AN OPEN LETTER FROM SENATOR RICHARD BURR

OPINION:

VETERAN

At least someone has the courage and a grasp on the magnitude of the problem.

McGuire VA MEDICAL CENTER

To the Nation’s Veterans,

Over the course of the last few weeks, there has been a great deal of media coverage—rightly so—of the still-unfolding story coming out of the Department of Veterans Affairs regarding secret wait lists and other problems related to appointment scheduling at VA facilities. Last week, the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs heard from Secretary Shinseki, representatives of some of the Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs), and others.

While a great deal of the media coverage of the hearing has focused on what Secretary Shinseki said, and didn’t say, much less has been seen of the testimony of the VSOs that testified. I wanted to take a brief moment to comment on that testimony.

First and foremost, I must recognize and commend the American Legion, National Commander Dan Dellinger, and the American Legion team for taking a principled stand, before the hearing and during it, and calling for leadership change at the VA. It is clear that the Legion has been listening to its membership about the challenges they face in gaining access to care, and has reached the conclusion that “enough is enough” and the status quo is indefensible. The Legion’s membership has much to be proud of with the organization they support.

Regrettably, the Legion was alone among the VSOs that testified in taking such a stand. It became clear at the hearing that most of the other VSOs attending appear to be more interested in defending the status quo within VA, protecting their relationships within the agency, and securing their access to the Secretary and his inner circle. But to what end? What use is their access to senior VA staff, up to and including the Secretary, if they do not use their unprecedented access to a Cabinet Secretary to secure timely access to care for their membership? What hope is there for change within the VA if those closest to the agency don’t use that proximity for the good of veterans across our country?

I believe the national and local commanders of every VSO have the interests of their members at heart, and take seriously their commitment to their members and their organization. Unfortunately, I no longer believe that to be the case within the Washington executive staff of the VSOs that testified. Last week’s hearing made it clear to me that the staff has ignored the constant VA problems expressed by their members and is more interested in their own livelihoods and Washington connections than they are to the needs of their own members.

I fear that change within the VA will not be possible unless and until these organizations also reconsider their role as well as the nature of their relationship with VA.

Sincerely,

Richard Burr

United States Senator

Thank you Senator!

bc

 

“FREE AT LAST! FREE AT LAST! THANK GOD ALMIGHTY, …”

TESTING THE TERRAIN:

VETERAN

My purpose for taking my first ever bus ride* was to test the friendliness of Richmond to the disabled and wheelchair bound. And too, occasionally escape the controlling confines of the nursing home.

My interest in public transportation extends back to over a year ago. I was exploring the possibility of using the Greater Richmond Transit Company’s (GRTC) CAREVAN. The CAREVAN would allow me to travel the Richmond area, point to point, at a reduced rate of $2.50 (now $3.00) one way.

The CAREVAN seemed to be a convenient way to get from point A to point B when using a power wheelchair. It is cheaper to ride the fixed route city bus. I based my reluctance to use the city bus on the mistaken belief that Richmond was unfriendly to disabled persons.

I had my reduced rate GRTC card for over a year and I  only used it once. That was a pleasant experience dampened only by the fact that it required 24 hour advance reservation. The need for a reservation reduced the excitement of a spontaneous trip to downtown Richmond.

Then I heard that someone from Recreation Therapy at McGuire Veterans Medical Center was going to try taking the city bus a mere four tenths of a mile, across Hull Street, to Southside Plaza. Hull Street has no pedestrian crosswalk making it impossible to enjoy an Egg McMuffin and a decent cup of coffee at McDonald’s.

Having the location and the approximate bus time, on a whim one mid-morning, I went across Broad Rock Boulevard to the bus stop on E. Belt and waited. When the bus stopped, the doors opened and a ramp extended to the sidewalk, I asked the driver if the bus went to Southside Plaza. He acknowledged that it did and I got on the bus. The return trip was equally uneventful. The trip gave me satisfaction and a great feeling of accomplishment. I have since taken the city bus downtown.

I have given up any hope of understanding  GRTC’s bus schedule. I started using my computer and the GRTC website to navigate through the city of Richmond.

My third trip took me downtown to 7th and Marshall. Once again, the trip presented none of the horrors that I had anticipated. In fact, on this trip, I found just the opposite. Sidewalks and crosswalks, although bumpy, were surprisingly easy to navigate.

Circling the block downtown, I noticed a sign on a window on 7th Street, “Richmond on Broad Café.” How excited can I get? Anyone who knows me knows how I am about coffee shops. Coffee shopping has been my hobby and passion since retiring several years ago. Give me a coffee shop, laptop, warm atmosphere, good food, and I am happy.

RICHMOND ON BROAD

The café proved to be one of those wonderful places in Richmond. The wheelchair access is on the Broad Street side and very easy to enter using the ramp. It opens at 7:30 a.m. on weekdays. I was just a few minutes early and waited for the security guard to unlock and hold the door for me,.  It wasn’t necessary, but his effort was thoughtful and appreciated.

The café was not crowded and easy to navigate towards the counter to place my order. The spacing between the tables was sufficient to find a place to put my wheelchair. There didn’t appear to be any tables designated for “Handicapped,” but the chairs were not difficult to move. Having moved the chair and adjusting my foot rests, I was able to get close enough to the table to be comfortable while eating.

I approached the counter and was immediately struck by the breakfast items in the display case. I was  taken back by the pre-prepared items but was still tempted by the display. I ordered a bacon, egg, and cheese on a croissant and a large cup of coffee. When placing your order, they ask for your first name and give you a buzzer to let you know when your order is ready. Since it was early my order was ready before I finished preparing my coffee.

The cream and Sweet’n  Low were easy to reach in a wheelchair. Napkins are on the table. Returning to my table that I had claimed with my hat, I opened croissant sandwich,.  It was hot,  and I was surprised to find a tomato hidden somewhere between the crispy bacon, provolone cheese and egg. The fresh tomato added flavor and moisture that separated the typical breakfast sandwich to a terrific breakfast sandwich.

The décor of the cafe  celebrates the location as being part of the University of Richmond’s downtown campus. Exposed brick dominates one interior wall, but does not detract or diminish the overall warm and welcoming feeling. The floor is tile that makes for easy maneuverability in a wheelchair. The fixed seating is cushioned, making it comfortable for those wishing for long conversations or as a meeting place. The outside view is pleasant with a parade of workers going to their jobs.

The return trip begins at 8th and Marshall, which is right around the corner from the drop off point. At my home destination, I exited the bus at Horner and Broad Rock near the south gate of McGuire VA Hospital. At no point did I feel the least bit uncomfortable and I was surprised by how friendly Richmond is to those of us in wheelchairs.

* NOTES: In my case, both buses, down and back, came a little early. If you have questions, ask the driver before getting on the bus or you can call GRTC Customer Service @ 358-4782.

bc

THE GOOD WITH THE BAD

OPINION:

VETERAN

Sitter and Barfoot Veterans Care Center (SBVCC) remains one of the best available options for veterans in need of long-term care in Richmond, Virginia. My issues with the administration are mostly in the past. Despite my issues, which are part of the public record, I will judge the facility only from the physical operation and first impressions. First impressions that are carefully choreographed by the administration. I will refrain from medical and administrative issues.

 

Sitter and Barfoot offers private rooms with private bath. Privacy is one of the primary factors for choosing SBVCC. It provides the veteran the opportunity to create their own personal living space. Privacy has always been paramount to me. I enjoy and often prefer a solitary lifestyle. I enjoy the chance to be left alone.

SITTER AND BARFOOT EDITED FRONT

 

Each private room has its own climate control to provide year round comfort. If you experience any temperature issues, the maintenance personnel have always been eager to help during regular business hours.

The physical environment is clean and well maintained. Housekeeping comes to rooms no less than three times a day to sweep, dust, mop, and empty trash. Much attention is focused on the common areas as well. The hardwood floors look like the lanes of a bowling alley.

I was able to connect with the WiFi in the building. That gives me free Internet service in my room. I can, and do, work on the computer for most of the day. There is public Internet access available in a well stocked library. I have an Internet radio in my room that allows me to listen to good quality music of my choosing. That alone has been a significant psychological lift. It gives me a little bit more control over my environment.

There are few viewing options for me on the free TV, but the major networks are available along with CNN, TNT, ESPN, and 25 + other channels. My TV is seldom on during the day. SBVCC provides activities throughout the day for the residents, including weekends. I have not found interest in the events, finding them less than entertaining and preferring the company of myself.

Meals can be delivered to your room or, if you choose, you can eat in the dining room. Food is not bad and menus change frequently.

At the present time, as long as I have my laptop, radio, books, TV and I’m left alone, I’m reasonably content. Since I’m my own “responsible party,” I can come and go as I please and I’m learning to get around Richmond using public transportation.

The greatest asset for me has been the daily interaction and support of the CNAs and the LPNs. These are the ones on the front line of service, care, and comfort. Most do an incredible job in an often demanding and thankless position.

The transition from being completely independent to a nursing home that wants to exert control over every aspect of your life has been quite an adjustment. The experience has had its share of drama and disagreement, which continues to this day. But after almost three years, I’m getting there. One battle at a time.

If I could just get my mail held at the front desk.…

bc

TRANSPARENCY

OPINION:

VETERAN

Sitter and Barfoot Veterans Care Center (SBVCC) is a Commonwealth of Virginia state agency. The Department of Veterans Services has the responsibility of providing oversight of the operation of Sitter and Barfoot. Immediately, it begs to question the credibility and accuracy of such oversight.

The Commonwealth has shown that it is incapable of effectively self-governing, let alone self-policing. Sitter and Barfoot has consistently resisted the use of emails between me and the staff members. Sitter and Barfoot appears to be fearful of the paper trail and accountability that accompanies emails and finds it necessary to dodge transparency.

I continue to send professional emails confirming meetings, appointments, and requests for information that continue to go unanswered. SBVCC’s actions are unprofessional by anyone’s standards. SBVCC has demonstrated it cannot withstand the examination and accountability associated with transparency.

bc

VETERAN RECEIVES LITTLE RESPECT: A REALITY CHECK

OPINION:

VETERAN

 

Sitter and Barfoot Veterans Care Center can provide long-term skilled nursing care for as many as 160 veterans.  What are the demands and what are the needs of the residents?

I have accepted my condition and limitations, yet my biggest battle was not the physical restrictions, but the indignities suffered at the hands of the veterans care center.  I have tried to renew the activities that had given me pleasure and stimulation in the past.

The facility must promote care for residents in a manner and in an environment that maintains or enhances each resident’s dignity and   respect in full recognition of his or her individuality.

Sitter and Barfoot received, diverted, and opened my first-class mail. They processed two checks incorrectly without notifying me.  This was a violation of not only their policies, but federal law.  This action resulted in a federal lawsuit (Civil Action No. 3:13cv335) which the defendant, Department of Veteran Services, claimed sovereign immunity and the case was dismissed.  I had requested Sitter and Barfoot hold my mail at the front desk since I am my own responsible party.  I receive notices of changes to my Medicare and Medicaid premiums and legal documents.  Sitter and Barfoot has demonstrated little aptitude in handling such affairs.

In October, 2012, I received notice that Medicaid was no long going to pay my insurance premiums and I forwarded the notice to the business office.  I never received the notice of the required “annual review.”  I was told in an email that the business office would take care of it and that I did not have to do anything.

That was hardly the case.  Two monthly premiums were not paid by Medicaid but were deducted out of my personal funds account.  I was subsequently told to fix it myself.  It took many months to straighten that mess out.  Still, Sitter and Barfoot refuses to have my mail held at the front desk.

Staff members routinely ignore my emails requesting information and services.  It begs to ask the question why.  Why the lack of transparency and accountability?

bc

DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS: A GLIMMER OF HOPE?

OPINION:

VETERAN

Representative Jeff Miller’s [1] bill, H.R. 4031, Department of Veterans’ Affairs Management Accountability Act of 2014: [2] Does it go far enough fast enough?

It is no secret that the Department of Veterans Affairs has serious problems. A crisis created throughout its hierarchy; a problem that creates delays in service resulting in needless anxiety, frustration, and frequently, death. [3]

The bill, ‘‘Department of Veterans Affairs Management Accountability Act of 2014,” will allow the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to remove members of the Senior Executive Service (SES) for performance.

Why not hold all management to the same accountability standard as the SES? Senior bureaucrats have stripped away any incentive for personal accountability and diminished responsibility throughout the organization. Those on the front lines of customer service should be as accountable as the seniors. It will do no good if senior management does not have the ability to dismiss unproductive or incompetent employees for performance shortfalls.

IMG_0013-13

Civil service supervisors are unaware of the image their operation projects to the public. They no longer view their area of responsibility from the customer’s viewpoint, but instead, are busy responding to the whims of their supervisors and the occasional out of control grievance. Leadership is unaware of what happens on the front lines — under staffing, long lines, distracted, unresponsive, rude, and condescending employees. Employees are more focused on the timing of their next bathroom break or their cell phone vibrating than the client standing front of them. Supervisors have become too busy with a backlog of other priorities. Priorities designed to present ambiguous numbers and false positives. Priorities totally disconnected from the chaos that continues up-front, unabated. Priorities mandated by civil servants that are even more detached from the public’s perception of their operation.

H.R. 4031 makes no attempt to untie the hands of SES. SES is at the mercy of the lower chain of command with neither the ability nor the desire to make appropriate changes when necessary. There is little incentive to expend the energy or the resources to even meet, much less to exceed the veterans’ expectation. To change and insist on accountability throughout the Veterans Administration would require a fundamental transformation in the workforce and personnel practices. That is not likely to happen. The desirability of government employment would diminish. One of the well known perks of a government job is job security.

H.R. 4031is a step in the right direction and deserves support, but does little to untangle the mess created by mismanagement and poor planning that has plagued the Department of Veterans Affairs. H.R. 4031 will not be the silver bullet. Continued pressure on our representatives is imperative. The motivation of the department to self-govern has proven that they are more concerned about furthering their own interests rather than those of the veterans. Carefully concealing and shrugging off incompetence ensures a backlog of work and strengthens the employees’ grip on job security. Government can no longer protect the incompetent and unproductive civil servant. … Regardless of their position in the hierarchy.

“Despite the fact that multiple VA Inspector General reports have linked many VA patient care problems to widespread mismanagement within VA facilities, and GAO findings that VA bonus pay has no clear link to performance, the Department has consistently defended its celebration of senior executives who presided over these events, all the while giving them glowing performance reviews and cash bonuses of up to $63,000.00” [4]

bc

 

[1] Rep. Jeff Miller, Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs

[2] http://beta.congress.gov/113/bills/hr4031/BILLS-113hr4031ih.pdf

[3] http://www.cnn.com/video/data/2.0/video/us/2014/04/23/ac-dnt-griffin-va-deaths-covered-up.cnn.html

[4] http://veterans.house.gov/accountability

VA CENSORSHIP AND FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

 

VETERAN

Hunter Holmes McGuire Veterans Hospital, Richmond, Virginia, is guilty of censorship, discrimination, and refusing to ticket vehicles parked in the handicapped crosswalks.  This practice has been the policy since at least 2013.

On April 7, 2014 the veterans’ affairs police department failed to enforce the parking restrictions in the wheelchair crosswalks in their parking lot.  In an act of peaceful civil disobedience, I parked in front of the offending vehicle, in the cold rain, refusing to leave.  I called the local news affiliate, WWBT – TV NBC 12, to draw attention to the disgraceful parking conditions at the facility.

The veterans’ affairs police arrived and told me to move my wheelchair from in front of the parked vehicle.  I told them that I was not going to move until they ticketed the vehicle and the TV station arrived.  The police informed me that the TV station was not coming and refused to ticket the vehicle.  The police then informed me that there were “protocols” that had to be followed, and that the news media could only go through the Department of Public Affairs of the facility.

The police then commandeered my wheelchair and forcefully escorted me to my residence.

For further reading: http://veterans.house.gov/press-release/hvac-webpage-to-track-how-va-stonewalls-the-press

bc