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News: Code Blue for VA

Checking in on the health of Veterans Affairs

By Drew Gibson · July 28th, 2007 · News
  A national commission on services for veterans met in Cincinnati last week, but hardly anyone showed up.
Mark Bealer

A national commission on services for veterans met in Cincinnati last week, but hardly anyone showed up.

A focus on the long-term future and possible unraveling of the U.S. Department Veterans Affairs (VA) dominated the discussion during a two-day meeting of the Commission on the Future for America's Veterans.

While the commission and the staff of the Cincinnati VA Medical Center commiserated with victims of bureaucratic ineptitude during the war in Iraq, they were more concerned with whether or not their organizations would still be running in a decade or so.

On July 17 and 18 the commission met in Cincinnati, continuing its 18-month multi-state tour. The two-day event included a series of private meetings and ended with an hour-long "Virtual Public Forum" for veterans to call and ask questions.

The commission -- headed by Harry N. Walters, former VA administrator under President Reagan -- is an independent body charged with the task of reforming health care and benefits for veterans. The commission was formed in 2006 through a coalition of various organizations, including the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans and AMVETS.

The Cincinnati meetings were attended solely by commission members, representatives of the veterans groups and staff at the local medical center. Aside from CityBeat, no other media or members of the general public showed up.

Corporate makeover?
"We're making recommendations for an actionable long-term strategy," proclaimed a video at the beginning of the meeting.

Members of the commission talked mostly about the future rather than focusing on the past or present. One of the biggest concerns for the commission is the impending budgetary problem that the VA faces.

"We will be in a fiscal crisis five years from now.

... That is a fact and not a guess," Walters said. "We're here because the VA budget in the future is a runaway train that's going to crash."

The fiscal problems are dire enough that the Cincinnati VA Medical Center could close.

"Will this VA hospital be here 10 or 15 years from now? Maybe not," Walters said. "I'll guarantee you -- as God made green apples -- that as soon as the war is over all that money the VA's been given is going to go away. If we do nothing, then the VA's going to look really bad."

However, it's in the commission's outlook toward the future that hope is held.

"We are thinking futuristically," Walters said. "No one else is."

David Sevier, executive director of the commission, echoed that sentiment.

"There has been a lot of progress in terms of defining the issues and outlining potential solutions for the future, which aren't fully formed yet," Sevier told CityBeat.

One of these "potential solutions" is being investigated by the Mitre Corp., a non-for-profit company formed by the federal government in 1958 that is the acting research wing of the commission. Rob Jensen, who spoke on behalf of Mitre at the meetings, proposed the creation of a federal government corporation (FGC) as "the current best solution" for the VA. Running the VA as a federal government corporation would give autonomy to the organization's operations and ensure limited congressional intervention.

"FGCs are not very closely monitored by Congress," Jensen said.

Unlike most of the commission, members of the Cincinnati VA Medical Center focused their comments on the successes and pressing issues of the present.

"Cincinnati's growth has been one of the highest in the network," said Cincinnati VA Medical Center Director Linda D. Smith, who added, "We have 772 authorized beds for long-term care in our network."

Asked why the commission decided to stop in Cincinnati, Sevier said, "Cincinnati is a good central location in the United States -- homeland America, if you will. The area also holds the nation's fourth largest number of National Guard members and reserves and is the headquarters for Disabled American Veterans."

But the growth hasn't been handled properly, according to Karen Cutright, head of the Operation Enduring/Iraqi Freedom Clinic at the medical center.

"Sixty percent of the National Guard and reserves in the area come to the clinic, which is well below the estimated national average of 75 percent," she said.

That statistic is all the more significant considering that the area holds so many National Guard members and reserves.

"Our biggest challenge so far has been outreach," Cutright said.

Not their problem
The last event of the two-day meeting was the Virtual Public Forum, moderated by Hero Radio host Rick Senniger. For one hour, members of all walks of military life called in and asked questions of a panel of commission members. The callers were contacted beforehand by the commission, but their questions weren't screened.

"The corporation will be designed to incentivise employees to do the right thing," Walters said in response to a question from Sgt. 1st Class Stephen Rogers.

Rogers' concern was over "the complaints of an apathetic attitude by either staff or administrators in the VA system."

Commissioner Bill Diefenderfer also responded to Rogers, saying, "The numbers in terms of satisfaction are better in polling for VA hospitals than for the private sector."

The most troubling call during forum came from Sgt. Tony Johnson, who had served at the beginning of the Iraq war.

"I was in the initial push for Baghdad with the 101st Airborne, got injured and was told I could no longer be a productive soldier and was converted back to civilian status," he said. "I want to know how you plan to smooth over the transition."

Walters responded, "We have a testimony at the commission from a former marine captain (Drew Myers) who started a veterans employment operation. He will create an opportunity to match soldiers' skill sets to employers."

However, the commission's focus on the future couldn't fix Johnson's problems.

"I'm wounded, I've got two kids and a dog and I can't work," he said, recalling his return from Iraq. "The first 90 to 180 days -- coming home to a U-haul truck, no job, no home, nothing. They medically discharged me. I should've known what was going on three months before they discharged me."

Walters commiserated but said that there was nothing the commission could do.

"We can't speak for the Department of Defense," he said, explaining that Johnson's misfortune was caused by the Department of Defense, not VA.

The commission will deliver its report to the administration and Congress on Memorial Day 2008.

"We hope to have a very specific proposal to put forward next year, with the idea of presenting it to the various candidates running for the highest office in the land," Diefenderfer said. ©



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