CBS News Logo Veterans Affairs Committee to investigate painkiller overdoses

(CBS News) On Friday, the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee called for immediate action after a CBS News investigation that we brought you Thursday. Jim Axelrod's story showed that many returning war veterans are receiving lethal amounts of pain medication from VA hospitals. In that story, we met Heather McDonald, who said she found the body of her husband, Scott, after he followed directions for taking a series of prescribed drugs. "He never should have been taking those many pills," she said. "But he trusted his doctors, and if they said jump, he did because he thought it was gonna make him better. My husband served honorably, and with pride and dignity. Not to come home and die on the couch." After seeing our report, House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller said the VA's approach to pain management is in dire need of an overhaul. He said the committee will hold hearings to fix the problems and hold those responsible to account. Watch Jim Axelrod's investigative story, above. Continue Reading

CBS News Logo Veterans Affairs Committee chairman: Overmedication of veterans at VA “not acceptable”

(CBS News) Over the last 11 years, the number of veterans treated by VA health-care providers has increased 29 percent, but the number of narcotics prescriptions written by VA doctors is up 259 percent. For the last month, we've been reporting on the consequences of this, including accidental fatal overdoses. This week we sat down with Congressman Jeff Miller, who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Miller, a Republican from Florida, expressed his concern over the ratio at VA between pain management specialists and suffering veterans. "You're talking about 2 providers per 100,000 veterans," said Miller. "I don't see how they can in anyway think that they're able to manage this particular part of the pain management of our veterans." Veterans dying from overmedicationCongress to probe veterans' overdosesVeterans tell Congress about overmedication problem at VAWatch Jim Axelrod's report on veterans' accidental overdoses below. Miller called the situation "not acceptable." "Unfortunately, it has become a routine way of dealing with our veterans, and I don't think America expects their veterans to be given prescriptions only to mask the feeling of pain and not help the veteran get better," he said. This week, Heather McDonald and Kimberly Green testified on Capitol Hill about their husbands Scott and Ricky, both veterans with chronic pain who accidentally fatally overdosed on prescriptions written and filled by VA providers. "There have to be systemic changes made within VA, but you can't just tell people to make those changes without some type of follow up," said Miller. "Today, given the fact that there are pain-management specialists out there that can help the veterans deal with their pain without going through this heavy narcotic-prescription issue, I think that the veterans should have that opportunity. I wish I could guarantee, in fact, that it would never happen again, but there are no guarantees." The VA doctors at the hearing Continue Reading

CBS News Logo Congress passes long-awaited Veterans Affairs Accountability Act

Congress approved long-sought legislation Tuesday to make firing employees easier for the Department of Veterans Affairs, part of an effort urged by President Trump to fix a struggling agency serving millions of veterans. The bill will make it easier for VA employees, including executives, to be fired by lowering the standard of evidence required to "remove, demote or suspend" someone for poor performance or misconduct. It also gives whistleblowers more protections, including preventing the VA from removing an employee with an open whistleblower case.  The House cleared the bill, 368-55, replacing an earlier version that Democrats had criticized as overly unfair to workers. The Senate passed the bipartisan legislation by voice vote last week. It will go to Mr. Trump later this week for his signature. The measure comes after a 2014 scandal at the Phoenix VA medical center, where some veterans died while waiting months for appointments. During the presidential campaign, Mr. Trump promised to fire VA employees "who let our veterans down," describing the government's second-largest agency and its more than 350,000 employees as "the most corrupt" and "incompetent." The bill's passage "is GREAT news for veterans!" Mr. Trump tweeted Tuesday night. "I look forward to signing it!" Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tennassee, who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee, described the legislation as a necessary first step in overhauling the VA. Congress will soon take up legislation to give veterans expanded access to doctors outside the VA. "For far too long, the failures of the bad actors have tarnished the good name of all VA employees," Roe said. "No effort toward real, wholesale reform at the department will ever be successful absent a strong culture of accountability first." The House vote came as investigations into possible collaboration between the Trump campaign and Russia continued to hang over much of Washington, largely stalling the administration's biggest legislative Continue Reading

CBS News Logo Veterans Affairs chief orders nationwide review of VA Medical Centers

Embattled Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Eric Shinseki is directing his agency to complete a nationwide review of clinics at VA Medical Centers across the country to assess veterans' access to care."At VA, our most important mission is to make sure Veterans know VA is here to care for them and provide the high quality care and benefits they have earned and deserve," VA spokesman Drew Brookie said in a statement Thursday. "The purpose of this review is to ensure a full understanding of VA's policy and continued integrity in managing patient access to care. As part of the review during the next several weeks, a national face-to-face audit will be conducted at all clinics for every VA Medical Center."The VA says that Shinseki ordered the review before members of Congress began to call for it. The review is intended to determine whether all VA facilities are following the agency's existing scheduling policies correctly.Shinseki has come under fire in the wake of reports that at least 40 veterans died while waiting for care at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care system, which worked to cover up the long wait times by creating a secret waiting list and later destroying the evidence. A handful of top Republicansenators have demanded both an investigation and Shinseki's resignation."The president needs to find a new leader to lead this organization out of the wilderness, and back to providing the service that our veterans deserve," Sen. John Cornyn, the Senate's second-highest ranking Republican, said this week. The American Legion, which is the nation's largest veterans group, and Concerned Veterans for America have also said he should step down.Shinseki will face grilling from lawmakers next Thursday as he testifies before the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. He'll likely testify before the House Veterans' Affairs Committee in the near future as well, as members voted Thursday morning to subpoena him.Despite some calls for him to step down, Shinseki found a Continue Reading

Trump eyes ‘Fox & Friends’ personality Pete Hegseth to take over Veterans Affairs

Fox News personality Pete Hegseth, a conservative voice on veterans policy, has emerged as a leading candidate to replace embattled Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, who has fallen from favor with the Trump administration, according to people with knowledge of the matter. Hegseth, 37, is co-host of “Fox & Friends Weekend,” a platform he has used to push his vision of a health-care system with a drastically smaller government footprint and a larger share of private care. He has railed against Shulkin and members of Congress in both political parties for their moderate approach to offering veterans access to private doctors. Hegseth is an Iraq War veteran who was previously executive director of the conservative advocacy groups Vets for Freedom and Concerned Veterans for America, which is backed by the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch. Concerned Veterans has proven to be an influential force in the administration. But Hegseth’s views on reforming the troubled agency are considered extreme even by some Republicans in Congress, and it is unclear if he could win Senate confirmation if President Trump decides to fire Shulkin. Hegseth has been a confidant of Trump’s, who watches his Fox News show and frequently calls him to discuss veterans’ policy. Hegseth has dined at the White House and, during an Oval Office meeting between Trump and Shulkin last week, the president called Hegseth to seek his counsel on pending legislation that would expand private care. [‘It’s killing the agency’: Ugly power struggle paralyzes Trump’s plan to fix veterans’ care] Trump has not met with Hegseth about the job. But the president has soured on Shulkin, the only Obama era holdover in Trump’s Cabinet, amid widely reported turmoil within VA’s senior ranks. The president has told aides he may replace Shulkin as part of a broader shake-up that began Tuesday with his firing of Secretary of Continue Reading

Trump considers ousting his Veterans Affairs secretary in Cabinet shuffle

President Donald Trump is considering ousting embattled Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, who has faced an insurgency within his department and fresh allegations that he used a member of his security detail to run personal errands.Trump has floated the notion of moving Energy Secretary Rick Perry to the VA to right the ship, believing Shulkin has become a distraction, according to two sources familiar with White House discussions. The sources were not authorized to discuss internal deliberations.Shulkin has faced several investigations over his travel and leadership of the department, but until now has received praise from the president for his work to turn it around. The news comes after Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday.Trump raised the idea with Perry on Monday but did not offer the job to him, according to one White House official. Trump has been angry with Shulkin, the official said, but is known to float staffing changes without always following through.Shulkin did not respond to requests for comment via phone and text message. He has been holding on to his job by a thread since a bruising internal report found ethics violations in connection with his trip to Europe with his wife last summer.The VA inspector general also is looking into a complaint by a member of Shulkin's 24-7 security detail that he was asked to accompany the secretary to a Home Depot and carry furniture items into his home, according to two people familiar with the allegation who requested anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.Within the agency, a political adviser installed by Trump has openly mused to other VA staff about ousting the former Obama administration official. And a top communications aide has taken extended leave following a secret, failed attempt to turn lawmakers against him."The honeymoon is ending with a crash that hurts veterans most of all," said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, who has Continue Reading

Who is David Shulkin? 7 things to know about the US Secretary of Veterans Affairs

United States Secretary of Veterans Affairs David J. Shulkin met with U.S. House members Thursday following a scathing report that showed Shulkin and his staff misled officials about a European trip last summer. Here are seven things to know about David Shulkin: WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 15: Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin testifies before the House Veterans' Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill on February 15, 2018 in Washington, DC. Shulkin is under fire for misrepresenting a taxpayer funded trip to Europe. (Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images) Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images Shulkin, 58, was born on July 22, 1959, in Highland Park, Illinois. He was born at the Fort Sheridan U.S. Army base, where his father served as an Army psychiatrist. He was confirmed by the Senate in February 2017. Shulkin was unanimously confirmed to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs last year after serving as an undersecretary at the agency. The VA currently operates its own health system with 1,200 hospitals and clinics across the country. He’s the first VA secretary without military experience, and President Donald Trump’s first Cabinet member appointed to a position in the Obama administration. According to USA Today, Trump often calls Shulkin the “100-to-nothing man” because of the unanimous vote. He holds a medical degree.  Shulkin received his medical degree from the Medical College of Pennsylvania, completed his internship with the Yale University School of Medicine and his residency and fellowship in general medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Presbyterian Medical Center. Before the VA, Shulkin held physician leadership roles with multiple hospitals and health care systems. What has he done during his tenure? In an effort to increase transparency, Shulkin directed staffers to include wait times for VA care and quality comparisons to the private sector on a new website. He also oversaw the creation of a Continue Reading

Senate confirms Robert McDonald as Veterans Affairs secretary

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Tuesday unanimously confirmed former Procter & Gamble CEO Robert McDonald as the new Veterans Affairs secretary, with a mission to overhaul an agency beleaguered by long veterans’ waits for health care and VA workers falsifying records to cover up delays. McDonald, 61, of Cincinnati, will replace Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson, who took over in May after Eric Shinseki resigned. McDonald has pledged to transform the VA and promised that “systematic failures” must be addressed. He said improving patient access to health care is a top priority, along with restoring transparency, accountability and integrity to the VA. The 97-0 Senate vote to confirm McDonald comes as Congress appears poised to approve a $17 billion compromise bill to refurbish the VA and improve veterans’ health care. The bill is intended help veterans avoid long waits for health care, hire more doctors and nurses to treat them, and make it easier to fire senior executives at the agency. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said it was important that Congress act on the reform bill as quickly as possible to give McDonald and his team “the resources they need to ensure American veterans are getting the care we’ve promised them.” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said McDonald “has a tough job ahead of him,” but said that if he “is willing to work in a collaborative and open manner with Congress,” Republicans will help McDonald fix the VA. President Barack Obama applauded McDonald’s confirmation. “As a veteran himself and a proud member of a military family, Bob is deeply committed to serving our veterans and their families,” Obama said in a statement. “And as an executive with decades of private-sector experience, he is uniquely equipped to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, and to help change the way the VA does Continue Reading

Rep. Phil Roe to chair House Veterans’ Affairs Committee

WASHINGTON – Rep. Phil Roe will lead the committee that oversees veterans’ issues in the next Congress.The Johnson City Republican was chosen Thursday as chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. He will replace Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who is retiring.Roe, a physician and Korean War veteran, has served on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee since coming to Congress in 2009 and has made veterans’ issues one of his top priorities.“This is a responsibility I will not take lightly,” he said of his new role as chairman.Roe will take the helm of the committee at a time when the Department of Veterans’ Affairs has been besieged by scandal, with reports of poor health care for veterans, delayed benefits and employees falsifying records at veterans’ hospitals to cover up long wait times for service.During his tenure as chairman, Miller was highly critical of the VA and its leadership over their response to the scandals. Roe also has frequently blasted the agency over its delivery of services.“With scandal after scandal, it has become clear there’s no federal agency more in need of reform than the VA,” Roe said. “I am excited by the opportunity to advance Republican solutions aimed at improving veterans’ care. There’s a lot of work to be done.”Roe served as a captain in the U.S. Army Medical Corps from 1973-74 and was stationed for nine months near the demilitarized zone, or DMZ, in Korea. He also served at an evacuation hospital near Seoul for three months.An obstetrician-gynecologist, Roe spent time training at a VA hospital in Memphis and worked with the VA to see veterans in his private practice. Continue Reading

Veterans Affairs pays $142 million in bonuses amid scandals

WASHINGTON – The Department of Veterans Affairs doled out more than $142 million in bonuses to executives and employees for performance in 2014 even as scandals over veterans' health care and other issues racked the agency.Among the recipients were claims processors in a Philadelphia benefits office that investigators dubbed the worst in the country last year. They received $300 to $900 each. Managers in Tomah, Wis., got $1,000 to $4,000, even though they oversaw the over-prescription of opiates to veterans – one of whom died.The VA also rewarded executives who managed construction of a facility in Denver, a disastrous project years overdue and more than $1 billion over budget. They took home $4,000 to $8,000 each. And in St. Cloud, Minn., where an internal investigation report last year outlined mismanagement that led to mass resignations of health care providers, the chief of staff cited by investigators received a performance bonus of almost $4,000.More than 2,600 Arizona-based VA employees received a total of $2.8 million in bonuses in 2014.As one of his final acts last year before resigning, then-VA secretary Eric Shinseki announced he was suspending bonuses in the wake of revelations that VA employees falsified wait lists to meet wait-time targets — ostensibly to get the extra pay. But he only curtailed them for a sliver of VA executives -- those in the Veterans Health Administration, which oversees health care.The agency has continued to pay performance-based bonuses to nearly half of agency employees, including in health administration, the data show. In all, some 156,000 executives, managers and employees received them for 2014 performance, according to data provided to USA TODAY by the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.VA spokesman James Hutton said the vast majority of the employees are committed to serving veterans, and he said VA leaders are still Continue Reading