord injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, because these conditions aren’t common in the general population. “Cerner’s focus is on management of their products, where VA’s focus is broader and encompasses activities that fall outside of the products Cerner will provide,” Ash Zenooz, a VA radiologist who became the chief medical officer working on the implementation, cautioned in a program management plan.
Zenooz’s report noted that Cerner’s incomplete plan to migrate patient data “provides opportunity for patient safety issues.” The DOD proposed transferring only one to three years of patient records to the new system, five current and former officials said — undermining the premise of a unified lifetime medical history.
Morris voiced these concerns but faced internal rivals, three current and former officials said. Sandoval opposed her because he wanted to be the one to lead the project. The same was true of John Windom, who had led the contract negotiations, and of Rich Stone, the acting head of the VA’s health division. The officials said that Sandoval, Windom and Stone met to discuss countering Morris, and that Windom undermined Morris by blocking information from reaching her. Windom declined to comment; Sandoval and Stone did not respond to requests for interviews.
In August, the VA spent at least $874,000 on a kickoff event in Missouri, where Cerner is headquartered. Morris and Windom squabbled over stage time and walk-on songs, and she clashed with Sandoval and Stone over how much they would participate, two former officials said. They presented a convoluted organization chart that couldn’t paper over the power struggle.
The week after, Zenooz quit. Morris followed three days later. She’d lasted less than two months.
The leadership struggles raised alarms on a House subcommittee organized to oversee the Cerner implementation. “It would be a tragedy for the program to be undermined by personality conflicts and bureaucratic power struggles before it even begins in earnest,” the subcommittee’s chairman, Indiana Republican Jim Banks, said in an Aug. 24 letter to Wilkie.
But that’s exactly what was happening. With Morris gone, Windom was back in charge. Windom also led the contract negotiations for the DOD; Cashour, the VA spokesman, said Windom “has been with the effort since its inception and has the necessary expertise and institutional knowledge to lead this initiative effectively.” Because of his acquisitions background, Windom thinks about the project in terms of “cost, schedule and performance objectives.” Windom has no background in health care, and other officials say his focus on schedule and budget could come at the expense of getting a product that achieves “seamless care.”
Windom was in the September 2017 meeting with industry experts when they said it was crucial for the clinicians who will use the software to be the ones who lead the implementation. But Windom has curbed input from clinicians, six current and former officials said. “The emphasis has always been, ‘Let’s get Cerner in your office so that you can put the data in,’” said Frank Opelka, a medical director for health policy at the American College of Surgeons whom the VA has consulted on the program. “The VA has an excellent group of folks, and they were being pushed to the sidelines.”
Windom is technically a placeholder, but at a September subcommittee hearing, he made clear he wants to keep the job. Asked who at the VA is primarily accountable for the project, Windom answered, “My ego would say me.”
Despite the recent resignations, Windom insisted his office was up to the task. “We feel like we at this time have no gaps in leadership or subject matter expertise,” he said.
Banks, the subcommittee chairman, pressed him on that, asking if anyone in the office overseeing the electronic records modernization project had managed a software “implementation in a large health system to its completion.”
None of the government employees had. But Windom answered “yes,” explaining that he was getting the necessary expertise from consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton. A Booz Allen spokesman declined to say who those experts are. And four people familiar with the arrangement said most of the work was being done by junior staff who don’t have the expertise Banks was asking about.
Within the VA, the three positions that oversee Windom — deputy secretary, chief information officer and under secretary for health — have all been vacant for months.
For CIO, Trump nominated James Gfrerer, who has a cybersecurity background but no health care experience. Asked about the Cerner implementation at his confirmation hearing, Gfrerer said, “Clinicians will have to go through a substantial, rigorous process to conform their workflows to the IT systems.”
That’s backward, according to industry experts: The technology is supposed to help the doctors do their jobs, not impose practices on them that might not be appropriate. “You don’t come in and say, ‘We have these workflows and templates in the private sector and you should use them,’ because they probably aren’t as good as what VA has,” a former senior VA health IT physician said. “Veterans will suffer.”
Gfrerer’s confirmation got held up amid the Supreme Court nomination and campaign season. In the meantime, the position is still held by Sandoval, the Mar-a-Lago ally.
The acting health chief, Stone, met with two members of the Mar-a-Lago Crowd before taking the job, according to three people who discussed the meeting with him. Stone told the people he paid his own way and listened to the Mar-a-Lago Crowd’s input but felt no obligation to take direction from them.
Wilkie said he’s not aware of any ongoing contacts with the Mar-a-Lago Crowd. (Another person who was close to the trio, former acting secretary Peter O’Rourke, recently left the agency.) But Wilkie has not provided documents or answered questions in response to multiple congressional inquiries. The ranking Democrat on the House veterans committee, Tim Walz of Minnesota, called it “a transparent attempt to stonewall.”
Wilkie told Stone to focus less on the Cerner transition, and Stone has told other officials he has to pick his battles, according to two people familiar with the matter.
At the recent subcommittee hearing, some lawmakers appeared so troubled by the VA’s performance that they pondered whether the DOD should be in charge of the Cerner implementation in both departments. The Pentagon looked into it, but agency lawyers determined they lacked the statutory authority to take over, according to two people familiar with the discussions.
Instead, Wilkie and Defense Secretary James Mattis issued a joint statementpromising to cooperate on the Cerner implementation. The departments, they said, are “jointly committed to implementing a single, seamlessly integrated electronic health record” that “maximizes commercial health record interoperability.”
While not an outright DOD takeover, the statement was revealing as to how Wilkie and Mattis are thinking about the project. Compared with the original goal of “seamless care,” only the word “seamless” survived — Wilkie and Mattis’ statement emphasizes computers instead of doctors and patients. In another sign of this approach, the two departments formed a joint steering committee that doesn’t have any clinicians on it, according to its charter.
“If they think they’re implementing a computer program, they’re on a path to failure,” said Taylor Davis of the research firm KLAS. KLAS surveys more than 50 of the nation’s top hospital systems to identify what makes software implementations successful or not. He said he’s offered to share those results with the VA, but they haven’t taken him up on it.
Lawmakers and agency officials are still haggling over organization charts to establish on paper how the two departments will collaborate on the Cerner implementation. But in practice, Wilkie has already decided to follow the DOD’s lead, according to seven current and former officials. He worked for Mattis before coming to the VA, and he brought a crew of Pentagon officials with him. Cerner has also pushed for the VA to draw from staff who worked on the DOD’s implementation, a person familiar with the talks said.
The two health systems, however, are vastly different. The military mostly treats young, healthy people with acute injuries. The VA provides long-term care to an aging population with complex, chronic illnesses. Last year, the VA had about 615,000 inpatient visits and 109 million outpatient visits, compared with 226,300 inpatient visits and 41.4 million outpatient visits at military facilities. “VA has different needs than DOD does,” Phil Roe, the chairman of the House veterans committee and a Tennessee Republican, said at the recent hearing, in response to the suggestion that the DOD might take over. “They serve different patients. The VA system is gargantuan compared to what DOD is doing.”
For these reasons, industry experts warned Windom against putting the exact same software in both departments, according to the notes of a person present for the meeting, which occurred in January. At that time, Windom said he accepted that advice. But now, Windom wants 70 percent of the VA’s software configurations to be the same as the ones that the DOD used, according to an Oct. 23 slide deck.
Cerner built its cost and schedule estimates on the assumption that the VA’s implementation would match DOD’s, according to officials and documents, so adjusting the program for the VA could lead to delays and overruns. The VA has already increased its estimate of the project’s cost by $300 million to $16.1 billion, two people briefed on the matter said.
But Windom’s approach could lead to a system that isn’t suited to the VA’s clinical demands, as industry experts and VA doctors have warned him. To help address this question, the VA asked Cerner to compare the two departments’ needs. But Cerner didn’t do that, and it said it needed more information to assess the VA, according to Cerner’s report.
Aside from their appropriateness for the VA, the DOD’s configurations didn’t even work at the department. The initial test of the Cerner system at four military hospitals last year was a failure. Doctors were trained on a different version of the software than the one that got deployed, two people with direct knowledge of the rollout said. Orders for tests or medications didn’t get fulfilled because the software routed them to the wrong place. Users submitted 14,383 trouble tickets in 11 months, overwhelming the help desk’s ability to respond. Doctors passed around pieces of paper instead.
An official review deemed the software “neither operationally effective nor operationally suitable.” Users were able to accomplish only 56 percent of the 197 tasks that were tested. The system scored 37 out of 100 for usability — a score of 70 or above was considered acceptable. Doctors and nurses had to work overtime or see fewer patients because of delays and bugs in the software. They didn’t trust the data they were getting, which the report said “could jeopardize patient safety.” Staff reported 53 “critical deficiencies,” most of which were “potential patient safety concerns,” according to the report. A Pentagon spokeswoman said, “We continue to review and improve training, change management, and workflow adoption activities to deliver safe, quality care.” In a blog post on its website, Cerner said results have improved at the DOD’s initial test sites. “Though some have portrayed the report’s findings as a setback for the program, these reports accomplished exactly what we intended,” Dalton said in the post. “We will continue to work with them to optimize and improve the system throughout the lifespan of the program.”
The VA is repeating at least some of the DOD’s mistakes, six current and former officials said. For example, in a list of “lessons learned” obtained by ProPublica, the VA said it will subject trouble tickets to fewer layers than at the DOD, routing them directly to Cerner. But the VA didn’t address the overwhelming volume of tickets or the lack of on-site assistance.
More fundamentally, five officials said the DOD’s rollout failed because of how it was managed. The responsibility was spread across three different units, known internally as “the three-headed monster”: an implementation office, led by contracting officers; the health division; and the IT division. That’s the same setup the VA has now.
“It’s a lesson VA has yet to learn,” a person working on the project said, “and a lot of us are concerned they’re going to go down the same road and experience the same adverse health outcomes that DOD experienced.”