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Saturday, May 26, 2018
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Altman: VA stalls on providing info on deaths, injuries

On Feb. 1, I wrote about how internal documents from the Department of Veterans Affairs showed delays in diagnostic testing at hospitals in the VA’s Sunshine Healthcare Network led to the deaths of five patients and injuries to nine others. The documents were unearthed by the House Veterans Affairs Committee as part of its investigation into care given to veterans.

The Sunshine Healthcare Network, also known as VISN 8, is based in St. Petersburg and is made up of Florida, part of southern Georgia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. This network recorded the second highest number of deaths or injuries nationwide, according to the documents, trailing only the VISN 7 region of Alabama, South Carolina and most of Georgia. VISN 7 recorded 10 patient deaths and 19 injuries.

So which facilities, exactly, had the problems?

Ten days after I wrote that story, I can’t tell you.

When I asked the first time, the VA offered no specifics.

When I asked the next day, the VA told me to file a Freedom of Information Act request.

So I made that request. Even though the information in the documents I obtained contained no information that would violate patient-privacy laws because there were no names involved. I was asking for a list of VA networks that had issued “institutional disclosures,” which is required after a death or injury as the result of an adverse action by the VA.

And I was forced to make the request even though five months earlier, the House committee asked the VA for essentially the same information, only to get no response, according to committee spokesman Curt Cashour.

The total of at least 19 deaths and 63 injuries nationwide as the result of delayed diagnoses are from operations of a VA health care system that last year provided more than 85 million appointments and 25 million consults, including about 1.3 million gastrointestinal consultations.

It’s a very small percentage, but the public has a right to know which institutions are having the most problems and the full scope of those problems.

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The response issue is not at the local level.

Mary Kay Hollingsworth, the VISN 8 spokeswoman, is always responsive, helpful and very good about providing information in a timely fashion, regardless of whether it sheds a positive or negative light on the system. She is a true benefit to the system, much like many of the other hardworking staff at the VA systems I cover who care deeply about veterans and work wonders on their behalf.

But Hollingsworth has been given the unenviable task of being the VA’s point person on the issue of deaths and injuries at VISN 8 facilities.

For the committee, getting information out of the VA has been challenging. So much so that they created a Trials in Transparency section on their website chronicling their unsuccessful efforts.

“VA is currently sitting on nearly 100 separate requests for information made by the committee, some dating back more than a year,” according to the website.

“The leisurely pace with which VA is returning requests — and in some cases not returning them — is a major impediment to the basic oversight responsibilities of the committee.”

Shortly before 1 p.m. Friday, I sent an email to the VA’s national press office asking whether the committee’s take on the information requests was accurate.

Almost nine hours later, I am still sitting at my desk, and nary a response.

If you or someone you know was affected by a delay in diagnosis or treatment, please let me know.

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MacDill Air Force Base personnel will be playing a role in the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons.

At least those that have been turned over so far. Reuters and other news organizations report Syria has turned over less than 4 percent of the 1,300 metric tons of chemical weapons or precursors it professed to possess. The Syrians, who U.S. officials say used Sarin gas to kill more than 1,000 of their own people, were supposed to turn over 90 percent by last Thursday.

Regardless, there are two members of the MacDill-based Joint Communications Support Element onboard the MV Cape Ray, a container ship belonging to the Transportation Department Maritime Administration’s Ready Reserve Force program, which left Portsmouth, Va., Jan. 27 on a mission to destroy the chemical weapons.

Because the ship wasn’t designed for the job — not that any ship really is — it needed a customized, secure and reliable communications system installed.

The 6th Fleet, which is running the operation, reached out for help and the JCSE, as it often does, “rogered up,” and provided something called “the SCOSS-J” and two people to run it, says Navy Petty Officer Nathan Green, who works in the element’s systems engineering and acquisition office. In English, SCOSS-J stands for ship-board carry-on satellite communications system — joint, which means it can talk to lots of different people.

The device, which I saw the last time I was inside the element’s Vietnam-era headquarters, provides computer communications command and control voice and data. The $700,000 piece of equipment was purchased by the element after giving the manufacturer, DRS Technologies, additional requirements from its off-the-shelf version. It’ll get a good test run at sea, Green says.

So what exactly will the SCOSS-J be used for during its time aboard the Cape Ray?

“We don’t know what they’re going to do with it,” says Chris Wilson, the element’s chief of staff. “We know that what they are trying to use the vessel for exceeds the current communications capability, so we expanded it. They could go island hopping, we don’t care. We just gave them the capability.”

As for where the Cape Ray is headed, I didn’t get much of an answer, not that I expected one.

“The water,” Wilson says.

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For those who don’t want to see commissaries at MacDill or any other base go away, there was the slightest glimmer of good news out of Congress.

Last week, I wrote about how those who use the commissary at MacDill were concerned by any move to shutter them as part of the Pentagon’s budget cutting as it looks to trim about a trillion dollars over the next decade.

The MacDill commissary, which employs more than 100 and does about $60 million in annual sales, is the 24th largest of the 245 at bases around the world.

Overall, the Defense Commissary Agency, which runs the commissaries, has an annual budget of $1.4 billion and sales of nearly $6 billion

For those who rely on the commissary’s savings and jobs, there was a sliver of hope emanating from the nation’s capital.

Last week, Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Arizona, introduced HR 3996, the Save Our Military Shopping Benefits Act, which would prohibit the closure or reduced operation of commissary stores like the one at MacDill.

But according to GovTrack.US, a website that tracks legislation, don’t go betting the grocery money on Griffin’s bill garnering you any savings.

The website gives the bill a 5 percent chance of making it out of the House Armed Services Committee and a 1 percent shot of being enacted.

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Are you an active-duty service member or honorably discharged veteran or know one looking for a home?

The HomeStrong USA’s HomeStrong Heroes program is giving away a 1,301-square-foot, two-bedroom, one-bathroom home in Tampa’s 33603 zip code (roughly South Seminole Heights) to someone in the above category who plans to use it as their primary residence.

To win, write an essay outlined in the application packet.

HomeStrong USA is a nonprofit organization created in 1999, according to its website, that partners “with government entities and developers” to acquire and facilitate the acquisition of vacant real-estate-owned housing, “rehabilitating to higher than usual standards, and making them only available to owner-occupied low and moderate-income buyers.”

The deadline for applying is Valentine’s Day.

Go to HomeStrongUSA.org to download an application, or call (877) 647-8764.

Thanks to veteran advocate Ben Ritter for the head’s up.

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More good news from Afghanistan.

For the second week in a row, there were no deaths reported by the Department of Defense.

There have been 2,295 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, the nation’s longest war.

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