Meeting Minutes for September 2015

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Meeting Minutes - September 2, 2015

Announcements - Ralph Donais, Chairman - Jerry Kyser, Vice Chairman

1. Federal Agencies

VA Regional Office - Pete Philippi of Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) presenting for Director, Kim Graves
            *Reduced backlog from a peak of 611,000 claims in March of 2013 to 91,793 in the first week of September. This is a record low and an 85% reduction in 29 months. It is also the lowest it has ever been since we started measuring the backlog. A claim that is 125 days old or older is determined to be in the backlog.
            *Reduced inventory from 884,000 claims in June of 2012 to the current inventory of 356,000 claims. This is a 60% reduction of our inventory.
            *Met a record-breaking goal of 1.32 million claims in fiscal year 2014.
            *1.17 million claims so far this year, expecting a lot of claims in September
            *Added 1.7 million plus veterans to compensation rolls since 2008, and added 26% more veterans and survivors to compensation and pension caseload.  
            *99.7% of disability compensation claims are processed online.
*St. Paul regional office has been the most productive of all the VA regional offices across the nation.
*Growth in Veteran Services Center. Currently 282 people in the division.
*Working on a C123 project, recognize veterans exposed to Agent Orange that served on aircraft, particularly reserve and guard units at certain locations and over certain dates.
*Completed roughly 33,000 claims this year already.

Q. Do you still have mandatory overtime for your workers?
A. VBA has been on mandatory overtime for over two years now. As of September 1, 2015, this has stopped. There is no mandatory or voluntary overtime, though I’m sure voluntary will be back.

Q. If you are so productive here in St. Paul, what is the rest of the VA doing nationally to catch up?
A. In October, we are scheduled to go into a national work queue. St. Paul will be one of the test sites. The national work queue will select the work that has to be done for the employees. Currently I select that work. It will make up for areas in which management lacks.

VISN 23 - Jason Petti reporting for Janet Murphy - Director VISN 23
            *Introducing new Deputy Network Director, Jason Petti.
            *Working hard on the Choice Program, though it’s not going as well as hoped
            *Please communicate if you have had issues with the Choice Program.
            *My VA Program. Will be doing training at several regional offices across the country. Beginning part of Train The Trainer for the new My VA that will be emerging over the next three years. There will be one in Minneapolis and another scheduled for later in September in Hotsprings.
            *Numbers for access in Minnesota are looking good for the 30 day access review.

Q. For the My VA rolling out in Minneapolis, have they selected a location?
A. Supposedly it’s going to be at the regional office. It is strictly for employees and some stakeholders. Contact Jean Mickelson for more information.

Q. The VA seems to have a number of systems that keep up the electronic record keeping. Has there been any effort to standardize them?
A. All VA medical records are standardized across the country.

Minneapolis VA HCS - Director Patrick J. Kelly -
            *Budget is good for the rest of 2015.
            *Choice has not been a smooth rollout. 3,500 veterans have had appointments through the Choice program in Minneapolis. Many could not get appointments within 30 days.
            *Compensation and Pension Examination section is moving over to the Whipple Building. The move will be completed in October.
            *Community Resource Referral Center provides services for homeless veterans in downtown Minneapolis. It will be expanded to include 2,000 more square feet.
            *Burr Housing Project at Ft. Snelling. Ribbon will be cut on October 2nd.
            *Next Town Hall meeting in Rice Lake Wisconsin on September 30th, 2015.
            *Congressman Walz is holding a listening session on September 3, 2015, in Le Center to hear from veterans on the issue of Veteran’s Choice.

Q. There was an article in the Metro Times today about the VA going after families after forgetting to charge for c-opay. So even if your significant other has passed away, they’re still going after them to collect the co-pay. What’s the deal on that?
A.  Congressman Kline has led the charge on this issue. There were 1,400 veterans between 2010 and 2014 who had care in our medical center and had legitimate copays for that care, but they were not billed for it. This is an issue in our one VA. We have gone to a consolidated patient account center that works in our medical center. In effect, they did not bill these veterans for their copays. Upon discovering this, they launched a program to contact the veterans, communicate the issue, and inform veterans 1.) what the bill is and 2.) find out if they are willing to pay and/or if they have hardship, if they would like to seek a waiver for that. Around 125 of those veterans are requesting some sort of a waiver. The others have agreed to pay their bill. The VA accepts responsibility for this.

Q. The question is….her brother’s spouse has passed away…is she still going to be responsible for his co-pay?
A. We are not running this, but I believe when the consolidated patient account center reviewed the initial number of veterans, they took out any veterans who are deceased, so their families will not be responsible. I do not know this for certain. 

Q. CRC same footprint, or a different building downtown?
A. Same footprint.
Q. And the SRO (single resident occupancy) housing timeline?
A. Fall of 2016, pending approvals.

Q. At these Town Hall meetings, are a lot of these veterans complaining or telling you what a good job you’re doing?
A. Mostly there are veterans who have something they want to see us do better at. Mostly complaints. A lot of it has been about the Choice program lately. Another common theme is issues of communication. Most people are satisfied about the health care they get. Frequently the complaints are about logistics.

Q. Any chance of hiring more people in the patient advocacy area? The main compliant that I hear from veterans is “I called and nobody returned my call.”
A. We have four people plus a boss who work in our patient advocacy program. I don’t know that we need more. What we need to be is more accountable for the callbacks and to document those callbacks. We are evaluating that area.

St. Cloud VA HCS - Patricia Aljets presenting for Director Barry Bahl
            *Wanted to address a recent Fox 9 News article on St. Cloud VA that gave the impression that we have an abusive work environment. The article used information that was at least two years old in many cases, and parts were used out of context. One issue talked about was our providers being forced to work 60-80 hour workweeks. This is not true. Our providers get twelve 30 minute appointment slots per day. Panel sizes were another significant issue. VA recommend 1,200 patients per provider and a year ago, we were over that at 1281 patients per provider. This year we are down to 1,071. The article also talked about physician turnover and about a year ago we lost six providers one after another. This is similar to the private sector. Physician turnover happens. There were various reasons for their leaving. In the fiscal 2015-year, we have lost the equivalent of three fulltime primary care providers and have hired one new primary care physician.
            *We are in the process of recruiting more midlevel providers to help balance the workload.
            *Experiencing about a 3% growth rate in unique patients for this year.
            *97.5% of appointments are seen within 30 days.
            *There has been a mandate that we refer veterans to Veteran’s Choice programs.
            *Recently opened an infusion center in building 29.
            *Quarterly town hall meeting in Brainerd on September 9, 2015, at the American Legion Post 225.
            *Construction is moving along on new kitchen and dining area.
            *Rehab center is expected to be opened this fall.
            *Veterans Rendezvous on September 19th in St. Cloud from 12:30 to 4:30 PM. The purpose is to pair up with our community partners and invite the community in to see who we are and what we do. We are planning over 50 booths.

Ft. Snelling Cemetery - Bob Razor for John Knapp 
            *The Illinois/Arkansas headstone incident is currently being investigated by the VA. Initial reports say that a contractor was hired to destroy the stones.
            *Millennium Project is ongoing. There are two parts. One is turf renovation, as well as razing and re-leveling some stones.
Vets Employment and Training Services [VETS] - David Seay      
            *Not present.

2. Federal Congressional Representatives and Senators

Senator Amy Klobuchar - General (RET) Tim Cossalter
            *Not present.

Senator Al Franken - Alex Schueller
            Not present.

3rd District Representative - Erika Paulsen - John Paul Yates
            *Not present.

4th District Representative - Betty McCollum - Connie Haddeland
            *Not present.

5th District Representative - Keith Ellison - Mike Siebenaler

6th District Representative - Tom Emmer - Andrew Matthew
            *Meeting with St. Cloud VA and tour there in August.

7th District Representative - Collin Peterson
            *Not present.

8th District Representative - Rick Nolan - Rick Olseen
            *Had a roundtable with Congressman Walz to talk about Veterans Choice. The problem seems to be with the Healthcare Network.
            *Mental Health Summit at the VA on August 31, 2015. Mental health providers looking to recruit from Veteran’s Choice.

Q. We need the congressman to lean on the governor to lean on the medical people. We need to lean on the politicians to get this in front of the people who run these medical corporations.   
A. I will pass your concerns on to the congressman.

1st District Representative - Tim Walz - Shawn Schoesser
Not present, emailed notes included below.
1.        This August, Congressman Walz has been hearing criticism from Veterans concerning the Veterans Choice Program.  He is working on ways to improve the program by removing the burden from the Veteran and easing the process for rural health care.  He is calling for Health Net and VA to work together to improve their systems.

2.        He recently introduced the Agent Orange Extension Act (H.R. 3423) to ensure Vietnam Veterans exposed to Agent Orange are relieved of the burden of proof.  The National Academy of Sciences identifies diseases that might be associated with Agent Orange exposure and the VA is required to add the disease to the presumptive list.  The National Academy of Sciences final report will not be ready prior to September 30, 2015 when Agent Orange Act of 1991 expires.  The bill allows National Academy of Sciences additional time to complete their final report and may require the VA to add additional diseases list. 
Please let your organizations know to continue to advocate for this important legislation even after the September 30th date.  Congress can approve this bill and backdate the law.
3.        Congressman Walz cosponsored Congressman Benishek’s (R-MI) Toxic Exposure Research Act of 2015 (H.R. 1769) to establish a national center for research on the diagnosis and treatment of health conditions of the children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren of veterans exposed to toxic substances during their military service.  It also directs DOD to declassify appropriate documents for known incidents where at least 100 service members were exposed. 

2nd District Representative - Chaz Johnson reporting for John Kline
            *Congressman Kline will be awarded the Charles Dick Medal of Merit Award from the National Guard Association of the United States later in September.
            *Service Academy Information Session with be on September 15th at the Burnsville Diamondhead Education Center. 6:00-8:30. Representatives from all the academies will be present.
            *HR 32-39 the Armed Forces Career Center Protection Act, to provide enhanced security to armed forces recruiting stations through the installation of bulletproof glass at entry doors. 
            *HR 31-39 securing Military Response Fire Team Initiative. Also known as the Semper Fi Act. Will issue service weapons to on-duty service members at recruiting stations, as well as implementation of additional security measures.
            *HR 13-56 Women Veterans Access to Quality Care Act. Directs the VA to establish standards for VA medical facilities so that gender specific issues can be addressed. Directs a pilot program for more gynecologists and obstetricians.
            *In July the House of Representatives passed HR 24-99, the Veterans Entrepreneurship Act and that was signed into law on 7/28/15. Ensures that veterans have access to small business loans.
            *HR 251, the Home for Heroes Act. Creates a special advisor to the Department of Housing and Urban Development to advocate for veteran housing needs. This has passed the House and is now in the senate.
*HR 1994, the VA Accountability Act, was passed and is now in the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs. 
*HR 353, the Veterans Access to Hearing Act, authorizes the VA to appoint a licensed hearing specialist in the veterans’ health administration. 
*Congressman Kline will be introducing a bill to address the billing issue faced by the VA soon. Likely to be called The VA Billing Reform Act.

Q. The end of the fiscal year is coming up, and I know a lot of VA organizations don’t spend all of their budget by then. Why should they then be penalized the next year and have their budget cut? I have seen this time and time again.
A. There is no quick answer to this. It’s been suggested that the Department of Defense be audited, which would be a good start. It has not gone unnoticed.

3. Stage Agencies and MN Veteran Assistance Organizations

MN Department of Administration Assistance Commissioner - Alice Roberts Davis
            *In January 2015, Governor Dayton signed Executive Order 15-02, which ordered the creation of a Diversity and Inclusion Council. There are three committees under that council. An Employment Practices Committee, Community Engagement Committee, and the Contracting Practices Committee. There is a monthly meeting to discuss what the Department of Administration can do differently in order to create opportunities for veteran, women, and minority-owned businesses. 30 opportunities were identified at the first meeting: policy, statue and communications, better agency partnership, community partnership, technology issues to get better data and better communicate. Ways to create better funding for businesses. Found lots of opportunities for veterans.
            *Veteran-owned businesses can now be certified at the state level. To date, 30 veteran owned businesses are certified. Federally certified veteran owned businesses can also be certified at the state level.
            *Joint press release sent out on August 18th on the MDVA and department of Administration sharing the news.
            *Three job openings in the office of Equity and Procurement. One will focus specifically on veterans.
            *Working to improve communication - press release, marketing materials.
            *The certification gets you preference when there are bidding contracts, up to a 6% preference.

Q. Your website is not easy to navigate. I didn’t know what to look for initially. Is there a quicker process for that?
A. Were you on the Admin or MDVA site?
Q. Admin.
A. Go through the MDVA, it’s much faster.
Q. Once a veteran fills out the paperwork and sends it in, how long until they get the stamp of approval?
A. Until a month ago, we were working on a backlog. Now it should be between 30-35 days. It will be even shorter once we get the additional staff.

Q. Is your brochure a PDF we can get off the website?
A. Not yet.

MN Department of Veteran Affairs - Brad Linsley reporting for Commissioner Larry Shellito     
            *Working to develop legislative agenda for next session.
            *Tentatively scheduled Veterans Day on the Hill as March 16th. The session opens on March 8th.
            *Working on a new veterans cemetery in Preston, MN. Everything will be completed in September. Looking for a soft opening on Veterans Day, and a grand opening next Memorial Day. 

Q. Any further information on the Pike Lake site?
A. We are moving quickly on that now. We have approval on our plan for wetland mitigation from the US Army Corp of Engineers. The land belongs to the DNR, but has been appraised by them and DNR did not like the number. Once the purchase price is agreed to, things should move quickly. We are planning on applying for the construction grant next month. 

Q. Any word as to how the paintings are coming up in Little Falls?
A. Two are completed and done - Army and Navy are both done.

Q. Are they extending the cemetery in Little Falls?
A. Yes, as needed.

MN Department Veterans Affairs 2015 Legislative Information - Ben Johnson reporting
            *We have been meeting with the congressional delegation and veterans’ constituent representatives to get an understanding of issues they have been coming across for veterans in their districts. Veterans Choice is a big issue.
            *Process has started to move legislative agenda forward for next session.
            *Bonding Bill
            *Asking for the state to help build a bridge up at the Minneapolis Veterans home
            *Finishing Phase 3 at the Minneapolis Home
            *Pushing items that were not done last session.
            *Pension, Hunting and Fishing Licenses for 70% Disabled, MN GI Bill. The plan is to pull back on everything but the GI Bill, to focus on use for training and certification.
            *Get initial ideas to Governor by October 1.
            *House Resolution 24-60, an expansion of adult day health at the homes. Would direct state veterans affairs to partner with federal veterans affairs. 
Q. Did you reinstitute the Ft. Snelling Officers Club?
A. That is above my pay grade. It is a security issue. We would like to continue to use the space, though.

MN Military Affairs - LTC Joe Sharkey presenting
            *150 soldiers from the MN Army National Guard 682nd Engineer Battalion will be mobilized for a year long deployment and serving a tour of duty in Kuwait in support of Operation Spartan Shield. Deployment ceremony will take place on October 8, 2015, at 11:00 AM at the Wilmar Senior High School.
            *On August 29th, 43 soldiers from Cottage Grove 204th Support Medical Company came home from a 9-month deployment in Egypt.
            *Brigadier General Robert Cayton, chief of staff for the Air National Guard, will be retiring. The retirement ceremony will take place on September 20th, 2015.
            *Vigilant Guard Exercise completed. 
            *On September 24th, the city of Champlin will be a Yellow Ribbon City.

MN Assistance Council for Veterans (MAC-V) - Executive Director Kathy Vitalis
            *Stand Downs in Duluth and International Falls.
            *8 new VA Healthcare registrations at International Falls.
            *Legal Clinic September 8th at the Minneapolis VA and September 22nd in St. Cloud.
            *Stand Downs coinciding with legal clinics in Bemidji on September 23d, Grand Rapids September 24th.
            *Last Stand Downs of the year will be in Marshal and Mankato.
            *Annual Benefit dinner will be September 18th in Downtown St. Paul at the Intercontinental.
            *September 19th the 7th Annual Arcade Phalen American Legion Classic at the Phalen golf course.
            *June 14th Support Women Veterans Golf Tournament. There will be divisions for women, men, and mixed teams.
            *Trust Vets Event was well received.
            *Next Honor Flight will be April 16. Mostly WWII and some from Korea.
            *The Armed Forces Services Center at the airport is in need of volunteers.

4. Announcements
            *Military Action Group meeting is October 5th.
            *Vikings Stadium issue has been resolved.
            *POW MIA Day on September 25th.
            *Women Veterans Annual Fall Meeting and Luncheon on September 26th.

5. Meeting in recess for five minutes.

6. Business Meeting
            *Balance as of August 1 was $4340.90. No deposits. Total expenses of $162.09, includes expense of $39.17 for parking. $120 transcription expense. $4.90 postage expense.
            *Balance as of September 1is $4178.81.
            *Treasurer’s report accepted.

Old Business
            *Soliciting your suggestions for next legislative session.
            *Veteran Businesses as priority for vendors
            *Talk to federal VA about hearing aids and dental.

New Business
            *For $160, the UVLC can purchase a brick to go on the Vikings Stadium. Motion passed.
            *Need a form for people who want to join up with the UVLC.
            *March 16, 2016 Veterans On The Hill.

Next meeting is October 7, 2015 at the Minneapolis VA Building 9.