The guy who killed efforts to fix the VA is now in charge of fixing the VA

Bob Woodruff interviewed Jim Nicholson (here and here) and it sure seemed that he said yes when the answer should have been no.   

From ABC News

A proposal to keep seriously wounded vets from falling through the cracks of the bureaucracy was shelved in 2005 when Jim Nicholson took over as the secretary of the Veterans Affairs Department, according to the former VA employee who was responsible for tracking war casualties.

As a result, seriously wounded veterans continued to face long delays for health care and benefit payments after being discharged from the military, says former VA project manager Paul Sullivan.

The program, called the Contingency Tracking System, had been approved by Nicholson’s predecessor but died once Nicholson took over the VA, Sullivan told ABC News.

Sullivan said he was told the cost of the system — less than $1 million to build and requiring a handful of staff to maintain — was prohibitive.

When asked about the Contingency Tracking System at the White House Wednesday, Nicholson told ABC News, “I’m not sure I know what program you’re referring to.” He added that “when the VA gets patients…we instantly create an electronic medical record for them.”

In testimony before Congress today, a VA official confirmed that its current tracking system still depends on paper files and lacks the ability to download Department of Defense records into its computers, a key flaw originally identified as leading to veterans getting lost between the cracks.

Throughout 2004, the new program sat on a shelf while returning veterans struggling with serious brain injuries, psychological trauma, paralysis or worse spent weeks and months fighting the VA bureaucracy to receive the benefits they deserved after being discharged from the armed services, veterans advocates say.

“In that gap…people find themselves not being able to pay for their car, their mortgage, they may have marital problems because they can’t pay their bills,” said Steve Robinson, director of veterans’ affairs for the advocacy group Veterans for America. “You find suicide, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, domestic violence.”

Yesterday, President Bush put VA Secretary Nicholson in charge of an interagency task force to determine what can be done to deliver benefits and health care now to thousands of wounded vets who have struggled to receive care.

The announcement came almost exactly two years after Nicholson had received the newly designed system, itself the result of an internal VA task force studying how to make sure wounded soldiers were “seamlessly” transitioned from military service to veteran status with the care and benefits they’d earned.

Despite Nicholson’s apparently cool reception to the inexpensive solution, others thought the system had merit. “It was a great idea,” said Cynthia A. Bascetta, a congressional expert on veterans’ health care who was briefed on the project just prior to its completion. After the briefing, she said, she didn’t hear any more about it.

Newspaper exposes in 2004 prompted former VA Secretary Principi to come up with a plan to fix the problem of wounded vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and not receiving timely care and benefits.

“You read a story about someone who was caught in between and I said, ‘Wait a minute. We have to do better than that,'” Principi, now a lobbyist for the Pfizer pharmaceutical company, told ABC News.

Sullivan and his team designed the “Contingency Tracking System” (CTS), a secure online database that would capture Department of Defense data on soldiers wounded on the battlefield and track their status through their medical care and treatment at both Defense and VA facilities. 

To keep costs down, he said, he cadged computer hardware from other offices which weren’t using theirs.

CTS would record each vet’s diagnosis and help VA staff make sure he or she received all of the dozens of benefits they might qualify for as soon as possible, from rehabilitative care to disability payments, vocational training and more.

“Before the CTS, VA had no nationwide system for tracking casualties from the battlefield,” Sullivan said.  Instead, the department relied on a haphazard system of casualty records manually kept on spreadsheets at several locations, which sometimes did not match up with Defense Department casualty records.  That process hampered vets’ timely access to medical care and other benefits after discharge, Sullivan said.

Sullivan left the VA in March 2006; he is now an advocate for improving care for veterans. He reacted with dismay at yesterday’s announcement that Nicholson would be leading the new effort to make sure wounded veterans get the care and benefits they deserve.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea for the people responsible for the problem to be in charge of fixing it,” he told ABC News.

In a written response to ABC News, the VA said a new tracking system “very near deployment” would allow them to track casualties soon after they left the battlefield, much the way CTS was designed to do in 2004.

0 Responses

  1. Does Gates have anything to do with the VA? We don’t hear much from him. Rumsfeld was always mouthing off. This is just going to be a very long 2 years unless the congress and media pressure can get something done. Throwing money at a broken system won’t necessarily fix it. Unless they know how. So the congress may have just given them money, But who trusts anyone working for the Bush administration. Who said that their hearts and heads are for the soldiers? Especially if he already killed a system that would have worked.

  2. We need to be careful to differentiate between the Active Service Hospitals and the Veteran’s Administration. There are major differences.

    I am currently a resident in a Veteran’s Home after having undergone treatment through the VA for PTSD and Depression, long overdue some 40 years after the Tet Offensive that cap stoned my military 2nd tour in Vietnam with a lifetime of illness.

    My blog has attracted the stories of many veterans such as myself and other sufferers from PTSD who were victimized by elements of society other than the VA system of medical and mental treatment. I, for one, became trapped in the Military Industrial Complex for 36 years working on weapons systems that are saving lives today but with such high security clearances that I dared not get treated for fear of losing my career:

    http://rosecoveredglasses.blogspot.com/2006/11/odyssey-of-armaments.html

    When my disorders became life threatening I was entered into the VA System for treatment in Minneapolis. It saved my life and I am now in complete recovery and functioning as a volunteer for SCORE, as well as authoring books and blogging the world.

    When I was in the VA system I was amazed at how well it functioned and how state of the art it is for its massive mission. Below is a feature article from Time Magazine which does a good job of explaining why it is a class act:

    http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1376238,00.html

    I had state of the art medical and mental care, met some of the most dedicated professionals I have ever seen and was cared for by a handful of very special nurses among the 60,000 + nursing population that make up that mammoth system. While I was resident at the VA Hospital in Minneapolis I observed many returnees from Iraq getting excellent care.

    I do not say the VA system is perfect but it is certainly being run better on a $39B budget than the Pentagon is running on $494B.

    We have bought into the Military Industrial Complex (MIC). If you would like to read this happens please see:

    http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2007/03/spyagency200703

    Through a combination of public apathy and threats by the MIC we have let the SYSTEM get too large. It is now a SYSTEMIC problem and the SYSTEM is out of control. Government and industry are merging and that is very dangerous.

    There is no conspiracy. The SYSTEM has gotten so big that those who make it up and run it day to day in industry and government simply are perpetuating their existance.
    The politicians rely on them for details and recommendations because they cannot possibly grasp the nuances of the environment and the BIG SYSTEM.

    So, the system has to go bust and then be re-scaled, fixed and re-designed to run efficiently and prudently, just like any other big machine that runs poorly or becomes obsolete or dangerous.

    This situation will right itself through trauma. I see a government ENRON on the horizon, with an associated house cleaning.

    The next president will come and go along with his appointees and politicos. The event to watch is the collapse of the MIC.
    For more details see:

    http://www.rosecoveredglasses.blogspot.com

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Errington C. Thompson, MD

Dr. Thompson is a surgeon, scholar, full-time sports fan and part-time political activist. He is active in a number of community projects and initiatives. Through medicine, he strives to improve the physical health of all he treats.

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