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Overview

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is responsible for providing vital services to America’s veterans. VA provides health care services, benefits programs and access to national cemeteries to former military personnel and their dependants. The department carries out its duties through three main administrative divisions: Veterans Benefits Administration; Veterans Health Administration; and National Cemetery Administration. All three divisions have run into trouble while carrying out their missions, including controversies involving VA hospitals and longstanding delays in providing services.

 

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History:

The federal government’s first attempts at dispensing benefits to soldiers came during the Revolutionary War. During another war, the War of 1812, the government established the first federal facility for veterans at the Naval Home in Philadelphia. This was followed by two more facilities in Washington, DC: the Soldiers’ Home in 1853 and St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in 1855. In the meantime, US officials established the first administrative unit dedicated to helping veterans: the Bureau of Pensions in 1833.
 
During the 19th century, government officials expanded benefits and pensions not only for veterans, but also their spouses and dependents. By the end of the Mexican War in 1848, American veterans numbered in the hundreds of thousands. This number ballooned following the conclusion of the Civil War; there were approximately 1.9 million Union Army veterans on the federal rolls. Almost the same number existed in the Confederacy. However, Confederate veterans were not granted benefits by the federal government until 1958, for those still living.
 
In his second inaugural address in 1865, President Abraham Lincoln called upon Congress “to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.” This was later adopted as the VA’s motto. Following the end of the Civil War, the number of disabled veterans was so great that Congress created the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in 1873. This government organization established individual residences, called branches, which provided mostly room and board to former soldiers. These homes also gave incidental medical care to disabled and indigent veterans, regardless of whether their disabilities were service related. In the years that followed, national homes cared for veterans of the Mexican, Civil, Indian and Spanish-American wars and for non-combat veterans as well. By the late 1920s, the homes provided hospital-level medical care.
 
The Civil War era also marked the period when the federal government first established national military cemeteries where veterans could be buried. Because of the war’s significant casualties (more than 600,000 deaths), Congress adopted legislation in 1862 for the Army to begin creating a national military cemetery system. Five years later, in 1867, the first National Cemetery Act was enacted by Congress which provided funding ($750,000) for the construction of national cemeteries and other facilities, such as superintendent lodges, perimeter walls, fencing and headstones.
 
By the war’s end, thousands of Union soldiers were scattered around the country, which prompted Congress to create a reburial program that located the remains of almost 300,000 Union soldiers and officers and had them re-interred in national cemeteries. By 1870, the first period of expansion for the national cemetery system was complete, with 61 cemeteries established, including Alexandria National Cemetery (VA), Antietam National Cemetery (MD), Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery (KS), Philadelphia National Cemetery (PA) and Soldier’s Home National Cemetery (Washington, D.C.).
 
World War I represented the next great influx of veterans onto federal rolls, with five million returning soldiers and 200,000 wounded. Congress authorized a new program for awarding veterans' benefits that included disability compensation and vocational rehabilitation, as well as insurance for active-duty personnel and veterans. The benefits were administered by the Veterans Bureau, the Bureau of Pensions of the Interior Department and the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. In 1930 the functions of all three were folded into the newly created Veterans Administration (VA).
 
From 1931 to 1941 the VA expanded the number of veterans’ hospitals from 64 to 91, which doubled the number of available hospital beds. It did so because demand for hospital care grew dramatically during the Depression, thanks in part to a rise in tuberculosis among veterans. Another contributing factor was an increase in neuro-psychiatric conditions among World War I veterans who complained of “shell shock,” the precursor to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder of the Vietnam era and subsequent wars.
 
After the end of World War II, the federal government implemented the GI Bill, a landmark piece of legislation that helped assist the return of millions of veterans back into society. Drafted by the American Legion, the GI Bill provided: money for tuition, books and living expenses for up to four years of college or vocational schools; low-interest mortgages to homeowners; farm and small business loans at low interest; twenty dollars a week allowance for returning vets looking for employment; and funding to establish veterans' hospitals and to provide vocational rehabilitation for disabled veterans.
 
The GI Bill had a tremendous impact. More than one million veterans enrolled in college in 1946 alone. By 1956, over 10 million veterans had used the educational benefit. From 1944 to 1949, nearly 9 million veterans received close to $4 billion from the unemployment compensation program. The VA offered insured loans until 1962, and they totaled more than $50 billion. Subsequent legislation extended benefits under the GI Bill to veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars, and the Readjustment Benefits Act of 1966 extended them to all who served in the armed forces even in peacetime. An updated GI Bill of Rights, called the Montgomery GI Bill, is now in effect.
 
Veterans returning home from the Vietnam War endured a different set of obstacles from those of previous generations. Because of the war’s unpopularity, many veterans were treated with either indifference or disdain. Medical conditions stemming from exposure to chemicals used by US armed forces, such as Agent Orange, were challenged by the federal government, making it difficult for veterans to receive treatment. Veterans complaining of psychological problems, later termed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), were also ignored by VA officials. Homelessness became a serious problem for many Vietnam veterans unable to receive help or to cope with their conditions.
 
These problems remain decades later. According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans (NCHV), there are almost 300,000 veterans homeless on any given night across the US. Veterans of the Gulf War and Iraq, like their Vietnam brethren, are fighting today for recognition of their medical maladies, such as Gulf War Syndrome, which includes symptoms of fatigue, skin rash, headache, muscle and joint pain, memory loss and difficulty concentrating, shortness of breath, sleep problems, gastrointestinal problems and chest pain. PTSD also continues to be a serious problem. From 1999 to 2007, the number of veterans receiving disability compensation for PTSD increased from 120,000 to more than 280,500.
         
During the past 20 years, the federal government has implemented two significant changes to the VA system. Following a prolonged lobbying effort by veterans’ organizations, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation in 1988 to elevate the VA to cabinet-level status and turn it into the Department of Veterans Affairs. As reorganized, the department included three main elements: the Veterans Health Services and Research Administration, which was renamed the Veterans Health Administration; the Veterans Benefits Administration; and the National Cemetery System (NCS), later renamed the National Cemetery Administration.
 
The Army continued to run the cemetery system until Congress adopted the National Cemeteries Act of 1973, which transferred the system to the Veteran’s Administration, which created the Department of Memorial Affairs. Two cemeteries remained under the authority of the Army: Arlington National Cemetery (VA) and Soldiers’ Home National Cemetery. During the administration of President Bill Clinton, a bill was passed that officially changed the NCS to the National Cemetery Administration. The same legislation extended the right of burial in a national cemetery to merchant marines, adding to the inclusion of soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, National Guardsmen, reservists and ROTC of the armed services, as well as immediate family members of veterans.
 
The Clinton administration also altered the VA’s delivery of health care to veterans. In 1996, the Veterans Health Care Eligibility Reform Act reorganized the system using the HMO model, focusing it from a “hospital system to a health care system.” The bill also opened up VA health care to all veterans, not just those with service-related illnesses or injuries. Twenty-two Veterans Integrated Service Networks (VISNs) were established geographically around the country to meet all of the health care needs of veterans. While VA hospitals continued to serve an important role in the new system, community-based outpatient clinics grew considerably in size, from fewer than 200 in 1996 to 850 in 2004.
 
Several studies produced this decade have lauded improvements in veterans’ health care. From the New England Journal of Medicine to the Annals of Internal Medicine, the VHA system was congratulated for improvements in several key areas of patient care. These successes were attributed not only to the 1996 Congressional mandate, but also to Kenneth Kizer, who served as Under Secretary for Health at VHA during the 1990s and was responsible for spearheading changes in VA’s medical bureaucracy.
 
The Veterans Health Administration: Quality, Value, Accountability, and Information as Transforming Strategies for Patient-Centered Care (Jonathan B. Perlin, Robert M. Kolodner and Robert H. Roswell, American Journal of Managed Care)

Remembering the GI Bill

(PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer)

 

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What it Does:

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) provides the millions of American veterans and their dependents with health care services, benefits programs and access to national cemeteries. VA employs more than 250,000 people at hundreds of medical centers, nursing homes, benefits offices and national cemeteries throughout the country. The department carries out its duties through three main administrative divisions: Veterans Benefits Administration; Veterans Health Administration; and National Cemetery Administration.
 
Veterans Benefits Administration: VBA provides a range of services to former members of the US armed forces and their families. These services include education and vocational rehabilitation benefits, pensions, home loans and life insurance. VBA operates 57 regional offices and utilizes nine service delivery networks to provide all of its services to veterans and their families. Providing pensions and disability compensation to veterans represents one of the largest tasks of the VBA. More than 2.7 million veterans each year receive either monthly pension checks or disability payments. Disability compensation is paid to veterans with service-connected disabilities, meaning the disability was a result of disease or injury incurred or aggravated in the line of duty during active service. Veterans with non-service-related disabilities may be eligible for VA pension programs if the veteran served during wartime but became permanently and totally disabled outside of military duty. Pensions may also be paid to the survivors of wartime veterans. In 2001, the VBA paid $22 billion in disability compensation, survivor benefits and disability pensions to 3.2 million people.
 
The largest education benefit dispensed by the VBA is through the Montgomery GI Bill (MGIB), which provides up to 36 months of funding for veterans to study at colleges, technical or vocational schools. The GI Bill also supports apprenticeships and job training. Participants can receive in excess of $36,000 in tuition. Veterans from the reserve have different eligibility requirements and different rules for receiving benefits. MGIB may also be used by members of the military while still on active duty. MGIB benefits may be used up to 10 years from the date of last discharge or release from active duty. The 10-year period can be extended if the veteran was prevented or delayed due to disability or because they were held by a foreign government or power. Spouses and children of veterans can also receive education benefits through the Dependents’ Educational Assistance program, which offers up to 45 months of education assistance.
 
Vocational rehab and counseling provides services and assistance necessary to enable veterans with service-related disabilities to gain and keep employment. In the event a veteran's disability prohibits suitable employment, the program offers help so the veteran can achieve independence in living. Program services can include evaluation of rehabilitation needs, employment services, medical and dental care, financial counseling and education or training to develop marketable job skills. Veterans pursuing education or training may also receive a subsistence allowance. In some cases, the VR&E program provides educational and vocational counseling for eligible service members and veterans who don’t have disabilities and their dependents.
 
VBA’s housing program provides veterans with loans to purchase homes, primarily in cases where private financing is not available. These cases generally involve rural areas, small cities and towns. Veterans may borrow up to 100% of the sales price or reasonable value of the home, whichever is less. If a veteran needs to refinance, they may borrow up to 90% of the home’s value, where allowed by state laws.
 
VBA also offers life insurance to service members and veterans who may not be able to get insurance from private companies because of the extra risks involved in military service, or because of a service-related disability.
 
Veterans Health Administration: VHA is responsible for providing a wide range of medical services to 5.5 million veterans across the US. VHA operates a network of health care facilities that includes 171 medical centers, 340 outpatient clinics, 127 nursing home care units and 196 Vietnam Veterans Outreach Centers. In addition, VHA helps support veterans’ health care in non-VA hospitals and is the country’s largest provider of graduate medical education. Medical and health programs run by the VHA include Agent Orange research, rehabilitation services for blind veterans, care for women veterans, assistance to homeless vets, care for veterans suffering from multiple traumas and research into war-related injuries.
 
National Cemetery Administration: NCA maintains national cemeteries across the United States for the burial of veterans and their family members. NCA also maintains 33 soldier’s lots and monument sites, marks veterans’ graves with a government-furnished headstone or marker, provides Presidential Memorial Certificates in recognition of veterans’ service and administers grants for establishing or expanding state veterans cemeteries. NCA currently maintains more than 2.8 million gravesites at 125 national cemeteries in 39 states and Puerto Rico. The cemeteries occupy more than 17,000 acres, and just over half of that acreage is undeveloped, allowing for growth to reach in excess of four million gravesites.

Effect of the Transformation of the Veterans Affairs Health Care System on the Quality of Care

(by Ashish K. Jha, Jonathan B. Perlin, Kenneth W. Kizer and R. Adams Dudley, New England Journal of Medicine)

 

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Where Does the Money Go

USAspending.gov, an information resource provided by the federal government, has reported that from 2000 to 2008, the Department of Veterans Affairs spent $61.2 billion on goods and services from private contractors. The lion’s share of the money that was paid to the VA’s 109,436 contractors went for medicines ($22.4 billion), medical and surgical supplies and equipment ($4.9 billion), hospitals maintenance ($1.8 billion), hospitals supplies ($1.7 billion) and nursing home services ($1.5 billion).
 
The largest recipients of VA contracts were McKesson Corporation and AmerisourceBergen, both of which specialize in distributing medicines and medical supplies from manufacturers to pharmacies, hospitals and other healthcare outlets. They are followed by notable multinational companies such as General Electric and Siemens and defense contractor Northrop Grumman. The full top 10 list of contractors is as follows:
 
McKesson Corp.
$13,011,839,337
AmerisourceBergen Corp.
$9,070,950,608
Northrop Grumman
$668,978,924
Koninklijke Philips Electronics N.V.
$615,019,658
General Electric
$592,068,384
Small Business Consolidated Reporting
$509,653,195
Cardinal Health, Inc.
$506,536,397
Electronic Data Systems
$482,386,445
Siemens AG
$457,581,698
UCB SA
$414,526,637
                
Examples of VA contracts:
EDS, a leading information technology company founded by Texas entrepreneur and former president candidate Ross Perot, has signed several contracts with VHA to help run its computer systems. The latest contract was part of the VA’s eight-company, $1 billion effort to purchase support for the department’s Veterans Health Information Systems Technology and Architecture.
 
Another IT giant, Unisys Corp., has held VA contracts to improve patient management, billing and collections capabilities for the VHA. In 2003, the company signed a $139 million deal to provide systems integration and consulting services for Flowcast, a commercial, off-the-shelf software from IDX Systems Corp. Flowcast helps with patient access management, patient financials, document imaging and business intelligence.
 
VHA also contracts with architecture and engineering firms when it comes time to build new medical facilities. In September 2007, VHA announced that a three-party venture to design the replacement VA hospital for New Orleans. The three companies are NBBJ of Columbus, Ohio, Eskew+Dumez+Ripple of New Orleans and Rozas-Ward Architects, also of New Orleans.

 

Unisys wins VHA patient management, accounting solutions (by Gail Repsher Emery, Washington Technology)

 

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Controversies:

Avoiding Stress Disorder Diagnoses
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a growing mental health disorder among combat veterans, should be avoided as a diagnosis, argued one VA senior psychologist in May 2008. The effort to reduce the number of PTSD cases provoked criticism from veterans groups and was repudiated by VA’s top leadership.
 
Norma Perez, who helped lead the PTSD program at the Olin E. Teague Veterans’ Center in Temple, TX, told staff members to refrain from diagnosing the disorder because too many veterans were seeking government disability payments for the condition. “Given that we are having more and more compensation-seeking veterans, I'd like to suggest that you refrain from giving a diagnosis of PTSD straight out,” Perez wrote in an email to mental-health specialists and social workers.
 
Instead, Perez recommended staff use “Adjustment Disorder,” which generally does not produce disability payments, although veterans can receive medical treatment for the condition. In contrast, veterans diagnosed with PTSD can be eligible for disability compensation of up to $2,527 a month.
 
Veterans Affairs Secretary James B. Peake said in a statement that Perez’s email was “inappropriate” and did not reflect VA policy. It has been “repudiated at the highest level of our health care organization,” he said.
 
Shortly after the Perez email controversy, the Department of Defense released statistics showing that the number of troops diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder jumped by roughly 50% in 2007, the most recorded since the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. It was the first time the Pentagon had disclosed a number for PTSD cases from the two wars. Officials said nearly 40,000 troops have been diagnosed with the illness since 2003, although it was believed many more were likely keeping their illness a secret.
 
Army Surgeon General Eric Schoomaker said military officials have been encouraging troops to get help through private civilian therapists - resulting in even fewer reported cases since the military doesn’t track diagnoses by non-military personnel.
Official Urged Fewer Diagnoses of PTSD (by Christpher Lee, Washington Post)
 
Bush Promotes Benefits, Omits Funding
In January 2008, the issue of veterans’ benefits became a focal point thanks to a last-minute political decision by President George W. Bush. During the State of the Union address, the President called on Congress to allow US troops to transfer their unused education benefits to family members. A week later, however, when Bush submitted his $3.1 trillion federal budget to Congress, he included no funding for the plan, which could cost up to $2 billion annually according to budget analysts.
 
The proposal was a late addition to the speech after President Bush decided that he wanted to announce a program that would favor military families. This decision left little time to vet the idea, and some administration officials were caught off-guard by the move. Nevertheless, the idea of extending education benefits is generating bipartisan interest on Capitol Hill, although it remains to be seen if funding will make it into the next budget.
 
Under the current GI Bill, service members are eligible for nearly $40,000 in education benefits, such as college tuition or employment training, after they complete three years of active duty. Almost 70% of active-duty troops and veterans use at least part of these benefits, which cover three-quarters of the cost of tuition, room, board and fees in a four-year state university. VA officials concede that the cost would probably soar if most families make full use of the benefits.
 
In addition to extending education benefits, President Bush called for expanded access to childcare for military families and for new preferences for military spouses competing for positions in the federal government. Pentagon officials are still working on cost estimates for these proposals.
No Funds in Bush Budget For Troop-Benefits Plan: He Made Proposal in January Speech (by Michael Abramowitz and Robin Wright, Washington Post)
 
Homeless Vet Population Growing
According to a report issued by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, although only 11% of the civilian adult U.S. population are veterans, vets make up 26% of homeless Americans. In Washington, D.C., the nation’s capitol, 7.5% of veterans experienced homelessness at some point during 2006.
Vital Mission: Ending Homelessness Among Veterans (National Alliance to End Homelessness)
 
VA Not Reporting Cancer Cases
After decades of sharing data about cancer cases among veterans, VA officials stopped releasing such information to states. The decision has resulted in skewed results not only for military medical records but for tracking of cancer trends across the country, said some civilian medical officials.
 
The move by the VA has prompted conspiracy theories among veterans advocates wondering what the department is trying to hide. In response, one VA official accused critics of trying to “strong arm” the department into violating patient privacy.
 
“It is beginning to sound like a witch hunt by the national [cancer surveillance] standards setters to punish the VA for not subordinating itself to them,” said Raye-Ann Dorn, the VA’s national coordinator for cancer programs. “Their primary beef is that the VA said no to their strong arm tactics and has the audacity to protect our patients’ private health information from inappropriate invasions of their privacy.”
VA Cancer Data Blockade May Imperil Surveillance (by Michael Smith, MedPage Today)
 
Numerous Problems at VA Hospitals
Although the VHA has made considerable progress since the mid-1990s to improve its delivery of health care services to veterans, problems continue to plague the department and its facilities. In January 2008, the Chicago Tribune reported that poor medical care at the Marion VA Medical Center left nine patients dead and 34 others seriously injured during a two-year period, according to an investigation by the VA’s Inspector General. Ten of the 34 injured patients later died, but investigators were unable to link the deaths to the care provided at the medical facility.
 
The report also detailed a long list of serious problems at the hospital, including a surgical program “in disarray” and “fragmented and inconsistent” administrative oversight. The failures at Marion prompted VHA to review not only the medical credentials of doctors at the Illinois facility but also those of 17,000 other health care providers across the country.
 
The Inspector General’s office also found problems at numerous VA facilities in a report released in September 2006. Problems ranging from poor sanitation procedures to failures in maintaining pharmacy drug controls were cited.
 
An investigation by McClatchy Newspapers found shortcomings with VHA’s delivery of mental health services to veterans. Using VA reports, as well as information obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, McClatchy analyzed 200 million records, including every medical appointment in the system in 2005, and spoke with mental-health experts, veterans and their families.
 
The investigation found that nearly 100 local VA clinics provided virtually no mental health care in 2005 and that care among those facilities that did was inconsistent. In some places, veterans received individual psychotherapy sessions, while others met mostly for group therapy. Some veterans were cared for by psychiatrists while others saw only social workers. The same investigation also discovered that VHA was not providing enough resources to help veterans coping with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
VA straining to treat post-traumatic stress (by Hal Bernton, Seattle Times)

VA comes up short for Iraq vets

(by Chris Adams, Seattle Times)

 

 

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Debate:

Voter Registration at VA Hospitals
Since 2004 a debate has ensued over whether the Department of Veterans Affairs must facilitate voter registration drives at VA hospitals and homes that house US veterans. The issue arose when a Democratic official walked onto a VA facility in Menlo Park, California, to register veterans to vote for the presidential election that year. The Democrat was turned away by VA officials claiming it was the department’s policy to bar partisan political activity. Democratic lawyer Scott Rafferty later claimed the same facility allowed Republicans to register 42 voters among veterans.
 
In response to the VA’s action, Rafferty filed a lawsuit contending the VA was acting in violation of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, known as the Motor Voter Law, which allows federal agencies to double as voter registration sites. The lawsuit was tossed out by a district court after a judge found Rafferty had failed to prove that any veteran was actually prevented from voting. That decision is being appealed.
 
Meanwhile, in April 2008, VA leaders in Washington issued a policy stating its officials should allow voter registration drives at VA hospitals and homes. But then ten days later, the department reversed itself with another policy. Also, California became the first state to ask the VA to take up the responsibility of distributing registration materials, assist applicants in filling them out and then have them sent to the state.
 
Pro
Proponents, primarily leaders at the VA, argue their priority is to provide healthcare services and other benefits to veterans at their facilities. They insist that if local VA staffers have to help veterans register to vote, it could divert important resources away from other important activities designed to assist veterans deal with their day-to-day living. VA leaders also have argued that voter registration drives are often partisan-driven and therefore have no place at VA hospitals and homes.
 
Con
Opponents, including Project Vote and Democratic US Senators John Kerry and Diane Feinstein, argue the VA is not complying with federal law in an effort to deny Democrats a chance to register new supporters. Many of those living in nursing homes or homeless shelters are typically low-income voters who favor Democrats, it is claimed. The VA’s actions are violating the constitutional rights of many veterans who are disabled and rely on the VA to help them with such tasks as voting, opponents contend.
 
Background

VA's voter registration ban raises questions

(by William R. Levesque, St. Petersburg Times)

 

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Suggested Reforms:

Overhauling the Processing of Claims
Dissatisfied with the VA’s continuous backlog of cases, Congressman John Hall (D-NY) is preparing legislation to substantially alter how VA officials process claims. Hall, chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs Subcommittee, will submit his plan through the Veterans Disability Claims Modernization Act of 2008.
 
Currently, there is a backlog of approximately 650,000 disability claims, according to Hall. VA officials expect that number to grow to one million additional compensation and pension claims by the end of 2008. The average time it takes for VA to process a claim is 183 days, an increase from 177 days in 2006. These delays have caused serious financial, emotional and functional impacts on the lives of disabled veterans and their families.
 
Hall wants VA to modernize its system by implementing new technology and moving away from intensive, paper-based claims processing. The department also needs to readjust its schedule for rating disabilities. Another reform involves the Department of Defense (DoD) - creating a single disability evaluation examination process whereby DoD would determine fitness for duty and then VA rates level of severity. Hall also wants to establish an annual tracking requirement for the US Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.
 
VA Struggling to Change Blood Bank System
In October 1999, the Veterans Health Administration initiated a modernization program for its blood bank system. VA officials decided to upgrade the system in order to decrease the risk of errors and improve the safety of blood transfusions through the use of current technology, such as barcode scanning.
 
After five years of work, VA still had its work cut out for it. Not only was it behind schedule (originally VA planned completion by 2004; now the target is 2008) but the new system needs more changes. This assessment came from the department’s Inspector General (IG), which recommended additional reforms:
  • Develop adequate cost estimates of project alternatives;
  • Document key decisions or maintain complete project files;
  • Conduct a privacy impact assessment;
  • Review sufficient information before granting a waiver from independent verification and validation requirements.
  • Monitor and control project costs.

Audit of the VHA’s Blood Bank Modernization Project

(PDF)

 

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Former Directors:

 
James Nicholson (February 2005 to October 2007)
A native of Iowa, James Nicholson served as Secretary of Veterans Affairs from February 2005 to October 2007. Nicholson graduated in 1961 from the US Military Academy at West Point.
 
He served eight years on active duty as a paratrooper and Army officer, then 22 years in the Army Reserve, retiring with the rank of colonel. While serving in Vietnam, he earned the Bronze Star Medal, Combat Infantryman Badge, the Meritorious Service Medal, Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry and two Air Medals.
 
Nicholson earned a master’s degree from Columbia University in New York and a law degree from the University of Denver. He practiced law in Denver, specializing in real estate, municipal finance and zoning law. In 1978 he founded Nicholson Enterprises, Inc., a developer of planned residential communities, and in 1987 he bought Renaissance Homes, a builder of custom homes.
 
In January 1986, Nicholson was elected committeeman from Colorado for the Republican National Committee (RNC). In 1993, he was elected vice-chairman of the RNC, and in January 1997, he was elected chairman of the RNC, where he served for four years, through the elections of 2000. In 2001, Nicholson was appointed US Ambassador to the Holy See.

PBS Interview with James Nicholson

 

 

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Comments

Tony Arakawa 3 weeks ago
I would like to be directed to a listing of all elected officials within the Department of Veteran Affairs. Please provide me a website link that defines the current elected positions within the Department as well as the current individuals that hold the various positions. Thank you.
John Morgan 3 months ago
Perhaps Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki should resign along with his Secretary, James Peake!
Yasemin Cakil 1 year ago
I am leaving the service after 11 years due to disability in 7 weeks. So there is the issue of not having a job or a home, with a child, by the time we are all out, God is all we might have. I believe, that there is a lot that needs to be done. One is, to separate the VA in different departments, to work on their files and do their medical service, by the era that the service members were exposed to and have fought different wars. Some may have common issues, some may have separate issues, just pertaining to certain features inherited by that era. It would speed up the process. And not to be imply any gender separation, yet women go through different experiences physically, there could be a special Department of Veteran Affairs for the claims for women. And there need to be better programs available, why are so many become vets becoming homeless ? I am on my way to it now... Anyway, I have a suggestion for that. There is a transition to work with and a reintegration and both are definitely the same, at least not to me. To transition is to prepare to the new phase in life, and after that there should be a reintegration phase, when the service member is settled down, and is clearing up his employment and is stable. That is how it should be. Lowering costs for veterans means, that they do not need to be on the streets, unemployed, when they leave the service, but receive a pre-employment PCS to another job, just like they were PCS'ing in the service, but with the one thing, that they can get released from the service within a fast time frame,once they are settled in at a job.. and so forth etc. etc. there is more than that to this. No service member should remain in a unit, and be moved to a transitioning brigade, if they are disabled etc. and prepare to leave the service with a job lined up and not be pounded and pressured by their units to focus on their mission, then get pressured to get out, once the ratings are back and then get jammed through the motions of out processing... etc. etc. etc.
James Rollin Page 1 year ago
I am now retired, but I worked for the VA for over 30 years, first a a Veterans' Benefits Counsellor, later as a Rating Specialist, all at the VA Regional Office in St Petersburg. I have recently published a book: "A Butterfly Gone Mad" and Other Poems. I would appreciate it if you could let the VA community know of this. James Rollin Page 2423 7th St No St Petersburg FL 33704-3305 (727) 822-4468

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Founded: 1930
Annual Budget: $93 billion
Employees: 250,000
Official Website: http://www.va.gov/

Department of Veterans Affairs

Shinseki, Eric
Secretary
The highest ranking Asian-American in US military history, Eric K. Shinseki became a visible critic of the Bush administration’s force plan for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, correctly forewarning a problem that would haunt American military planners and policymakers in the years that followed. Barack Obama announced his nomination of Shinseki, a decorated Japanese-American war veteran, to be Secretary of Veteran Affairs on December 7, 2008—the 67th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
 
Shinseki was born on the island of Kaua’i, Hawaii, to Japanese-American parents on November 28, 1942, during World War II. One of his uncles served in the Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat team, the most decorated Army unit during World War II. Shinseki grew up with his grandparents in the Japanese section of a plantation community and graduated from Kaua’i High School in 1960. He went on to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he graduated in 1965 with a Bachelor of Science Degree. He also earned a Master of Arts Degree in English Literature from Duke University, and later attended the Armor Officer Advanced Course, the United States Army Command and General Staff College, and the National War College.
 
Commissioned as a second lieutenant, Shinseki served two combat tours with the 9th and 25th Infantry Divisions in Vietnam as an Artillery Forward Observer and as commander of Troop A, 3rd Squadron, 5th Cavalry. During his service in Vietnam, he was wounded three times. In April 1966 shrapnel from a mortar round hit him in the shoulder and chest. Five months later, a helicopter crash left him with a broken jaw and broken arm. In April 1970, during his second tour of duty in Vietmnam, Shinseki stepped on a land mine which blew off part of his right foot. The Army wanted him to retire at that point, but he refused. He was awarded two Purple Hearts and three Bronze Stars while serving in Vietnam.
 
Shinseki then served in Hawaii at Schofield Barracks in the headquarters of the US Army Hawaii and at Fort Shafter in the headquarters of the US Army Pacific. He later taught at the US Military Academy’s Department of English. During duty with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment at Fort Bliss, Texas, he served as the regimental adjutant and as the executive officer of its 1st Squadron.
 
Shinseki went on to serve more than 10 years in Europe in a variety of assignments. These included the following, all with the 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized): commander of the 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry (Schweinfurt); commander of the 2nd Brigade, (Kitzingen); Assistant Chief of Staff G3 (Operations, Plans and Training) (Wuerzburg); and Assistant Division Commander for Maneuver (Schweinfurt). He also served as the Assistant Chief of Staff, G3 (Operations, Plans and Training) with the VII Corps (Stuttgart), and as the Deputy Chief of Staff for Support, Allied Land Forces Southern Europe (Verona, Italy).
 
From March 1994 to July 1995, Shinseki commanded the 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, Texas. In July 1996, he was promoted to lieutenant general and became the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations and Plans for the Army. In June 1997, Shinseki was appointed to the rank of general before assuming duties as the Commanding General of the US Army in Europe, followed by his posts as commander of the Allied Land Forces in Central Europe, and commander of the NATO Stabilization Force in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
 
In November 1998, Shinseki assumed duties as the 28th Vice Chief of Staff for the US Army. He was then promoted to Army Chief of Staff on June 22, 1999. At one point, he sent copies of the book America's First Battles: 1776-1965, edited by Charles E. Heller and William A. Stoft, to members of Congress as a warning that too often, too many lives are lost in the first battles of wars because od lack of preparedness.
 
In March 2001, Shinseki angered many in the military with his plan to have all Army soldiers wear black berets, an honor previously reserved for elite forces. It was later revealed that the extra berets the Army needed were to be made in China and other foreign countries, a detail Shinseki said he did not know until after the contract was signed.
 
In order to discourage qualified personnel from leaving the Army, Shinseki promoted such soldier-friendly reforms as rotating non-combat troops only in summer to cause less disruption to families and to delay transfers for soldiers with a child who is a high school senior until after graduation.
 
On February 25, 2003, three weeks before the invasion of Iraq, Shinseki testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the US should send a much larger military force than was planned in order to defeat the Iraqi army and properly maintain order once the US had assumed control of the country. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz ardently rejected Shinseki’s assessment. “The notion that it would take several hundred thousand American troops just seems outlandish,” said Wolfowitz. Unfortunately, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz were wrong and Shinseki was right.
 
Three and a half months later, Shinseki retired from the Army. During his 38 years as a soldier, he became the highest-ranking Asian-American in US military history.
 
Since retirement, Shinseki has been appointed to the boards of two defense contractors: Honeywell and Ducommun Inc., and he also served on the board of directors of BancWest Corp.
 
Karmic justice: Gen. Eric Shinseki (by James Fallows, The Atlantic)
Army Chief Seeks Changes to Improve Lives (by Thom Shanker, New York Times)
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Peake, James
Previous Secretary

A native of St. Louis, Dr. James Peake served as the Secretary of Veterans Affairs from December 2007 until the inauguration of Barack Obama. Peake received his Bachelor of Science degree from the US Military Academy at West Point in 1966 and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army infantry. Following service in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division, where he was wounded twice, Peake entered medical school at Cornell University in New York. He was awarded a medical doctorate in 1972.

 
Peake began his Army medical career as a general surgery resident at Brooke Army Medical Center, Fort Sam Houston, Texas. He retired from the Army in 2004, following service as a cardiac surgeon and commander in several medical posts, culminating in his appointment as US Army Surgeon General from 2000 to 2004. As Army Surgeon General, Peake commanded 50,000 medical personnel and 187 army medical facilities worldwide. During this period he was criticized for ignoring the poor conditions for wounded Iraq War veterans at Walter Reed Medical Center and other facilities. Prior to that, he served as commanding general of the US Army Medical Department Center and School, the largest medical training facility in the world, with more than 30,000 students annually.
 
After retiring from the military, Peake served as executive vice president and CEO of Project Hope, a non-profit international health foundation operating in more than 30 countries. Just prior to his nomination as Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Peake served as a member of the board of directors for QTC, one of the largest private providers of government-outsourced occupational health and disability examination services in the nation.
 
VCS Editorial: Call Senators Today and Block Peake from Heading VA (by Paul Sullivan, Veterans for Common Sense)
 
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Overview

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is responsible for providing vital services to America’s veterans. VA provides health care services, benefits programs and access to national cemeteries to former military personnel and their dependants. The department carries out its duties through three main administrative divisions: Veterans Benefits Administration; Veterans Health Administration; and National Cemetery Administration. All three divisions have run into trouble while carrying out their missions, including controversies involving VA hospitals and longstanding delays in providing services.

 

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History:

The federal government’s first attempts at dispensing benefits to soldiers came during the Revolutionary War. During another war, the War of 1812, the government established the first federal facility for veterans at the Naval Home in Philadelphia. This was followed by two more facilities in Washington, DC: the Soldiers’ Home in 1853 and St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in 1855. In the meantime, US officials established the first administrative unit dedicated to helping veterans: the Bureau of Pensions in 1833.
 
During the 19th century, government officials expanded benefits and pensions not only for veterans, but also their spouses and dependents. By the end of the Mexican War in 1848, American veterans numbered in the hundreds of thousands. This number ballooned following the conclusion of the Civil War; there were approximately 1.9 million Union Army veterans on the federal rolls. Almost the same number existed in the Confederacy. However, Confederate veterans were not granted benefits by the federal government until 1958, for those still living.
 
In his second inaugural address in 1865, President Abraham Lincoln called upon Congress “to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.” This was later adopted as the VA’s motto. Following the end of the Civil War, the number of disabled veterans was so great that Congress created the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in 1873. This government organization established individual residences, called branches, which provided mostly room and board to former soldiers. These homes also gave incidental medical care to disabled and indigent veterans, regardless of whether their disabilities were service related. In the years that followed, national homes cared for veterans of the Mexican, Civil, Indian and Spanish-American wars and for non-combat veterans as well. By the late 1920s, the homes provided hospital-level medical care.
 
The Civil War era also marked the period when the federal government first established national military cemeteries where veterans could be buried. Because of the war’s significant casualties (more than 600,000 deaths), Congress adopted legislation in 1862 for the Army to begin creating a national military cemetery system. Five years later, in 1867, the first National Cemetery Act was enacted by Congress which provided funding ($750,000) for the construction of national cemeteries and other facilities, such as superintendent lodges, perimeter walls, fencing and headstones.
 
By the war’s end, thousands of Union soldiers were scattered around the country, which prompted Congress to create a reburial program that located the remains of almost 300,000 Union soldiers and officers and had them re-interred in national cemeteries. By 1870, the first period of expansion for the national cemetery system was complete, with 61 cemeteries established, including Alexandria National Cemetery (VA), Antietam National Cemetery (MD), Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery (KS), Philadelphia National Cemetery (PA) and Soldier’s Home National Cemetery (Washington, D.C.).
 
World War I represented the next great influx of veterans onto federal rolls, with five million returning soldiers and 200,000 wounded. Congress authorized a new program for awarding veterans' benefits that included disability compensation and vocational rehabilitation, as well as insurance for active-duty personnel and veterans. The benefits were administered by the Veterans Bureau, the Bureau of Pensions of the Interior Department and the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. In 1930 the functions of all three were folded into the newly created Veterans Administration (VA).
 
From 1931 to 1941 the VA expanded the number of veterans’ hospitals from 64 to 91, which doubled the number of available hospital beds. It did so because demand for hospital care grew dramatically during the Depression, thanks in part to a rise in tuberculosis among veterans. Another contributing factor was an increase in neuro-psychiatric conditions among World War I veterans who complained of “shell shock,” the precursor to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder of the Vietnam era and subsequent wars.
 
After the end of World War II, the federal government implemented the GI Bill, a landmark piece of legislation that helped assist the return of millions of veterans back into society. Drafted by the American Legion, the GI Bill provided: money for tuition, books and living expenses for up to four years of college or vocational schools; low-interest mortgages to homeowners; farm and small business loans at low interest; twenty dollars a week allowance for returning vets looking for employment; and funding to establish veterans' hospitals and to provide vocational rehabilitation for disabled veterans.
 
The GI Bill had a tremendous impact. More than one million veterans enrolled in college in 1946 alone. By 1956, over 10 million veterans had used the educational benefit. From 1944 to 1949, nearly 9 million veterans received close to $4 billion from the unemployment compensation program. The VA offered insured loans until 1962, and they totaled more than $50 billion. Subsequent legislation extended benefits under the GI Bill to veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars, and the Readjustment Benefits Act of 1966 extended them to all who served in the armed forces even in peacetime. An updated GI Bill of Rights, called the Montgomery GI Bill, is now in effect.
 
Veterans returning home from the Vietnam War endured a different set of obstacles from those of previous generations. Because of the war’s unpopularity, many veterans were treated with either indifference or disdain. Medical conditions stemming from exposure to chemicals used by US armed forces, such as Agent Orange, were challenged by the federal government, making it difficult for veterans to receive treatment. Veterans complaining of psychological problems, later termed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), were also ignored by VA officials. Homelessness became a serious problem for many Vietnam veterans unable to receive help or to cope with their conditions.
 
These problems remain decades later. According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans (NCHV), there are almost 300,000 veterans homeless on any given night across the US. Veterans of the Gulf War and Iraq, like their Vietnam brethren, are fighting today for recognition of their medical maladies, such as Gulf War Syndrome, which includes symptoms of fatigue, skin rash, headache, muscle and joint pain, memory loss and difficulty concentrating, shortness of breath, sleep problems, gastrointestinal problems and chest pain. PTSD also continues to be a serious problem. From 1999 to 2007, the number of veterans receiving disability compensation for PTSD increased from 120,000 to more than 280,500.
         
During the past 20 years, the federal government has implemented two significant changes to the VA system. Following a prolonged lobbying effort by veterans’ organizations, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation in 1988 to elevate the VA to cabinet-level status and turn it into the Department of Veterans Affairs. As reorganized, the department included three main elements: the Veterans Health Services and Research Administration, which was renamed the Veterans Health Administration; the Veterans Benefits Administration; and the National Cemetery System (NCS), later renamed the National Cemetery Administration.
 
The Army continued to run the cemetery system until Congress adopted the National Cemeteries Act of 1973, which transferred the system to the Veteran’s Administration, which created the Department of Memorial Affairs. Two cemeteries remained under the authority of the Army: Arlington National Cemetery (VA) and Soldiers’ Home National Cemetery. During the administration of President Bill Clinton, a bill was passed that officially changed the NCS to the National Cemetery Administration. The same legislation extended the right of burial in a national cemetery to merchant marines, adding to the inclusion of soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, National Guardsmen, reservists and ROTC of the armed services, as well as immediate family members of veterans.
 
The Clinton administration also altered the VA’s delivery of health care to veterans. In 1996, the Veterans Health Care Eligibility Reform Act reorganized the system using the HMO model, focusing it from a “hospital system to a health care system.” The bill also opened up VA health care to all veterans, not just those with service-related illnesses or injuries. Twenty-two Veterans Integrated Service Networks (VISNs) were established geographically around the country to meet all of the health care needs of veterans. While VA hospitals continued to serve an important role in the new system, community-based outpatient clinics grew considerably in size, from fewer than 200 in 1996 to 850 in 2004.
 
Several studies produced this decade have lauded improvements in veterans’ health care. From the New England Journal of Medicine to the Annals of Internal Medicine, the VHA system was congratulated for improvements in several key areas of patient care. These successes were attributed not only to the 1996 Congressional mandate, but also to Kenneth Kizer, who served as Under Secretary for Health at VHA during the 1990s and was responsible for spearheading changes in VA’s medical bureaucracy.
 
The Veterans Health Administration: Quality, Value, Accountability, and Information as Transforming Strategies for Patient-Centered Care (Jonathan B. Perlin, Robert M. Kolodner and Robert H. Roswell, American Journal of Managed Care)

Remembering the GI Bill

(PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer)

 

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What it Does:

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) provides the millions of American veterans and their dependents with health care services, benefits programs and access to national cemeteries. VA employs more than 250,000 people at hundreds of medical centers, nursing homes, benefits offices and national cemeteries throughout the country. The department carries out its duties through three main administrative divisions: Veterans Benefits Administration; Veterans Health Administration; and National Cemetery Administration.
 
Veterans Benefits Administration: VBA provides a range of services to former members of the US armed forces and their families. These services include education and vocational rehabilitation benefits, pensions, home loans and life insurance. VBA operates 57 regional offices and utilizes nine service delivery networks to provide all of its services to veterans and their families. Providing pensions and disability compensation to veterans represents one of the largest tasks of the VBA. More than 2.7 million veterans each year receive either monthly pension checks or disability payments. Disability compensation is paid to veterans with service-connected disabilities, meaning the disability was a result of disease or injury incurred or aggravated in the line of duty during active service. Veterans with non-service-related disabilities may be eligible for VA pension programs if the veteran served during wartime but became permanently and totally disabled outside of military duty. Pensions may also be paid to the survivors of wartime veterans. In 2001, the VBA paid $22 billion in disability compensation, survivor benefits and disability pensions to 3.2 million people.
 
The largest education benefit dispensed by the VBA is through the Montgomery GI Bill (MGIB), which provides up to 36 months of funding for veterans to study at colleges, technical or vocational schools. The GI Bill also supports apprenticeships and job training. Participants can receive in excess of $36,000 in tuition. Veterans from the reserve have different eligibility requirements and different rules for receiving benefits. MGIB may also be used by members of the military while still on active duty. MGIB benefits may be used up to 10 years from the date of last discharge or release from active duty. The 10-year period can be extended if the veteran was prevented or delayed due to disability or because they were held by a foreign government or power. Spouses and children of veterans can also receive education benefits through the Dependents’ Educational Assistance program, which offers up to 45 months of education assistance.
 
Vocational rehab and counseling provides services and assistance necessary to enable veterans with service-related disabilities to gain and keep employment. In the event a veteran's disability prohibits suitable employment, the program offers help so the veteran can achieve independence in living. Program services can include evaluation of rehabilitation needs, employment services, medical and dental care, financial counseling and education or training to develop marketable job skills. Veterans pursuing education or training may also receive a subsistence allowance. In some cases, the VR&E program provides educational and vocational counseling for eligible service members and veterans who don’t have disabilities and their dependents.
 
VBA’s housing program provides veterans with loans to purchase homes, primarily in cases where private financing is not available. These cases generally involve rural areas, small cities and towns. Veterans may borrow up to 100% of the sales price or reasonable value of the home, whichever is less. If a veteran needs to refinance, they may borrow up to 90% of the home’s value, where allowed by state laws.
 
VBA also offers life insurance to service members and veterans who may not be able to get insurance from private companies because of the extra risks involved in military service, or because of a service-related disability.
 
Veterans Health Administration: VHA is responsible for providing a wide range of medical services to 5.5 million veterans across the US. VHA operates a network of health care facilities that includes 171 medical centers, 340 outpatient clinics, 127 nursing home care units and 196 Vietnam Veterans Outreach Centers. In addition, VHA helps support veterans’ health care in non-VA hospitals and is the country’s largest provider of graduate medical education. Medical and health programs run by the VHA include Agent Orange research, rehabilitation services for blind veterans, care for women veterans, assistance to homeless vets, care for veterans suffering from multiple traumas and research into war-related injuries.
 
National Cemetery Administration: NCA maintains national cemeteries across the United States for the burial of veterans and their family members. NCA also maintains 33 soldier’s lots and monument sites, marks veterans’ graves with a government-furnished headstone or marker, provides Presidential Memorial Certificates in recognition of veterans’ service and administers grants for establishing or expanding state veterans cemeteries. NCA currently maintains more than 2.8 million gravesites at 125 national cemeteries in 39 states and Puerto Rico. The cemeteries occupy more than 17,000 acres, and just over half of that acreage is undeveloped, allowing for growth to reach in excess of four million gravesites.

Effect of the Transformation of the Veterans Affairs Health Care System on the Quality of Care

(by Ashish K. Jha, Jonathan B. Perlin, Kenneth W. Kizer and R. Adams Dudley, New England Journal of Medicine)

 

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Where Does the Money Go

USAspending.gov, an information resource provided by the federal government, has reported that from 2000 to 2008, the Department of Veterans Affairs spent $61.2 billion on goods and services from private contractors. The lion’s share of the money that was paid to the VA’s 109,436 contractors went for medicines ($22.4 billion), medical and surgical supplies and equipment ($4.9 billion), hospitals maintenance ($1.8 billion), hospitals supplies ($1.7 billion) and nursing home services ($1.5 billion).
 
The largest recipients of VA contracts were McKesson Corporation and AmerisourceBergen, both of which specialize in distributing medicines and medical supplies from manufacturers to pharmacies, hospitals and other healthcare outlets. They are followed by notable multinational companies such as General Electric and Siemens and defense contractor Northrop Grumman. The full top 10 list of contractors is as follows:
 
McKesson Corp.
$13,011,839,337
AmerisourceBergen Corp.
$9,070,950,608
Northrop Grumman
$668,978,924
Koninklijke Philips Electronics N.V.
$615,019,658
General Electric
$592,068,384
Small Business Consolidated Reporting
$509,653,195
Cardinal Health, Inc.
$506,536,397
Electronic Data Systems
$482,386,445
Siemens AG
$457,581,698
UCB SA
$414,526,637
                
Examples of VA contracts:
EDS, a leading information technology company founded by Texas entrepreneur and former president candidate Ross Perot, has signed several contracts with VHA to help run its computer systems. The latest contract was part of the VA’s eight-company, $1 billion effort to purchase support for the department’s Veterans Health Information Systems Technology and Architecture.
 
Another IT giant, Unisys Corp., has held VA contracts to improve patient management, billing and collections capabilities for the VHA. In 2003, the company signed a $139 million deal to provide systems integration and consulting services for Flowcast, a commercial, off-the-shelf software from IDX Systems Corp. Flowcast helps with patient access management, patient financials, document imaging and business intelligence.
 
VHA also contracts with architecture and engineering firms when it comes time to build new medical facilities. In September 2007, VHA announced that a three-party venture to design the replacement VA hospital for New Orleans. The three companies are NBBJ of Columbus, Ohio, Eskew+Dumez+Ripple of New Orleans and Rozas-Ward Architects, also of New Orleans.

 

Unisys wins VHA patient management, accounting solutions (by Gail Repsher Emery, Washington Technology)

 

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Controversies:

Avoiding Stress Disorder Diagnoses
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a growing mental health disorder among combat veterans, should be avoided as a diagnosis, argued one VA senior psychologist in May 2008. The effort to reduce the number of PTSD cases provoked criticism from veterans groups and was repudiated by VA’s top leadership.
 
Norma Perez, who helped lead the PTSD program at the Olin E. Teague Veterans’ Center in Temple, TX, told staff members to refrain from diagnosing the disorder because too many veterans were seeking government disability payments for the condition. “Given that we are having more and more compensation-seeking veterans, I'd like to suggest that you refrain from giving a diagnosis of PTSD straight out,” Perez wrote in an email to mental-health specialists and social workers.
 
Instead, Perez recommended staff use “Adjustment Disorder,” which generally does not produce disability payments, although veterans can receive medical treatment for the condition. In contrast, veterans diagnosed with PTSD can be eligible for disability compensation of up to $2,527 a month.
 
Veterans Affairs Secretary James B. Peake said in a statement that Perez’s email was “inappropriate” and did not reflect VA policy. It has been “repudiated at the highest level of our health care organization,” he said.
 
Shortly after the Perez email controversy, the Department of Defense released statistics showing that the number of troops diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder jumped by roughly 50% in 2007, the most recorded since the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. It was the first time the Pentagon had disclosed a number for PTSD cases from the two wars. Officials said nearly 40,000 troops have been diagnosed with the illness since 2003, although it was believed many more were likely keeping their illness a secret.
 
Army Surgeon General Eric Schoomaker said military officials have been encouraging troops to get help through private civilian therapists - resulting in even fewer reported cases since the military doesn’t track diagnoses by non-military personnel.
Official Urged Fewer Diagnoses of PTSD (by Christpher Lee, Washington Post)
 
Bush Promotes Benefits, Omits Funding
In January 2008, the issue of veterans’ benefits became a focal point thanks to a last-minute political decision by President George W. Bush. During the State of the Union address, the President called on Congress to allow US troops to transfer their unused education benefits to family members. A week later, however, when Bush submitted his $3.1 trillion federal budget to Congress, he included no funding for the plan, which could cost up to $2 billion annually according to budget analysts.
 
The proposal was a late addition to the speech after President Bush decided that he wanted to announce a program that would favor military families. This decision left little time to vet the idea, and some administration officials were caught off-guard by the move. Nevertheless, the idea of extending education benefits is generating bipartisan interest on Capitol Hill, although it remains to be seen if funding will make it into the next budget.
 
Under the current GI Bill, service members are eligible for nearly $40,000 in education benefits, such as college tuition or employment training, after they complete three years of active duty. Almost 70% of active-duty troops and veterans use at least part of these benefits, which cover three-quarters of the cost of tuition, room, board and fees in a four-year state university. VA officials concede that the cost would probably soar if most families make full use of the benefits.
 
In addition to extending education benefits, President Bush called for expanded access to childcare for military families and for new preferences for military spouses competing for positions in the federal government. Pentagon officials are still working on cost estimates for these proposals.
No Funds in Bush Budget For Troop-Benefits Plan: He Made Proposal in January Speech (by Michael Abramowitz and Robin Wright, Washington Post)
 
Homeless Vet Population Growing
According to a report issued by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, although only 11% of the civilian adult U.S. population are veterans, vets make up 26% of homeless Americans. In Washington, D.C., the nation’s capitol, 7.5% of veterans experienced homelessness at some point during 2006.
Vital Mission: Ending Homelessness Among Veterans (National Alliance to End Homelessness)
 
VA Not Reporting Cancer Cases
After decades of sharing data about cancer cases among veterans, VA officials stopped releasing such information to states. The decision has resulted in skewed results not only for military medical records but for tracking of cancer trends across the country, said some civilian medical officials.
 
The move by the VA has prompted conspiracy theories among veterans advocates wondering what the department is trying to hide. In response, one VA official accused critics of trying to “strong arm” the department into violating patient privacy.
 
“It is beginning to sound like a witch hunt by the national [cancer surveillance] standards setters to punish the VA for not subordinating itself to them,” said Raye-Ann Dorn, the VA’s national coordinator for cancer programs. “Their primary beef is that the VA said no to their strong arm tactics and has the audacity to protect our patients’ private health information from inappropriate invasions of their privacy.”
VA Cancer Data Blockade May Imperil Surveillance (by Michael Smith, MedPage Today)
 
Numerous Problems at VA Hospitals
Although the VHA has made considerable progress since the mid-1990s to improve its delivery of health care services to veterans, problems continue to plague the department and its facilities. In January 2008, the Chicago Tribune reported that poor medical care at the Marion VA Medical Center left nine patients dead and 34 others seriously injured during a two-year period, according to an investigation by the VA’s Inspector General. Ten of the 34 injured patients later died, but investigators were unable to link the deaths to the care provided at the medical facility.
 
The report also detailed a long list of serious problems at the hospital, including a surgical program “in disarray” and “fragmented and inconsistent” administrative oversight. The failures at Marion prompted VHA to review not only the medical credentials of doctors at the Illinois facility but also those of 17,000 other health care providers across the country.
 
The Inspector General’s office also found problems at numerous VA facilities in a report released in September 2006. Problems ranging from poor sanitation procedures to failures in maintaining pharmacy drug controls were cited.
 
An investigation by McClatchy Newspapers found shortcomings with VHA’s delivery of mental health services to veterans. Using VA reports, as well as information obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, McClatchy analyzed 200 million records, including every medical appointment in the system in 2005, and spoke with mental-health experts, veterans and their families.
 
The investigation found that nearly 100 local VA clinics provided virtually no mental health care in 2005 and that care among those facilities that did was inconsistent. In some places, veterans received individual psychotherapy sessions, while others met mostly for group therapy. Some veterans were cared for by psychiatrists while others saw only social workers. The same investigation also discovered that VHA was not providing enough resources to help veterans coping with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
VA straining to treat post-traumatic stress (by Hal Bernton, Seattle Times)

VA comes up short for Iraq vets

(by Chris Adams, Seattle Times)

 

 

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Debate:

Voter Registration at VA Hospitals
Since 2004 a debate has ensued over whether the Department of Veterans Affairs must facilitate voter registration drives at VA hospitals and homes that house US veterans. The issue arose when a Democratic official walked onto a VA facility in Menlo Park, California, to register veterans to vote for the presidential election that year. The Democrat was turned away by VA officials claiming it was the department’s policy to bar partisan political activity. Democratic lawyer Scott Rafferty later claimed the same facility allowed Republicans to register 42 voters among veterans.
 
In response to the VA’s action, Rafferty filed a lawsuit contending the VA was acting in violation of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, known as the Motor Voter Law, which allows federal agencies to double as voter registration sites. The lawsuit was tossed out by a district court after a judge found Rafferty had failed to prove that any veteran was actually prevented from voting. That decision is being appealed.
 
Meanwhile, in April 2008, VA leaders in Washington issued a policy stating its officials should allow voter registration drives at VA hospitals and homes. But then ten days later, the department reversed itself with another policy. Also, California became the first state to ask the VA to take up the responsibility of distributing registration materials, assist applicants in filling them out and then have them sent to the state.
 
Pro
Proponents, primarily leaders at the VA, argue their priority is to provide healthcare services and other benefits to veterans at their facilities. They insist that if local VA staffers have to help veterans register to vote, it could divert important resources away from other important activities designed to assist veterans deal with their day-to-day living. VA leaders also have argued that voter registration drives are often partisan-driven and therefore have no place at VA hospitals and homes.
 
Con
Opponents, including Project Vote and Democratic US Senators John Kerry and Diane Feinstein, argue the VA is not complying with federal law in an effort to deny Democrats a chance to register new supporters. Many of those living in nursing homes or homeless shelters are typically low-income voters who favor Democrats, it is claimed. The VA’s actions are violating the constitutional rights of many veterans who are disabled and rely on the VA to help them with such tasks as voting, opponents contend.
 
Background

VA's voter registration ban raises questions

(by William R. Levesque, St. Petersburg Times)

 

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Suggested Reforms:

Overhauling the Processing of Claims
Dissatisfied with the VA’s continuous backlog of cases, Congressman John Hall (D-NY) is preparing legislation to substantially alter how VA officials process claims. Hall, chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs Subcommittee, will submit his plan through the Veterans Disability Claims Modernization Act of 2008.
 
Currently, there is a backlog of approximately 650,000 disability claims, according to Hall. VA officials expect that number to grow to one million additional compensation and pension claims by the end of 2008. The average time it takes for VA to process a claim is 183 days, an increase from 177 days in 2006. These delays have caused serious financial, emotional and functional impacts on the lives of disabled veterans and their families.
 
Hall wants VA to modernize its system by implementing new technology and moving away from intensive, paper-based claims processing. The department also needs to readjust its schedule for rating disabilities. Another reform involves the Department of Defense (DoD) - creating a single disability evaluation examination process whereby DoD would determine fitness for duty and then VA rates level of severity. Hall also wants to establish an annual tracking requirement for the US Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.
 
VA Struggling to Change Blood Bank System
In October 1999, the Veterans Health Administration initiated a modernization program for its blood bank system. VA officials decided to upgrade the system in order to decrease the risk of errors and improve the safety of blood transfusions through the use of current technology, such as barcode scanning.
 
After five years of work, VA still had its work cut out for it. Not only was it behind schedule (originally VA planned completion by 2004; now the target is 2008) but the new system needs more changes. This assessment came from the department’s Inspector General (IG), which recommended additional reforms:
  • Develop adequate cost estimates of project alternatives;
  • Document key decisions or maintain complete project files;
  • Conduct a privacy impact assessment;
  • Review sufficient information before granting a waiver from independent verification and validation requirements.
  • Monitor and control project costs.

Audit of the VHA’s Blood Bank Modernization Project

(PDF)

 

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Former Directors:

 
James Nicholson (February 2005 to October 2007)
A native of Iowa, James Nicholson served as Secretary of Veterans Affairs from February 2005 to October 2007. Nicholson graduated in 1961 from the US Military Academy at West Point.
 
He served eight years on active duty as a paratrooper and Army officer, then 22 years in the Army Reserve, retiring with the rank of colonel. While serving in Vietnam, he earned the Bronze Star Medal, Combat Infantryman Badge, the Meritorious Service Medal, Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry and two Air Medals.
 
Nicholson earned a master’s degree from Columbia University in New York and a law degree from the University of Denver. He practiced law in Denver, specializing in real estate, municipal finance and zoning law. In 1978 he founded Nicholson Enterprises, Inc., a developer of planned residential communities, and in 1987 he bought Renaissance Homes, a builder of custom homes.
 
In January 1986, Nicholson was elected committeeman from Colorado for the Republican National Committee (RNC). In 1993, he was elected vice-chairman of the RNC, and in January 1997, he was elected chairman of the RNC, where he served for four years, through the elections of 2000. In 2001, Nicholson was appointed US Ambassador to the Holy See.

PBS Interview with James Nicholson

 

 

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Comments

Tony Arakawa 3 weeks ago
I would like to be directed to a listing of all elected officials within the Department of Veteran Affairs. Please provide me a website link that defines the current elected positions within the Department as well as the current individuals that hold the various positions. Thank you.
John Morgan 3 months ago
Perhaps Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki should resign along with his Secretary, James Peake!
Yasemin Cakil 1 year ago
I am leaving the service after 11 years due to disability in 7 weeks. So there is the issue of not having a job or a home, with a child, by the time we are all out, God is all we might have. I believe, that there is a lot that needs to be done. One is, to separate the VA in different departments, to work on their files and do their medical service, by the era that the service members were exposed to and have fought different wars. Some may have common issues, some may have separate issues, just pertaining to certain features inherited by that era. It would speed up the process. And not to be imply any gender separation, yet women go through different experiences physically, there could be a special Department of Veteran Affairs for the claims for women. And there need to be better programs available, why are so many become vets becoming homeless ? I am on my way to it now... Anyway, I have a suggestion for that. There is a transition to work with and a reintegration and both are definitely the same, at least not to me. To transition is to prepare to the new phase in life, and after that there should be a reintegration phase, when the service member is settled down, and is clearing up his employment and is stable. That is how it should be. Lowering costs for veterans means, that they do not need to be on the streets, unemployed, when they leave the service, but receive a pre-employment PCS to another job, just like they were PCS'ing in the service, but with the one thing, that they can get released from the service within a fast time frame,once they are settled in at a job.. and so forth etc. etc. there is more than that to this. No service member should remain in a unit, and be moved to a transitioning brigade, if they are disabled etc. and prepare to leave the service with a job lined up and not be pounded and pressured by their units to focus on their mission, then get pressured to get out, once the ratings are back and then get jammed through the motions of out processing... etc. etc. etc.
James Rollin Page 1 year ago
I am now retired, but I worked for the VA for over 30 years, first a a Veterans' Benefits Counsellor, later as a Rating Specialist, all at the VA Regional Office in St Petersburg. I have recently published a book: "A Butterfly Gone Mad" and Other Poems. I would appreciate it if you could let the VA community know of this. James Rollin Page 2423 7th St No St Petersburg FL 33704-3305 (727) 822-4468

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Founded: 1930
Annual Budget: $93 billion
Employees: 250,000
Official Website: http://www.va.gov/

Department of Veterans Affairs

Shinseki, Eric
Secretary
The highest ranking Asian-American in US military history, Eric K. Shinseki became a visible critic of the Bush administration’s force plan for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, correctly forewarning a problem that would haunt American military planners and policymakers in the years that followed. Barack Obama announced his nomination of Shinseki, a decorated Japanese-American war veteran, to be Secretary of Veteran Affairs on December 7, 2008—the 67th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
 
Shinseki was born on the island of Kaua’i, Hawaii, to Japanese-American parents on November 28, 1942, during World War II. One of his uncles served in the Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat team, the most decorated Army unit during World War II. Shinseki grew up with his grandparents in the Japanese section of a plantation community and graduated from Kaua’i High School in 1960. He went on to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he graduated in 1965 with a Bachelor of Science Degree. He also earned a Master of Arts Degree in English Literature from Duke University, and later attended the Armor Officer Advanced Course, the United States Army Command and General Staff College, and the National War College.
 
Commissioned as a second lieutenant, Shinseki served two combat tours with the 9th and 25th Infantry Divisions in Vietnam as an Artillery Forward Observer and as commander of Troop A, 3rd Squadron, 5th Cavalry. During his service in Vietnam, he was wounded three times. In April 1966 shrapnel from a mortar round hit him in the shoulder and chest. Five months later, a helicopter crash left him with a broken jaw and broken arm. In April 1970, during his second tour of duty in Vietmnam, Shinseki stepped on a land mine which blew off part of his right foot. The Army wanted him to retire at that point, but he refused. He was awarded two Purple Hearts and three Bronze Stars while serving in Vietnam.
 
Shinseki then served in Hawaii at Schofield Barracks in the headquarters of the US Army Hawaii and at Fort Shafter in the headquarters of the US Army Pacific. He later taught at the US Military Academy’s Department of English. During duty with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment at Fort Bliss, Texas, he served as the regimental adjutant and as the executive officer of its 1st Squadron.
 
Shinseki went on to serve more than 10 years in Europe in a variety of assignments. These included the following, all with the 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized): commander of the 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry (Schweinfurt); commander of the 2nd Brigade, (Kitzingen); Assistant Chief of Staff G3 (Operations, Plans and Training) (Wuerzburg); and Assistant Division Commander for Maneuver (Schweinfurt). He also served as the Assistant Chief of Staff, G3 (Operations, Plans and Training) with the VII Corps (Stuttgart), and as the Deputy Chief of Staff for Support, Allied Land Forces Southern Europe (Verona, Italy).
 
From March 1994 to July 1995, Shinseki commanded the 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, Texas. In July 1996, he was promoted to lieutenant general and became the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations and Plans for the Army. In June 1997, Shinseki was appointed to the rank of general before assuming duties as the Commanding General of the US Army in Europe, followed by his posts as commander of the Allied Land Forces in Central Europe, and commander of the NATO Stabilization Force in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
 
In November 1998, Shinseki assumed duties as the 28th Vice Chief of Staff for the US Army. He was then promoted to Army Chief of Staff on June 22, 1999. At one point, he sent copies of the book America's First Battles: 1776-1965, edited by Charles E. Heller and William A. Stoft, to members of Congress as a warning that too often, too many lives are lost in the first battles of wars because od lack of preparedness.
 
In March 2001, Shinseki angered many in the military with his plan to have all Army soldiers wear black berets, an honor previously reserved for elite forces. It was later revealed that the extra berets the Army needed were to be made in China and other foreign countries, a detail Shinseki said he did not know until after the contract was signed.
 
In order to discourage qualified personnel from leaving the Army, Shinseki promoted such soldier-friendly reforms as rotating non-combat troops only in summer to cause less disruption to families and to delay transfers for soldiers with a child who is a high school senior until after graduation.
 
On February 25, 2003, three weeks before the invasion of Iraq, Shinseki testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the US should send a much larger military force than was planned in order to defeat the Iraqi army and properly maintain order once the US had assumed control of the country. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz ardently rejected Shinseki’s assessment. “The notion that it would take several hundred thousand American troops just seems outlandish,” said Wolfowitz. Unfortunately, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz were wrong and Shinseki was right.
 
Three and a half months later, Shinseki retired from the Army. During his 38 years as a soldier, he became the highest-ranking Asian-American in US military history.
 
Since retirement, Shinseki has been appointed to the boards of two defense contractors: Honeywell and Ducommun Inc., and he also served on the board of directors of BancWest Corp.
 
Karmic justice: Gen. Eric Shinseki (by James Fallows, The Atlantic)
Army Chief Seeks Changes to Improve Lives (by Thom Shanker, New York Times)
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Peake, James
Previous Secretary

A native of St. Louis, Dr. James Peake served as the Secretary of Veterans Affairs from December 2007 until the inauguration of Barack Obama. Peake received his Bachelor of Science degree from the US Military Academy at West Point in 1966 and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army infantry. Following service in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division, where he was wounded twice, Peake entered medical school at Cornell University in New York. He was awarded a medical doctorate in 1972.

 
Peake began his Army medical career as a general surgery resident at Brooke Army Medical Center, Fort Sam Houston, Texas. He retired from the Army in 2004, following service as a cardiac surgeon and commander in several medical posts, culminating in his appointment as US Army Surgeon General from 2000 to 2004. As Army Surgeon General, Peake commanded 50,000 medical personnel and 187 army medical facilities worldwide. During this period he was criticized for ignoring the poor conditions for wounded Iraq War veterans at Walter Reed Medical Center and other facilities. Prior to that, he served as commanding general of the US Army Medical Department Center and School, the largest medical training facility in the world, with more than 30,000 students annually.
 
After retiring from the military, Peake served as executive vice president and CEO of Project Hope, a non-profit international health foundation operating in more than 30 countries. Just prior to his nomination as Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Peake served as a member of the board of directors for QTC, one of the largest private providers of government-outsourced occupational health and disability examination services in the nation.
 
VCS Editorial: Call Senators Today and Block Peake from Heading VA (by Paul Sullivan, Veterans for Common Sense)
 
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