Uncomfortable Truths: Department of Veterans Affairs, are you listening?

It was surprising that the Department of Veterans Affairs will automatically share health information with third parties without the veterans written consent unless the veteran opts-out in writing or submit a revocation in writing submitted in person or by US mail.  Especially surprising is that the official form for opting-out is not legally active until October 2019, and the deadline for opting-out, in writing, is 30 September 2019.  While this news if significantly troubling, let us define the full problem, courtesy of the Department of Veterans Office of Inspector General (VA-OIG).

I-CareOn 12 September 2019, the VA-OIG completed their investigation into the Beneficiary Fiduciary Field system (BFFS), who handle benefits payments for veterans and other beneficiaries who, due to injury, disease, or age, are unable to manage their financial affairs and are thus vulnerable to fraud or abuse.  The veterans affected are those who are the most susceptible in the veteran population, and the government agency charged with protecting, helping, and supporting these veterans is vulnerable to fraud and misuse.  In fact, the VA-OIG found that the BFFS, “… lacked sufficient controls to ensure the privacy of sensitive data and prevent fraud and misuse. Specifically, finding the VA’s Office of Information and Technology inappropriately set the security risk level for BFFS at moderate instead of high. Risk managers did not follow established standards and did not consider whether information for beneficiaries and fiduciaries stored in the system’s database was sufficiently protected.”

Yet, the VA is now making available to third-parties, the health records of veterans.  Does anyone else see a problem?  Previously I have written about the continuing risk of veteran’s files from being accessed by persons unknown, and how this problem does not slow, simply how the VA has stopped reporting how bad the problem continues to be.  Personally, I have been a victim of ID Theft from VA Data breaches three times.  I have had VA Employees surf my medical records and then use this data to discriminate against me.  I have witnessed blatant HIPAA violations by VA Employees without hospital leaders taking any action.  Now, the VA is going to “share” my medical record access with “interested parties.”  I have some concerns!

Just in case your attention was drifting due to fallacious impeachment proceedings, the VA inappropriately sole-sourced contracts for ambulance services in three separate Veteran Health Administration Regional Procurement Offices (RPO).  The significance of this event is evidenced in the lack of competition for government contracts.  Designed incompetence was the origination of this issue, the contracting officer claimed, “I didn’t know.”  The contracting officer, who must go to school to obtain authority to enter into contracts for the Federal Government, somehow “didn’t know” about the regulations and rules for sole-sourcing a contract.  I have some doubts!

In further news from VA-OIG investigations, we find another contracting officer who claims, “I don’t know,” to hide behind designed incompetence in sole-sourcing contracts.  From the VA-OIG inspection report, “15 sole-source contracts awarded by RPO West with a total value of about $19 million, were inspected to determine whether they were properly justified and approved, and found that this was not done for five contracts worth about $6 million.”  The contracting officers in RPO West, who “misunderstood who the proper approval authority was.”  Are you kidding me?

Blue Money BurningThe VA-OIG reports, “when contracting officers violate federal regulation by failing to obtain the required approval for sole-source contracts, they exceed their contracting authority.”  Contracting officers work with the approving authority, how can they not “know” who they work for and how to obtain proper authorization?  The excuses are weak and inexcusable; as an operation professional, the first step in getting to know the business is to know who answers the questions, who has the authority, and where that person is located.  For contracting officers, the approving authority is the boss, either the employees do not know who they are working for, or there are significant issues in lines of authority, and both situations speak of phenomenal incompetence and failure of leadership.

Just like the Home Shopping Network is always claiming, “But wait, there’s more!”  RPO East, not to be outdone by RPO West, had the VA-OIG inspect “20 sole-source contracts awarded by RPO East totaling $41.4 million. The OIG found RPO East contracting officers did not obtain required approval before awarding 10 contracts worth about $14.2 million.”  The reason these contracts were not appropriately sole-sourced, “because officials did not follow the proper approval process, did not receive the correct guidance, and misinterpreted regulations.”  If RPO West is suffering from “phenomenal incompetence and failure of leadership,” then RPO East is beyond saving under the current leadership, and I call upon Secretary Wilkie and his team to scrub RPO East leadership and start over under strict quality review teams to ensure compliance and correction.  I repeat, only for emphasis, this situation is inexcusable.  The contracting officers must attend school, must know the regulations, and must not “individually interpret” the purchasing rules, and they know this from the first second on the job.  I was made aware of sole-source contracting regulations, and I was not a contracting officer.

RPO West has the follow-through needed to boil someone’s blood.  “The VA-OIG reviewed 15 sole-source contracts awarded by RPO West with a total value of about $19 million to determine whether they were properly justified and approved, and found that this was not done for five contracts worth about $6 million.”  The reason these contracts were not appropriately sole-sourced, “because officials did not follow the proper approval process, did not receive the correct guidance, and misinterpreted regulations.”  I rescind my earlier comments about the ability to save RPO West, I call upon Secretary Wilkie to personally ax the leadership at both RPO East and West, to start on a clean slate the contracting officers, leadership, and then strictly observe and implement a quality control mechanism to protect the taxpayer.

People ProcessesSpeaking of “phenomenal incompetence and failure of leadership.”  Please allow me to prepare the groundwork for the subsequent VA-OIG investigation.  To be a supervisor in the VHA, VBA, or National Cemetery, you first must work in the positions you will be supervising.  This information was passed during a job-interview by the hiring authority and confirmed by several VA directors since.  From the VA-OIG Report, we find, “a supervisor at the VA regional office in Boston, Massachusetts, incorrectly processed system-generated messages known as “work items.”  The supervisor, “incorrectly canceled 33 of 55 work items out of 110 reviewed (that’s a less than 50% accuracy), and improperly cleared another nine work items from the electronic record. Because of these incorrectly processed cases, VA made about $117,300 in improper payments to veterans or other beneficiaries, along with about $8,600 in delayed payments.”  Best of all, the supervisor claimed these work items were improperly handled because, “he did not intentionally process the work items incorrectly, and the errors were the result of working too quickly and misunderstanding procedures.”  You are the supervisor, you are in charge, you should know who to approach for guidance and clarification, you have caused significant harm to veterans who either are not being paid or now must repay funds improperly provided.  There is an obvious question here, “If the supervisor is less than 50% accurate, what is the accuracy of the supervisor’s team?”  While the VA-OIG cannot investigate this question, is the director investigating this question?

If the accuracy of claims handling personnel is less than 50%, how can any veteran be sure their claim has been handled properly?  Having been forced to repay funds to the VA, I can attest to the financial impact these over and underpayments cause for veterans.  When will these decision-making officers be held personally accountable for improper decisions?  Senators, members of the House of Representatives, what are you doing to support improving the VA, in conjunction with Secretary Wilkie?  From what I witness, not enough!

You're FiredFrom the files of “Not Enough,” comes another egregious example.  A patient in a psychological ward in the Philadelphia Pennsylvania VA Medical Center was killed because of a drug-to-drug interaction, were due to insufficient observation, insufficient monitoring, and inadequate action when the patient coded, and a veteran died at the hands of caregivers.  When a patient in a hospital ward, which is monitored electronically and physically, commits suicide, I become very agitated.  When any patient dies at the hands of the healthcare provider, I have officially lost my “cherub-like demeanor” and begin resembling a grizzly bear with a bum tooth, hemorrhoids, and woken too soon from my winter nap.  The VA-OIG Report states the following, “… providers did not monitor the patient for electrocardiogram changes or drug-on-drug interactions.  Staff and providers documented signs consistent with over-sedation but did not intervene, communicate directly with each other, or add team members on as additional signers to the electronic health record.  The facility did not comply with the Veterans Health Administration requirements for issue briefs, root cause analyses, and peer reviews.  The staff did not follow the facility’s observation policy.  Facility providers did not adhere to policies requiring discussion, documentation, and patient signed informed consents prior to initiating methadone treatment.”  The providers knew they had a problem, before the patient got into trouble, and did nothing!  In any civilian hospital, this is called malpractice; but in the VA Hospital system, “this is an unfortunate incident.”  While I am undoubtedly glad leadership acted to remedy this situation in the future; I am very displeased to note it ever occurred.  With all the publicity over the power of methadone as an opioid, with the technology to remedy these problems before the patient dies, I cannot accept this situation could occur in the first place!  This veteran’s death should never have happened and the fact that this veteran died at the hands of providers from over-sedation, is a testament to the incompetence designed into the VA processes that excuses accountability and rewards malfeasance.

Speaking of opioid medication problems, the VA-OIG inspected 779,000 VA patients prescribed opioids, and for 73% (568,670) of those patients there was an insufficient investigation by the primary care providers in consulting the state-operated prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs) to ensure over-medication did not occur.  The VA-OIG estimated that 19% of those files improperly handled placed patients at risk because of medications prescribed outside the VA Medical System.  With the constant harangue from the mainstream media over opioid addiction and deaths from opioids, a person might ask, where is the concern?  Why isn’t this a talking point in a Congressional Investigation to understand why, and then begin to implement changes to ensure the VA is not stained with more veteran deaths over opioids.  Finally, with an accuracy rate of less than 25%, it appears to me this problem needs immediate rectification using technology and quality control measures at the local level to improve adherence.

blue-moneyI would like to take a moment and thank the VA-OIG for stepping up to the plate and correcting pre-award contract pricing to save the American taxpayer $515 million because the contracting officer on 16 of 22 proposed pharmaceutical contracts was improperly priced.  In case you are wondering, the accuracy of the contracting officers was less than 75%.  I know of no industry, business, or service organization that can have a 75% or less accuracy rate and remains in business.  As a business operation and purchasing professional, these numbers appear to suggest that the contract officers are either intentionally neglectful, or they are counting on pre-award review to protect them from price gouging; both situations are inexcusable for a contracting officer for the Federal Government.

Thank you!As the Los Angeles Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment program (LA VOCREHAB) was recently featured in an article, I am pleased to see that hiring additional staff has improved performance, per the findings of the VA-OIG.  The VA-OIG Report found accuracy in spending money had increased, compliance, and helping veterans to gain employment had all increased since the damning report from the VA-OIG; thus, congratulations to the LA VOCREHAB program!

© 2019 M. Dave Salisbury

All Rights Reserved

The images used herein were obtained in the public domain; this author holds no copyright to the images displayed.

 

Uncomfortable Truths – Where is the Accountability for Designed Incompetence?

I-CareThe Department of Veterans Affairs Office of the Inspector General (VA-OIG) conducted a review and sent the following report on their findings, “… the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) incorrectly processed more than half of the 62,500 claims decided in the first six months of 2018.”  A less than 50% accuracy rate is unacceptable in every business, organization, and school; yet, the VBA gets a pass on designed incompetence?  Why?  Already veterans must scrounge, dig, and provide endless reams of supporting proof, or new and material evidence, to obtain a “service-connected rating” for injuries and disabilities stemming from military service.  For the most part, the veteran accepts this as the cost of receiving treatment, and for the VBA to incorrectly process less than 50% of the claims, where spines are concerned, is deplorable performance.

In support of the claim that this is designed incompetence, the following is quoted from the VA-OIG report, “… incorrectly decided claims resulted from VBA’s inadequate process for ensuring accurate and complete evaluation. VBA’s primary means of evaluating disability contains minimal guidance, and a procedure manual is too subjective in key areas, which can lead to an inconsistent evaluation for related conditions stemming from the primary disability.”  The VA designed the processes for the VBA to follow.  Hence the incompetence is designed into the system to create additional problems, issues, and pain for the veteran.  Leading to a question for the elected officials in Federal Service, “Why are you allowing this nightmare to continue?”

Spine AnatomyAs a business consultant and industrial-organizational psychologist, I counsel those hiring me to never allow a process to reach a second birthday without a full and complete review.  When training deficiencies are found, immediate action is required, and that action must be documented.  Why is the VBA getting a pass on not training, not designing competent and reliable working processes, and not held accountable for performance that meets a passing score?  Not mentioned in this VA-OIG report, due to being outside the scope of the investigation, is the longevity of this single issue.  Why is a Congressional Blue-Ribbon panel not demanding historical information, and detailing for the American Taxpayer, especially the veterans involved, the significance of the rating problems and holding accountable those who designed the incompetence into the process?  By the time the VA-OIG reports are released for public distribution, there is supposed to be an alert to the Congressional Committees overseeing these government agencies.  The media is often alerted at the same time the Congressional Committees are informed; yet, a failing score in rating the “Spinal conditions [accounting] for two of VA’s top 10 service-connected disabilities, doesn’t even merit crickets.  Media why not stop reporting junk, and start reporting problems needing rectification?

If you want the full report, use the following link.  The full report is design incompetence of the greatest magnitude.  Elected officials, it is past time for action on the issue of design incompetence that allows substandard performance in government service!

Where designed incompetence continues to be the applicable excuse for poor performance, look no further than the Veterans Health Administration (VHA).  The VA-OIG report on Hospice and Palliative Care (HPC) is a full-on description of design incompetence to rival the VBA and maintain their lead on abusing veterans for personal power.  Consider the following, “… The OIG determined that 10.3 percent of the reviewed patients had a formal HPC consult or an HPC-related interaction/conversation without a designated HPC consult or stop code.”  Of those records, the 10.3% who were appropriately handled, and the 87.3% handled improperly, 100% of the patients reviewed experienced issues where “… administrative data did not reflect all HPC services provided by VHA. Inaccurate administrative data indicate that VHA has an incomplete understanding of how much HPC service it is providing or how much is needed, which could affect [the] allocation of resources and planning.”  Design incompetence allowed for every patient to have problems with information related, services the HPC provided, and the “VHA has opportunities to ensure that HPC consults are documented and coded accurately to account for HPC services.”  “Opportunities,” 100% of the records had administrative issues, 89.7% were improperly handled, “opportunities” might be a slight understatement.  Show me a successful business where 89% of the customers are mishandled, and 100% of the customers are provided inaccurate information when contacting the company for answers, and I will show you the floating mountains of Pandora in reality!

Secretary Wilkie has his hands full, and entirely tied, by the bureaucracy, employee inertia, and the uphill battle with intentional design incompetence that allows people who have been in their jobs since Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden, to still not know how to perform their job.  Federally elected officials, I must ask, “How can a VA employee qualify for retirement or continued employment, without knowing the job, or doing, the job they were hired or promoted for?”  Like fingers on a hand, the Federally Elected Officials have employees placed in leadership positions doing the business of the elected officials, if those employees cannot honorably do the jobs, they do not need to remain in your service, as you serve those who chose you on the ballot.  Is this pattern clear?  The voters hold you responsible for how well the government works, why are you not holding those in your service accountable and responsible for their inaction and their designed incompetence that promotes a ready-made excuse for dismal performance?

From personal experience, design incompetence is the only excuse many VA employees have, and the excuse is worthless.  There is a director of a major department of a statewide VA Health Care System, who refuses to write things down for fear of being held accountable.  Hence, every employee under this director’s leadership has adopted the same philosophy, no written guidance, written policy, no written procedures, and this situation is considered acceptable direction to this directors’ superiors.  Design incompetence is fought by holding individuals personally accountable, training, and using the performance management process to improve adherence and compliance.  For the VBA and the VHA to continue to allow design incompetence to excuse the inexcusable is a leadership issue which needs immediate Federal Elected Official intervention in support of Secretary Wilkie.  Please give him the tools needed to clean house, correct deficiencies, and establish sound policies to move the VA forward successfully!  The tools include a muzzle on the union, improved hiring, and support for eliminating thugs, criminals, and incompetence at every level of the VA hierarchy.

© 2019 M. Dave Salisbury

All Rights Reserved

The images used herein were obtained in the public domain; this author holds no copyright to the images displayed.

 

Tragedies, Travesties, and Uncomfortable Truths – Shifting the Paradigm at the Department of Veterans Affairs

For the uninitiated, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has three chief administrations the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), and the National Cemetery (NC).  The majority of the problems a veteran is going to experience originates in decisions from the VBA, which then influence care with the VHA.

I believe in giving credit where, and when credit is due; thus, please join me in congratulating the VBA for meeting a significant milestone.  From the VBA press release we find the following:

“On August 11th, VA updated portions of the rating schedule that evaluate infectious diseases, immune disorders and nutritional deficiencies. By updating the rating schedule, Veterans now receive decisions based on the most current medical knowledge of their condition.”

The reason this is good news stems from so many veterans leaving the military with problems caused in the service where the VBA has dictated there is no injury due to the rating scales, forcing the VHA into a treatment problem where the patient is concerned.  More on the rating scales issue momentarily.

I-CarePlease join me in mourning another death at the hands of the VHA, which is labeled by the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General (VA-OIG) as “largely preventable.”  A patient in the West Palm Beach VA Medical Center was in a mental health unit and committed suicide.  Largely preventable is a vast understatement when hospital leaders only begin caring about the veteran committing suicide after the suicide, where training and policy adherence was not mandated prior to the suicide, and the lack of cameras and staff monitoring allowed for a patient, already having trouble and this trouble is known to the hospital providing treatment, to take their own life.  No staff monitoring every 15-minutes was occurring; why?  Why were the cameras non-functioning?  How long had these problems been known and nothing was being done to correct these discrepancies.

Let me emphasize a truth about suicide.  A person expressing desire to suicide is not weak or lazy, and they will not “find a way.”  Having had depression sufficient to consider suicide in the past, I can tell you from personal experience that friends help, talking openly and honestly helps, and the emotional burdens placed upon a family when a suicide is successful are tremendous, as well as the guilt the surviving family must overcome.  This veteran did not have to die, their death was “largely preventable,” and for their death to occur on VA property, in a mental health ward, remains a tragedy.  That the VHA dropped the ball and allowed, through leadership failures, non-working technical means, and training deficiencies, this veteran to die is disgraceful!

The VBA is committing travesties of justice every day.  Consider the following, in the past 15+ years since I left the US Navy, I have had discussions with veteran service officers (VSO’s) across the continental United States on my own claim, and while supporting other veterans with their claims.  A recent example serves to illustrate the problem.  A Spine Anatomyveteran has bulging disks in the cervical spine.  The MRI shows disk degeneration, stenosis, and other problems in the cervical spine.  The veteran has an “S-Curve” in the thoracic spine caused by carrying bottled gas containers from the pier into the ship.  There is stenosis and disk degeneration in the thoracic spine.  The lumbar spine has bulging disks, degeneration, and stenosis.  Three separate areas of the spine, three distinct injured areas, yet, the VBA calls the spine issues, “Lumbar strain.”

Any person who has taken human biology in K-12 education can tell that spine issues in cervical and thoracic are not “lumbar strain” and would not need “new and material evidence” to understand that the first decision was flawed.  Yet, for the veteran to obtain a rating for their spinal issues, they must find an orthopedic spinal specialist, not affiliated with the VHA, and get a letter of diagnosis detailing why these separate areas of the spine are not “lumbar strain.”  The current corporate medicine world, finding an orthopedic specialist will require a non-VHA doctor as a primary care provider (PCP) to refer the veteran to a specialist.  Without a significant cash investment, time investment, and replication of VHA completed tests, x-rays, and MRI’s, the veteran will not be able to obtain a letter detailing the issues sufficient to sway the VBA in correcting their initial judgment.

The veteran will be stuck between three bureaucracies, the VBA who is denying the claim for spinal injury, the VHA who cannot diagnose and document a problem sufficient to meet the VBA standards, and the corporate medicine outside the VHA.  Yet, anyone with a passing understanding of human anatomy and biology can logically make the leap that the spinal issues cannot all be lumped under “lumbar strain.”

I continue to ask, “What is a veteran to do?”  Many times, the veterans in this position are either unemployed or employed below their skill level because they are in pain, they have medical issues requiring treatment, and they cannot obtain the treatment needed because the VBA has not allowed a military service claim to be placed upon the medical records for the VHA to treat.  To chain medical professionals to a rigid and dead bureaucracy, by refusing their ability to diagnose a problem for another VA administration is, without a doubt, a terrible decision, and dangerous practice.  To refuse to investigate a medical problem, restricted breathing with chest pain because the pain is not related to heart and lungs remains a travesty and an abuse of the patient.

To the elected Federal officials, why are you not demanding improvement to the VHA and the VBA?  Why do veterans have to die in the care of the VHA before any improvement is made to the bureaucracy you created?  Where does a veteran go to obtain relief from the bureaucratic nightmare where the VBA and the VHA are refusing to help the veteran?  The tragedy in this entire article is that the VA cannot enforce policy adherence, controlling the risks to avoid incidents like those detailed, and demand better performance from the people and the systems that are supposed to help the veterans.  The travesty in this article is the policymakers between Secretary Wilkie and the front-line employees; who is helping the veteran navigate these rocky shoals and dangerous waters of government policy?

I have met some great VSO’s, employees of the VBA and VHA, and interviewed with phenomenal people working in the National Cemetery; yet, they all have the same problem, the millstone around their necks is the regulations, policies, procedures, and red-tape of the VA that has been designed to refuse help as the first response to every question posed.  Thus, as I have asked Senator Udall (D-NM) and Representative Haaland (D-NM), as well as countless other Federally elected officials between 1997 and the present, what is a veteran to do to obtain the help they need from the VA?  Who would the veterans approach for guidance and support?  When the VBA is demanding “new and material evidence” before acting to support a veteran, how does a veteran obtain this evidence?

I know of hundreds of veterans who were affected by an independent duty corpsman in the US Navy who threw records over the side of the ship to avoid being held accountable for bad decisions and patient abuse.  Because these records are not in the medical files, injuries sustained in the service are not documented, and the VBA will use this as an excuse to deny claims.  What is a veteran to do?  Where does the veteran go?  How does a veteran correct something that occurred beyond their control to obtain treatment for decades-old injuries?  You the elected officials allowed the bureaucracy to be built, you are responsible for correcting these issues experienced, what are you doing to affect change and support Secretary Wilkie in fixing the VA, and by extension the VBA, the VHA, and the NC?

The American people are watching how you treat veterans, and we are not pleased!

 

© 2019 M. Dave Salisbury

All Rights Reserved

The images used herein were obtained in the public domain; this author holds no copyright to the photos displayed.